German Museums Research The Origins Of Their Chinese Art Collections

For the first time, German museums will research the provenance of Chinese art in their collections

Oct 23, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology


Background: Historic postcard of Qingdao, China, around 1900, via Wikimedia Commons. Foreground: Chinese buddha figures from East Frisia’s Fehn- und Schiffahrtsmuseum Westrhauderfehn, via Artnet News

The German Lost Art Foundation has announced the approval of almost $1,3 million for eight research projects from German museums and universities. The projects aim to research the provenance of holdings from countries where Germany had a colonial presence. This includes Indonesian, Oceanian, and African art. Additionally, for the first time in Germany, a coalition of german museums will research the history of their Chinese art collections.

German Museums And Chinese Art Collections

Chinese buddha figures from East Frisia’s Fehn- und Schiffahrtsmuseum Westrhauderfehn, via Artnet News

In a press release on October 22, the Lost Art Foundation announced the approval of €1,067,780 ($1,264,545) for eight projects from German museums and universities. All of the projects will research the provenance of colonial objects in German collections. In its announcement, the Foundation stated:

“For centuries, the European military, scientists and merchants brought cultural and everyday objects, but also human remains from the colonies of that time to their home countries. Thus it happens that until today there are Chinese Buddha figures in East Frisia and skulls from Indonesia kept in Gotha, Thuringia. How they got into German institutions, whether they were bought, bartered or stolen, is now also being critically questioned in this country.”

Larissa Förster told Artnet News that, without additional funding, most German museums could not undertake substantial provenance research. “They needed extra resources” she added.

This is the first time German institutions will research the provenance of their Chinese art collections. These mainly come from the former German colony in Kiautschou and its capital city, Qingdao. This was also among the centers of the anti-colonial Boxer rebellion that shook China in the 19th century.

A coalition of four regional museums from the coastal region of East Friesland will cooperate with Chinese experts. Together, they will investigate the colonial contexts of their Chinese art collections. The museums will research approximately 500 objects.

Interesting is the case of the Chinese Buddha figures whose provenance remains a mystery. A possible explanation is that they were travel souvenirs. However, that is just a hypothesis. Cases like this, showcase the need for deeper provenance research into, among others, Chinese art.

Other Provenance Research Projects

Historic postcard of Qingdao, China, around 1900, via Wikimedia Commons

The German Maritime Museum will cooperate with scientists from Oceania and the Leibniz Institute of Maritime History. Together they will look into the history of the North German Lloyd; a German shipping company with active participation in Germany’s colonial efforts. Moreover, the Schloss Friedenstein Gotha Foundation is going to research 30 human skulls from Indonesia.

In addition, the Museum Naturalienkabinett Waldenburg will investigate 150 objects probably collected from missionaries in German colonies. The objects had reached the Princely House of Schonburg-Waldenburg and entered the Prince’s personal cabinet of natural objects.

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Other recipients include a partnership of the Dresden Museum of Ethnology and Grassi Museum of Ethnology to research 700 objects from Togo.

Furthermore, the Museum of Five Continents in Munich will receive funding to continue investigating the collection of Max von Stettens; the head of the military police in Cameroon.

German Museums And Restitution

Digital reconstruction of the exhibition space in the Humboldt Museum, via SHF / Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

The restitution discussion in Europe opened in 2017 after French President Macron promised to repatriate African artifacts in French museums. Since then, the country has taken some steps towards this direction. However, three years later, very few objects have actually been repatriated inspiring various reactions.

The Dutch also appear positive towards the restitution of colonial artifacts. This month, a report suggested that the Netherlands should return colonial looted objects unconditionally. If the Dutch government chooses to adopt the report’s suggestions, up to 100,000 objects could be repatriated! Interestingly, the directors of the Rijksmuseum and Troppenmuseum supported the idea. However, only under the condition that the objects were acquired with unethical means.

Germany is slowly moving towards the repatriation of its looted colonial collections. In 2018 the country began returning skulls taken during the 20th-century genocide in Namibia by German colonizers. Also, in March 2019, the 16 German states agreed on a set of guidelines for the restitution of colonial artifacts. This month, Germany announced the creation of a central portal for colonial-era acquisitions. With the eight new research projects, the country will also deepen its provenance research and tackle Chinese art for the first time.

Although these moves are widely welcomed, many argued that the country was taking needlessly slow steps.

Restitution talks will only keep growing after the Humboldt Forum in Berlin opens in December. The museum will become home to the country’s largest ethnological collection.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.