The debates about human remains in museum institutions, which in Germany were mainly triggered by the plans for the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, have not left academic collections untouched. However so far there has been no critical debate about the origins of their holdings and their use in research and teaching. The provenance research project that is funded for three years by the Volkswagen Foundation is based on two collections of human remains from (proto-)colonial contexts in Göttingen collections.

It aims to examine their origins, the circumstances of their acquisition, their transformation to epistemic objects in academic collections and their use for teaching and research purposes. First, there is the Blumenbach Skull Collection, the basis of which goes back to the naturalist and one of the founders of physical anthropology Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) with about 245 skulls. After Blumenbach’s death, his successors pursued the collection until the 1940s. Today the collection contains about 800 skulls, of which about 200 are of non-European provenance. Second, the comprehensive collection of human skulls and skull fragments collected at the Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde at the time of colonialism between 1890 and the 1920s and handed over to Göttingen Anthropology department in 1953 will be examined. An initial examination revealed that the bones originated primarily from the regions of Africa, Australia/New Zealand and Oceania.

The project combines methodological approaches from different disciplinary cultures: Historical-critical provenance research, mainly based on archive material, anthropological-anatomical approaches, which gains further information by examining the bones, and ethnographic methods that make the project itself an object of research. For one thing the ethnographic research will raise awareness of the hitherto often unreflected handling of the “working materials” and to achieve a reflection on one’s own research practices, which in turn will inform the future handling of the bones. For another thing, representatives of the source communities will be contacted in order to integrate them into the project.

Such contact and integration is a constitutive part of the project. As a kick-off a ten-day workshop will give the representatives a first access to the bones of their ancestors stored in Göttingen. Furthermore this meeting will establish a multi-perspective dialogue which questions Western scientific working routines and paradigms and enrich them with new approaches and perspectives. Finally, the aim will be to jointly develop a research agenda for the project that can serve as a starting point for further provenance research.
Another central aim of the project is to involve young researchers from the societies of origin in the project. This will take place via the funding of a doctoral position that is from the beginning part of the team of the provenance research project. Furthermore, short-term scholarships for researchers from societies of origin will be awarded in the course of the project.
The team of the provenance research project consists of two Doc- and two Post-Doc positions.

The interdisciplinary research project is being carried out jointly by the Centre for Collection Development, the Chair for Modern History, Prof. Dr. Habermas, the Institute of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, Prof. Dr. Regina Bendix, the Institute of Historical Anthropology and Human Ecology, Dr. Susanne Hummel, and the Centre for Anatomy/Blumenbach’s Skull Collection, Prof. Dr. Christoph Viebahn.

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