Colonial Background: The Museum of Ethnology Hamburg


Museum of Ethnology Hamburg | Professship for Global History (Africa) (University of Hamburg).

The traces of the colonial past go largely unnoticed. Yet they can be
found in many places in our present, and they continue to influence how we
perceive and assess the world. In the project “Colonialism and Museum”,
students at the University of Hamburg investigated the colonial-historical
background of the Museum of Ethnology Hamburg. This virtual exhibition is based
on the results of their research.       

Exterior view of the museum around 1912 (ca. 1912)MARKK

The Project “Colonialism and Museum”  

“Colonialism and Museum” is a joint project between the Museum of Ethnology Hamburg and Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zimmerer, head of the research centre “Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy” at the University of Hamburg. From summer semester 2014 until the end of winter semester 2014/15, the museum hosted three seminars focusing on the colonial history out of which it and its collections grew. Central to the project was the idea of intensifying the museum’s engagement with its colonial past through the involvement of students from the university’s Department of History. We wish to thank them and all of the project participants for their dedication, the critical discussions, and the ideas they have contributed.      

General map of the German colonial possessions and the mail steamship lines of the German Empire (1912) by German Colonial SocietyMARKK

Aspects of Germany’s Colonial History 

When the German Empire asserted its claim to "overseas territories" in 1884, most of the world was already divided between the European colonial powers. Imperial Chancellor Bismarck, who previously had opted not to pursue an active colonial policy, ultimately yielded to the growing colonial movement and declared parts of Africa and Oceania to be German "protectorates”. Hamburg merchant houses, especially, sought state protection for their overseas possessions, trading posts, and trade routes. For decades, they had profited from commerce in colonial goods such as palm oil, coffee, and cotton, and wanted to ensure its continuation by any means necessary. The German Empire frequently dispatched and deployed troops to back up its territorial claims by force. Defeat in the First World War and the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles compelled Germany to give up its colonies. Plans to regain them in the ensuing decades proved unsuccessful.    

The museum’s entrance hall (after 1928)MARKK

The Museum
The Museum of Ethnology Hamburg was founded on the basis of existing collections in 1879. However, it was not until German colonialism was at its peak at the start of the 20th century that the decision was made to erect a building for the museum as an important signature project for the city. Alongside its function as a research institution, the museum was intended to impart ethnological knowledge to its visitors. During this period, colonial notions – e. g. Europe’s presumed fundamental superiority– began to shape ethnology. Such assumptions influenced not only research interests and findings, but also their presentation in the museum. Ethnological museums were thus involved in both producing colonial knowledge and conveying it in a publicity-generating manner.

Layout of the Museum, Museum of Ethnology Hamburg, ca. 1929, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The significance the city ascribed to the Ethnological Museum in the early 20th century was evident in the construction plans for the museum: They included a later extension of the building matching size and scope of the first section of the building (marked dark in the drawing).

Grand Lecture Hall (ca. 1915)MARKK

The Grand Lecture Hall clearly symbolizes the close ties between the Museum of Ethnology and other academic and scientific institutions in Hamburg. Seminars were regularly held here by the Hamburg Colonial Institute, which Georg Thilenius, the museum’s director from 1904 to 1935, was instrumental in founding. The buildings of the museum and the Colonial Institute were planned and constructed simultaneously. Both institutions produced colonial knowledge with their research, passing it on to visitors and students. The Colonial Institute in particular prepared future colonial civil servants for their service overseas. With the hand-over of the German colonies after the First World War, it was decided to convert the institute into a university in 1919.

The Colonial Institute in Hamburg, ca. 1915, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The building of the Colonial Institute which was funded by Hamburg merchent Edmund Siemers was built across from the Dammtor railway station. In 1911, it was completed and handed over to the Institute.

Report of the 4th Academic Year of the Hamburg Colonial Institute (p. 52–53), Hamburg Colonial Institute, 1912, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This excerpt from the "Report of the 4th Academic Year " of the Hamburg Colonial Institute provides an insight into the lecture program of the Institute for the winter semester 1911/12. Georg Thilenius' lecture "General Ethnology" was visited by a total of 36 trainees and guest students.

Bodice (poss. 19th century)MARKK

Colonial War
From 1884, German South West Africa, the territory of today’s Namibia, belonged to the German colonial empire. The corsage seen here was produced by the resident Herero people. The Herero were increasingly displaced by German settlers and robbed of their livelihood. Their resistance led to a colonial war in 1904, which the Nama joined as well to fight their oppressors. The commander of the German “Schutztruppe” (Protection force), Lothar von Trotha, ordered his troops not to take any prisoners, but to drive the Herero into the Omaheke Desert. Because Trotha was not able to bring a quick end to the conflict, he was replaced the following year. In the further course of the war, the surviving Herero and Nama were interned in concentration camps, where more than half of them died. Today, these crimes are considered as genocide.

Lothar von Trotha’s “Proclamation to the Herero People”, Prussian General Staff, 1906–1908, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

In his “Proclamation to the Herero People” of 1904, Lothar von Trotha announced that he would have all male Herero shot and the women and children expelled. He placed bounties on the heads of their leaders. Today, this order is seen as a symbol of the Herero Genocide.

Yahuar Huacac Inca VII. (poss. 18th century)MARKK

European Expansion
This and the following paintings show four former rulers of the Inca. They were created around 1725, during the Spanish colonial era, in what is now Peru. Such portrait series usually concluded with a representative of the Spanish crown, and were a tool in its attempt to insert itself into the Incan succession of rulers. The Spanish were the first Europeans to advance into South and Central America at the start of the European expansion in the late 15th century. This expansion did not unfold as a consistent process, but included various forms and phases of colonialism, such as the conquest of land for settlement and economic exploitation. Colonial territorial acquisition always involved the subjugation of local populations and the deprivation of their rights by the conquering power.

Pachacutec Inca IX., poss. 18th century, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This painting from the series depicts Pachacutec, the 9th Inca Ruler, in a manner similar to the representational traditions used in portrait galleries of European rulers.

Tupac Yupanqui Inca XI., poss. 18th century, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

Such portrait series were found in public buildings and in the homes of Inca nobles. This painting depicts Tupac Yupanqui as the 11th ruler of the Inca Empire.

Huaina Ccapac, Inca XII., poss. 18th century, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This painting shows Huayna Capac as the 12th Inca ruler. The portaits were bannend by the Spanish after the failed rebellion of 1780 led by José Gabriel Condorcanqui, known as Tupac Amaru II.

Huipil (Woman’s garment) (poss. 1840s–1860s)MARKK

Coffee Trade
Milly Mann received this huipil in Guatemala in 1926 as a gift from her cook, Serapia, who belonged to the country’s Mayan population. At that time, Milly Mann and her husband, Georg, worked on one of the numerous coffee plantations. The Guatemalan government began promoting coffee farming and export in the 1860s which required land that was often owned by small Mayan communities. These lands were expropriated and transferred to large landowners, while the inhabitants were forced to toil on the new plantations. Many plantation owners and administrators were German immigrants. They played a decisive role in establishing the needed trade networks and facilitated Hamburg’s development into a main transhipment point for coffee at the end of the 19th century.

View of the Helvetia coffee finca in the Quetzaltenango district, Gottried Hurter, before July 1928, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The size of the coffee plantation seen here hints at the economic role of coffee production in Guatemala. The residential and agricultural buildings belonging to the plantation extend well into the background.

Jaguar-shaped vesselMARKK

Colonial Enthusiasm
This jaguar-shaped vessel comes from Guatemala. It was found in an excavation in Cocales in the south-west of the country. Although the export of archaeological objects from Central America was prohibited, Otto Langmann brought the vessel to Hamburg in 1933, where he quickly sold it to the museum. Langmann had gone to Guatemala in 1930 as a pastor. There, he founded the first foreign-based group of the NSDAP the following year. In the National Socialist period, the German government and private associations continued to work to recover the German colonies they were forced to give up in 1919. In the 1920s and 1930s, these efforts were met with greater public interest than the colonial policies of the preceding decades.

The South Seas Group at the Colonial Parade on 01 August 1926, 1926, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The pictures shows the South Seas section of the “Hamburg Colonial Week” parade held on 1 August 1926. The merchant houses that particularly operated in the German colonies of the Pacific region presented themselves here. The company emblems of the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft (D.H.P.G.) and Hernsheim & Co., among others, can be recognised in the photo.

Draft of the temporary exhibition "Coloureds and Europeans in the Colonies" (1940), Museum of Ethnology Hamburg, 1940, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

As late as 1940, the German colonial territories were still a relevant issue in the museum’s exhibition planning, as shown by this draft for the special exhibition with the working title “Coloureds and Europeans in the colonies”. The exhibition opened on 24 October 1941 under the title “Europeans and natives in tropical colonial lands”.

Colonial Exhibition in the Museum of Ethnology (June 1912) by Die Hamburger WocheMARKK

The Ethnological Museum in the Colonial Context

In the second half of the 19th century, ethnological museums were founded all over Europe and North America. They collected items that were meant to serve the study of human beings. Along with objects from all spheres of life, these included human remains like skeletons and skulls. The founding of the museums simultaneously helped to establish ethnology as a scientific discipline at universities. During colonialism, ethnology and other sciences, such as geography, were increasingly utilised to academically justify Europe’s global dominance. After the start of the 20th century, museums intensified their efforts to convey ethnological knowledge to a broader public. In the process, the people studied were mostly represented as “primitive” and “backward”, as well as, to an increasing extent, “racially inferior”. The demarcation and devaluation of the “others”, so vividly and tangibly presented, offered museum visitors affirmation of their supposed cultural superiority.    

Benefactors' list in the museum's entrance hall (after 1928)MARKK

The initial plans for the new museum building called for the display of the list of benefactors. From its founding, the museum depended on the support of Hamburg’s citizens. Therefore, many well-known Hamburg families and institutions can be found on the list. As donors of money and artefacts, they decisively influenced the museum’s development. Some benefactors had built their fortunes on the economic exploitation of colonised territories and their inhabitants. The firm O’Swald & Co., for example, made huge profits from trade with East Africa and represented the interests of various German Hanseatic cities vis-à-vis the sultan of Zanzibar. These trade ties played a key role in the later founding of the German East Africa colony.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Hamburg Education Authority, Hamburg Education Authority, 1909, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The families and institutions mentioned on the list of benefactors were not only important donors of money and artefacts. They also influenced the development of the museum as members of the Museum Committee. In 1909, the education authority appointed, among others, Albrecht O'Swald and Gustav Aufschläger to the Committee. O'Swald was to replace Eduard Woermann and Aufschläger the late Franz Hernsheim.

Bust of Georg Thilenius (1928) by Albert WoebckeMARKK

Georg Thilenius
Georg Thilenius (1868–1937) was the first full-time director of the Museum of Ethnology, beginning in 1904. After earning his doctorate in medicine in 1892, he had increasingly turned to anthropology and ethnology. His scientific work therefore frequently combined questions of ethnology and “racial science”. Under his administration, the Museum of Ethnology developed into one of Europe’s major ethnological museums. Thilenius received considerable support from Hamburg’s leading political and business figures, whom he was able to repeatedly convince of the importance of his undertakings. These included establishing the Hamburg Colonial Institute, as well as converting it into a university in 1919.

Portrait of Georg Thilenius, ca. 1920s, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The portrait shows Georg Thilenius during his tenure (1904–1935) as director of the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. He also served as president of the university from 1920 to 1921.

Outrigger canoe (1909)MARKK

South Seas Expedition
This outrigger boat was produced by the regionally esteemed boatbuilders of the Siassi Islands, by order of the members of the Hamburg South Seas Expedition (1908–1910). The expedition was an important prestigious project for the director of the Museum of Ethnology, Georg Thilenius, and the city of Hamburg. The participating scientists were commissioned with exploring the German South Seas colonies and compiling a unique collection of objects for the museum. At the same time, the expedition served the economic interests of the Hamburg merchants who helped to finance it. For example, it was tasked with investigating the fitness of local populations for work on plantations operated by German companies.

Collected objects during the Hamburg South Seas Expedition 1908–1910, 1912, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The picture shows the South Seas Expedition collection in the Museum of Ethnology. It gives an impression of the number of objects gathered during the expedition for the museum.

Lor (Skull mask) (poss. mid-19th century)MARKK

Human Remains
The so-called skull masks are from the collection of the Museum Godeffroy. They are made in part from facial bones and hair of deceased members of the Tolai people. Exhibiting human remains, as well as objects containing them, is viewed critically today. In the course of the 19th century, European scientists increasingly searched for evidence of the supposed superiority of the European “race”, focusing above all on human physical appearance. Especially in colonial regions, researchers began gathering anthropological data on physiological measurements, as well as collecting skulls, individual bones, and whole skeletons. These human remains were exhibited in museums in the 1st half of the 20th century in order to show visitors alleged “typical racial features”.

Table with anthropometric data from "Types of the South Pacific. Anthropological album of the Godeffroy Museum Hamburg", Museum Godeffroy Hamburg, 1881, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The results of anthropometric "examinations" such like the "distance from the root of the nose to the middle of the upper lip" were compiled in meticulously kept tables. They were intended to support the identification and comparison of alleged "racial features."

The museum's "Racial Science Exhibition" in 1928, ca. 1928, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

As the last section of the museum’s permanent exhibitions the “Department of Racial Science” opened in May 1928. Thilenius, had campaigned intensively for its realisation. The exhibition existed until 1945.

Chief’s dzunukwa-mask (poss. 19th century)MARKK

Ethnographic Objects
In 1936 the museum acquired this mask from a Paris art dealer who viewed it as an artistically important example of “primitive art”. The museum in Hamburg, on the other hand, saw it first and foremost as an ethnographic object and thus as an embodiment of the culture of the people who had made it. Especially in the period between the 19th and 20th century this idea was closely linked with the presumption that human societies go through various stages of development. Europe was considered to represent the highest societal form. It was assumed that these stages could be identified by a group’s material production. The collection and exhibition of objects in ethnological museums thus also constituted a devaluation of the societies that had created them.

Picture Plate from "The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology" (p. 161), 1916, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The picture plate from "The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology" which was written by Georg Thilenius and published in 1916 gives an insight into the presentation of ethnographic objects in the new building of the museum and the related representation of those societies who had created the objects.

Invoice of J.F.G. Umlauff (1900) by Naturalien-Handlung J.F.G. UmlauffMARKK

Contexts of Acquisition

Whether they are everyday items or of special significance, objects of ethnological interest were acquired in various ways. They were stolen, exchanged, bought or bestowed and, thus, found their way into museums by very diverse paths. By the time they enter a museum’s collection, they often have a long journey behind them. In colonial times, members of occupational groups who spent time overseas were an important source of such items. They brought souvenirs home from their travels or compiled extensive collections during longer stays abroad. After returning home, they frequently offered these objects to museums as donations or for sale. The later German colonies were initially sought out as destinations particularly by representatives of Christian missions and employees of trading houses, who both acted as driving forces of colonisation. Subsequently, increasing numbers of civil servants were sent to the colonies to establish administrative structures. Their work was often supported by military units. Scientific expeditions, too, profited from these improved means of travel and transportation.    

Memorial head of an oba (poss. 18th century)MARKK

Benin Bronzes
Under the pretext of a punitive expedition, British troops plundered the kingdom of Benin in 1897, seizing some 3,000 art works made of ivory and bronze. Members of the British military subsequently sold the majority of these items to museums, scholars, and collectors in Europe and North America. A smaller number of similar objects was acquired in Benin and the surrounding areas after the conquest of the kingdom. Tracking how museums got possession of these objects is very difficult. The so-called Benin Bronzes and ivory works quickly became desired objects on the art market. They remain popular exhibits, to this day. On the occasion of the 2007 Benin exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, the king of Benin expressed his wish for the return of at least some of the bronzes.

Newspaper article "Benin bronzes “, ca. 1900, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This newspaper clipping which was found in Karl Hagen’s papers associated with the publication “Antiquities from Benin at Hamburg’s Museum of Ethnology” demonstrates the incredulous surprise provoked by the “Benin Bronzes” in Europe and North America. Its content and formulation testify to the colonial and racist prejudices that underlay this reaction.

"Benin“ display case in the 1921 opened Africa hall, ca. 1915, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The Africa hall in the new museum building opened in 1921. In this new permanent exhibition objects originating from Benin were included and presented to the public.

Iron necklace (poss. 19th century)MARKK

This necklace is originally from a Maasai group. It came to the Museum of Ethnology by way of an 1882 expedition to East Africa that was organised and financed by the Hamburg Geographical Society. Due to close personal relationships, Hamburg merchant houses decisively influenced the society’s projects. At this time, more and more European companies were conducting branch operations in regions relevant to the colonial economy. They often divided whole territories among themselves in the process and forced the inhabitants of these areas to labour for them. The companies often commissioned scientific exploration of especially promising areas before beginning operations. In this way, research expeditions during the colonial period also served economic interests.

Minutes of the 87th meeting of the Hamburg Geographical Society (p. 1), Hamburg Geographical Society, ca. 1885, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more
Minutes of the 87th meeting of the Hamburg Geographical Society (p. 2), Hamburg Geographical Society, ca. 1885, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more
Minutes of the 87th meeting of the Hamburg Geographical Society (p. 3), Hamburg Geographical Society, ca. 1885, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The minutes of the 87th meeting of the Hamburg Geographical Society, held on 05 October 1882, illustrates the ties between the Society and trading houses based in Hamburg: The expedition was financially supported by merchant families such as Hansing, O'Swald and Woermann as well as the Jantzen & Thormählen company.

Mother with child (Mask) (late 19th century/early 20th century)MARKK

Scientific Collections
This representation of mother and child belongs to a collection of approximately 8,000 items given to the museum in 1906 by the explorer Leo Frobenius (1873–1938). At that time, the compilation of extensive collections was a central aim of scientific expeditions. Researchers sought to use these objects to gain and communicate insights into human nature and the various ways of life among humans. The greater the number of artefacts at their disposal, they believed, the greater the knowledge that was to be gained. Accordingly, scientists and travellers traded for, bought, or stole anything that they regarded as interesting, from the mundane to the sacred.

Concerning the payment of Leo Frobenius (p. 1), Georg Thilenius, 31 January 1906, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

In order to expand its collections, the museum co-financed Leo Frobenius’ first trip to Africa (1904–1906). Thereby, Thilenius hoped to acquire about 2,000 objects.

Concerning the payment of Leo Frobenius (p. 2), Georg Thilenius, 31 January 1906, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

In January 1906, however, the amount of objects collected by Frobenius already exceeded the expected number twice and Thilenius had to turn to the Education Authority for further financial assistance.

Picture Plate from "In the Shadow of the Congo" (p. 425), Leo Frobenius, 1907, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

Leo Frobenius paid great attention to self-staging. Thus, this idealised illustration, titled “In the camp at Lupungu: the Songye recount legends” from his expedition report depicts a candlelit scene, in which Frobenius, accompanied by a lute player, listens to and writes down these stories.

Ider ider (Painting on cloth) (ca. 1900)MARKK

Ethnographic Dealers
From early in their history, museums expanded their collections by drawing on the supply of artefacts from merchants specialising in the trade of ethnographic objects. One company that was highly valued by the museums was operated by Julius Konietzko of Hamburg. Konietzko himself often made the journeys necessary to procure suitable objects, and he made an effort to compile detailed information on them. He additionally used an extensive network of intermediaries who, either on commission or their own initiative, acquired objects that were then resold through Konietzko’s company. The painting on cloth seen here came to the museum in this way in 1930.

Interior of a Kyrgyz chieftain's yurt, ca. 1907, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

Another trading house specialising in the trade of ethnographic objects was the J.F.G. Umlauff company. It was especially well-known for its life-sized human figures. They were usually produced on the basis of photographs and anthropometric data and furnished with objects which were thought of as being typical for the portrayed people. The set of model figures seen on the postcard was bought by the museum in 1906.

Tauihu (War canoe prow) (1st half 19th century)MARKK

Museum Godeffroy
This prow of a Māori canoe is from the private museum of the Hamburg merchant Johan Cesar VI. Godeffroy (1813–1885). The economic concerns of his trading house lay primarily in the South Pacific, where the company acquired land for plantations, utilised parts of the regional population as labour force, and actively intervened in local politics. Godeffroy’s interest in the scientific exploration of the Pacific archipelagos must also be seen against this colonial backdrop. With his Museum Godeffroy, the self-proclaimed “King of the South Seas” determined the information that visitors to his museum received about the Pacific Islands, thus shaping the image of this region in the minds of the Hamburg public.

Guide to the Godeffroy Museum (p. 36-37), Godeffroy Museum Hamburg, 1882, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This extract from “Guide to the Museum Godeffroy”, published in 1882, shows the floor plan of the ethnographic and anthropological collections exhibited in the upper floor of the museum.

Guide to the Godeffroy Museum (p. 50), Godeffroy Museum Hamburg, 1882, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The guide book describes the Māori war canoe prow that was displayed among spears from Easter Island, the Admiralty Islands, and New Britain: “Beakhead ornament (carving) from a war canoe from New Zealand. The human figure sticks out its tongue, similarly to the way this was done during a stage of the New Zealand war dance to mock the enemy.”

Upside Down World Map (2001) by Hema MapsMARKK

Getting to Know “Other” Perspectives   

Even today, European colonialism and its repercussions are portrayed mainly from the perspective of the former colonial powers. As a result, the people encountered abroad by German colonialist actors appear, at best, mostly at the margins of the literature on the colonial ambitions of the German Empire. Scant attention is paid to their perceptions and appraisals of the colonial situation, or to their actions in this context. Yet, the process of coming to terms with German colonial history requires gaining familiarity with the perspectives of the colonised. This includes, for example, examining the question of their agency, as well as considering the scope of action that was open to them despite the unequal power relationships in which they found themselves. The adoption of a view of colonised people and societies as important actors is intended, not least, to counter the persistent European notion of its own supposed cultural superiority.

Painted bison skull (poss. 19th century)MARKK

Knowledge Transfer
The painted bison skull was acquired for the museum by Frederik Weygold in 1909. The skull comes from the Oglala, who at that time lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation. According to the data provided by Weygold, it was used in the Oglala hunka ceremony. He obtained information on this ritual and on the object itself from the 78-year-old Chanxaxa, his primary informant on the reservation. Local interpreters and informants played a key role in transferring knowledge in colonial settings and had a decisive influence on the information that European explorers gathered. However, their role in knowledge production was mentioned only in the rarest cases in the explorers’ later publications.

Placement of "hunka-instruments", Frederick Weygold, 01.10.1909, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This detailed drawing with its numerous explanations shows the placement of the objects used in the hunka ceremony. It is based on information about the ceremony Chanxaxa gave to Weygold.

Pte Hin Paxpa (Tags of Buffalo Hair) and her husband Chanxaxa (Hump), Frederick Weygold, 1909, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

The picture shows Chanxaxa and his wife Pte Hin Papa at the giveaway ceremony in summer 1909.

Snowshoes for dogs (before 1878)MARKK

Ethnological Expositions
These snowshoes for dogs were among the objects included in Hagenbeck’s 1877 “Eskimo Ethnological Exposition”. From 1874 to 1932, the display of human beings in so-called ethnological expositions was a significant line of business for the Hagenbeck company. A second “Eskimo” show followed in 1880 in which the organisers’ failure to provide the necessary vaccinations led to the death of all the participants – three men, two women, and three children – of smallpox. One of them, Abraham Ulrikab, wrote in his diary of the exhaustion he and his companions suffered on their tour through Europe. His reports emphatically describe the strain on the group’s members due to their constant performances in zoos and pleasure grounds.

Portrait of Abraham Ulrikab, 1880/81, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

This portrait of Abraham Ulrikab was taken while the group travelled Europe.

Terrianiak, his wife Paingo and their daughter Noggasak, Jacob Martin Jacobsen, 1880/81, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

Like their companions, Terrianiak, his wife Paingo and their daughter Noggasak died of smallpox. The comment at the bottom of the picure was written by Johan Adrian Jacobsen who had recruited them for the ethnological exposition.

Mask (early 20th century)MARKK

Representations of "the Other"
The mask on display here comes from the small island of Nissan, which is now part of Papua New Guinea. Prominent features of the mask include the three-dimensional modelled headdress and the applied plant-fibre moustache. The pouch-like bulges under the eyes are similarly formed out of plant fibres. The overall appearance of the mask suggests that it portrays a particular person – possibly a trader or missionary who visited the island. Such traces of European expansion can be found in many regions of the world. They bear witness to the impression made by colonial actors on local populations, and to their appraisals of these encounters.

Queen Victoria (figure), From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

Other examples of representations of colonial agents are "Colon figures" which were produced in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa. This portrayal of Queen Victoria is one of them.

Coffin with mummy and canopy (ca. 1900)MARKK

Egyptian Souvenirs
This piece appears to combine a child’s coffin, a canopy and a mummy. It was made to give the impression that it originated in ancient Egypt. In fact, it dates from around 1900, at which time Europeans had been enthralled with the so-called Orient for decades. As a result, Egypt had become a popular travel destination and ancient Egyptian objects were coveted as souvenirs. Local artisans made use of this sustained interest and began producing objects that corresponded with European travellers’ and collectors’ notions of ancient Egyptian culture. More often than not, trade in travel souvenirs of this kind proved a profitable business for their makers.

Object radiograph "Coffin with mummy and canopy“, Ev. Krankenhaus Alsterdorf, 2001, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

In 2001, an x-ray examination revealed that the coffin did not contain the mummy of a child but rather two adult thighbones wrapped in old linen.

Exhibition hall „Meeting house from New Zealand“ (ca. 1915)MARKK

The house Rauru comes from the surroundings of Rotorua, a spa town in the Northern Island of New Zealand. The location became a popular destination for affluent travellers in the 1870s. Its geysers, hot springs, and mud pools were special attractions. In addition, the local Māori groups allowed tourists an insight into their culture. They organised boat and walking tours on which they explained the Māori’s cultural self-conception to visitors, taking art works such as Rauru as examples. Their active role in shaping tourism in the region served more than just their cultural self-projection, however. It also helped to secure the societal position of the Māori, even in the face of their progressing colonial subjugation.

Pink Terrace, Burton Brothers, ca. 1885, From the collection of: MARKK
Show lessRead more

House Rauru was a popular photo motif in Whakarewarewa. Sophia Hinerangi and Makereti Papakura – two well-known tourist guides –, for example, used Rauru in the production of promotional shots. Unfortunately, none of these images is in the photographic collections of the museum. This picture shows the “Pink Terrace” – a popular tourist attraction near Rotorua.

Museum of Ethnology Hamburg (2012)MARKK

Glossary A-E

Anthropology: Like ethnology, (physical) anthropology was established as a scientific discipline in the second half of the 19th century. The measurement of the human body and its individual parts, such as the skull, was intended to enable the identification of “racial types” and conclusions about human behaviours and character traits. In the colonial period, the knowledge thus obtained was used primarily to serve the devaluation of “non-European” societies, providing an ostensibly scientific justification for the colonial expansion of Europe.

Benin: The kingdom of Benin, not to be confused with the modern nation of the same name, was founded by the Edo and lay within the territory of today’s Nigeria. Governed by an “Oba”, this kingdom maintained trade relations with a number of European countries until 1897, when, under a pretext, it was attacked and annexed by Great Britain.

Colonial Institute: The Hamburg Colonial Institute was founded in 1908 with the chief purpose of training civil servants for their service in the colonies. It was also the main venue for lectures. Edmund Siemers financed the construction of the building, which was completed in 1911. The institute was converted into the University of Hamburg in 1919.

Colonialism: Colonialism is a part of European expansion. In the belief that they belonged to a superior culture, the European powers brought most of the world under their control, especially during the 19th century. This took a variety of forms. For example, a colony could be exploited economically or settled by Europeans. The colonial powers usually established their own administrative structures and judiciaries. In the course of these colonisation processes, the local populations were often displaced.

Colonial knowledge: Colonial knowledge is the term given to bodies of knowledge acquired by colonial actors in the various regions of the world. These were integrated into the existing European knowledge systems, complementing and expanding them. Examples include knowledge about the local plant and animal world or about the resident population. At the same time, this knowledge served the consolidation and exercise of colonial control. Through its use, the colonial powers also formed the ways in which colonising and colonised societies perceived and conceived themselves and the world.

Concentration camps: While the most-infamous concentration camps are those of the “Third Reich” (1933–1945), the term has a longer history. In the early twentieth century, for example, it was used in the Boer War (1899–1902) and the German war against the Herero and Nama (1904–1908). Here concentration camps functioned as collection, internment, and labour camps. Some were also sites of “extermination by neglect”.

Culture: The notion of culture is used in almost all social sciences today as a central category of analysis. In academic usage, it is generally understood as a collective system of meaning that is created and maintained through human action. The production and social dissemination of cultural meaning and practices are tied to the prevailing power structures of the respective society. In common parlance, the term often serves to group people who are seen to share a number of cultural practices and characteristics.

Egypt: Despite its relative independence in the mid-19th century, Egypt formally belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The construction of the Suez Canal (1859–1869) markedly increased the political and economic interests of France and Great Britain in the region. Egypt came under British control in 1882, during an extended period of European enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian culture. This “Egyptomania” led to the country becoming a popular early destination for European travellers.

Ethnological exposition: From the second half of the 19th century until the 1930s, “ethnological expositions” put on public display human beings whose cultures were regarded by the organisers and visitors as “exotic”. Audiences paid to watch the exhibited people carry out activities that were considered typical of them. These events were a staple of the entertainment business in Europe and North America. The expositions of one of the best-known operators, Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg, often drew hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Ethnology: Ethnology emerged as a scientific discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century. At that time, ethnologists saw themselves as natural scientists and dealt primarily with “indigenous peoples” of non-European societies. These groups, considered to be “primitive” and without historical development, were contrasted with and subordinated to European “civilised peoples”. Observation of these “indigenous peoples” and their material products was intended to enable ethnologists to draw general conclusions about human evolution. Today the discipline of ethnology deals with the ways of life of all human beings, as well as their cultural practices in comprehensive societal contexts.

European expansion: European expansion denotes the spread of European dominance over virtually the whole world from the end of the 15th century onwards. Whereas above all Spain and Portugal brought extensive territories and populations under their control during the early phase, the British, Dutch, Danes, and French, as well as the Italians, Germans, and Belgians, later also expanded their spheres of influence. They gradually built the structures necessary for lasting control of their territories. This process is referred to as colonialism.

“Extermination order”: In his “Proclamation to the Herero People” of 1904, Lothar von Trotha announced that he would have all male Herero shot and the women and children expelled. He declared the Herero to be enemies and no longer German subjects. He placed bounties on the heads of Herero leaders. This order is seen as a symbol of the genocide against the Herero in the colonial war from 1904 to 1908.

Glossary F-K

Genocide: Genocide is the attempt to exterminate a group of people defined by national, ethnic, racial, or religious attributes. International criminal law has recognised genocide as a criminal offence since 1948. The crimes committed against Jews during Germany’s National Socialist regime are an example of genocide.

Georg Thilenius: Georg Thilenius (1868–1937) was the first director of the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg. He continually expanded the museum and enlarged its collection through expeditions and the purchase of objects. Thilenius was additionally involved in the founding of the Hamburg Colonial Institute. When the institute was later transformed into a university, he served as its vice-chancellor and held the chair in ethnology.

German East Africa: German East Africa was a German colony from 1885 to 1918. It encompassed today’s mainland Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique. Carl Peters is seen as its founder. Through his colonial society, initially without the backing of the German Empire, he concluded “protection treaties” with the local elites. Only later did the German Empire officially annex the territory. A number of popular uprisings against the foreign rulers were brutally put down by German forces. During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of people in the colony died at the hands of the German military.

German South Seas colonies: The German “protectorates” in the South Seas extended primarily over the area of today’s Melanesia and Micronesia in the South Pacific. In 1900, the German Empire made its last colonial acquisition with the Samoan islands Upolu and Savai’i. Like Germany’s other colonies, these Pacific territories were established chiefly due to pressure from influential merchant houses. The term “South Seas” still evokes a romanticised, paradise-like image of the Pacific islands.

German South West Africa: From 1884 to 1918, German South West Africa was a German colony in the territory of present-day Namibia. The Bremen merchant Adolf Lüderitz purchased lands from the Nama in 1883. A year later, this territory was officially declared a “protectorate”. As a settler colony, it was meant to become a home for emigrant Germans, which led to the displacement of the people living there. From 1904 to 1908, the German “protection forces” waged war against the Herero and Nama, in the course of which they committed genocide against both groups.

Hamburg Geographical Society: Numerous geographical societies were founded in the German-speaking world in the 19th century, with memberships that included private citizens, commercial enterprises, and politicians. The geographical expeditions they sent out were intended to gather knowledge about non-European countries in the service of, not least, influential members’ business interests in the destination regions. The Hamburg Geographical Society, which is still in existence, was founded in 1873 and counted such prominent Hamburg merchants as W. H. O’Swald and A. Woermann among its members.

Herero: The Herero lived as pastoralists in the region of today’s Namibia. During the German colonial war of 1904 to 1908, almost 80% of their population were killed in what is now seen as a genocide. Germany’s Federal Government refuses to pay reparations, however, focusing instead on development assistance. Every year in August, “Herero Day” is held to commemorate the battle at Waterberg on 11 August 1904.

Huipil: The huipil is a traditional piece of clothing of the indigenous women of Central America. It is similar to a dress, with embroidery and decoration specific to the family and the occasion. Today it is worn primarily on ceremonial occasions.

Hunka ceremony: The hunka ceremony is an important ritual among all Lakota groups. Through it, a binding social relationship is created between the participants. The ritual is also often referred to as an adoption ceremony.

Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) was a German politician. From 1862 to 1890, he served as prime minister of Prussia and, from 1871, as the first chancellor of the newly founded German Empire. In 1890, Emperor Wilhelm II removed him from office. Although Bismarck had always rejected an active colonial policy, he yielded to pressure from the colonial movement and

Glossary L-O

Lothar von Trotha: Lothar von Trotha (1848–1920) was a Prussian officer. In 1904, he was made supreme commander and governor in German South West Africa to quell the Herero rebellion. He issued the “extermination order” calling for all Herero to be killed or driven out, and is considered to bear prime responsibility for the genocide against the Herero and Nama (1904–1908).

Māori: Māori is the name of the Polynesian people that originally settled New Zealand, reaching the islands around the 13th century. New Zealand was incorporated into the British Empire in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which, among other things, recognised the land rights of the Māori. Although the treaty declared them equal partners, the Māori were subjected to colonial repression and displacement over the following decades.

Maasai: The seminomadic Maasai societies live primarily in today’s Kenya and Tanzania. Because of their emphatically traditional clothing in red and blue, they are well-known especially to tourists and are often falsely romanticised as an emblem of a supposedly traditional African way of life.

Maya: The term Maya designates a group of Central American peoples. Many Maya fell victim to the Spanish conquerors. They are known especially for their architecture and religion. Today, about 6.1 million Maya live in various countries including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.

Museum Godeffroy: The Hamburg merchant Johan Cesar VI. Godeffroy opened his private museum in 1861. The Museum Godeffroy housed zoological and ethnographic objects from the Pacific region, many of which Godeffroy’s captains had brought back from their mercantile expeditions. Godeffroy also employed various explorers, who travelled the “South Seas” collecting objects for his museum. When his trading house was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1879, the museum was dissolved. The bulk of its collection was sold to Leipzig’s ethnological museum, while the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg acquired a smaller part of its holdings.

Nama: The Nama live in Namibia and South Africa. The Germans referred to them pejoratively as “Hottentots”. After the German “protection force” had crushed the Herero, the Nama also resolved to go to war, initially employing successful guerrilla tactics. Following their defeat by the Germans, the surviving Nama were interned in concentration camps. Around half of the Nama population died in the course of the conflicts.

Oglala: The Oglala are the largest and best-known of the seven subgroups of the Lakota linguistic family in North America. Until their forced settlement on the Pine Ridge Reservation at the end of the nineteenth century, they lived primarily in what is now the western part of the US state of Nebraska. The Oglala didn’t form a set political entity and mostly did without fixed hierarchies. They pursued a nomadic way of life. Today the Oglala number approximately 47,000.

Others: In establishing self-identity, the construction of an “other” is of great importance. The conception of an “other” external group and demarcation from it serves to consolidate both individual and collective identity. In the European colonialist view, the “non-European” world and its inhabitants were considered the “other”. By portraying these peoples as “uncivilised”, “irrational”, and “undeveloped”, Europe defined itself as culturally superior and of higher value.

Overseas possessions: Overseas possessions were the swathes of land that German merchants or private individuals purchased from resident population groups before the official founding of the colonies in 1884. The territories were initially administrated by companies and societies. However, these entities didn’t have the financial or military means to enforce their claims. The imperial government ultimately had to come to their aid and officially recognise the foreign possessions as a colony.

Glossary P-Z

Pine Ridge Reservation: The Pine Ridge Reservation, in the southwest of today’s state of South Dakota, USA, was established in 1889. Among the groups forced to resettle in the territory, the Oglala were the largest in number. Like the other populations of North America, the Oglala were increasingly driven from their native lands over the course of the nineteenth century by advancing European settlers. The compulsory relocation of these groups to reservations by the US government spelled the end of their traditional ways of life and cultural practices.

“Primitive art”: From the beginning of the twentieth century, so-called “primitive art” or “tribal art” was a category within the Western art market for certain material products of non-European cultures. Ceremonial masks, for example, were attributed an aesthetic value based largely on their supposed “native” character. This usually also implied an appraisal of these objects as “primitive” and “undeveloped”, and therefore as inferior to European art. At the same time, they strongly influenced modern artists such as Pablo Picasso.

“Protection force”: The “protection forces” were military units in the German “protectorates” which were deployed to enforce the imposed order and the suppression of the local populations. Their primary objective was to crush local resistance. Except in German South West Africa, they consisted of German officers and African troops and porters.

“Protectorate”: During the colonial period, the German colonies were called “protectorates”. Through international agreements as well as treaties with representatives of local populations, the German Empire became the protecting power in these territories, whereby the aim was the protection of German or European interests. The local people were subordinated to the Germans and forced to work and pay taxes. For the state, the “protectorates” were a loss-making business; only individual German merchant houses made profits.

Punitive expedition: So-called punitive expeditions were carried out mostly under a pretext, with the actual purpose of taking possession of territories or subjugating certain population groups. An ostensible wrongdoing by the native inhabitants was usually named as the reason for these military measures. Especially in the colonial context, the term was used euphemistically to refer to expeditions of conquest and military reprisal.

“Race”: The notion that humankind could be divided into different “races” took on great scientific as well as political importance, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. People were assigned to various “racial types” based on their physical appearance. Membership in a certain “racial” group was thought to be connected with particular character traits and abilities. Human beings were thus viewed as the product of their biological origins, not of their social environment. Today, these ideas are considered outdated and the use of the term “race” for the classification of people is rejected.

Tolai: The Tolai are a population group in the island nation of Papua New Guinea. They live on the Gazelle Peninsula, the north-eastern section of the island of New Britain. From 1884 to 1912, New Britain, under the name Neu-Pommern (New Pomerania), belonged to Germany’s colonial possessions in the Pacific region.

Versailles Treaty: The Treaty of Versailles took effect in 1919, formally ending the First World War. It attributed sole responsibility for the war to the German Empire, which was forced to accept territorial losses and pay reparations. Its “protectorates” were placed under the control of the League of Nations and the administration of other colonial powers. Germany’s inability to administrate colonies was cited as the justification for these measures.

Credits: Story

Project Initiators
Prof. Dr. Wulf Köpke (Museum of Ethnology Hamburg)
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zimmerer (University of Hamburg | Head of the Research Center “Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy”)

Project Team
Melanie Boieck, Gesa Grimme, Julia Heitmann, Wulf Köpke, Thorsten Logge, Meike Röttjer, Carl Triesch, Jürgen Zimmerer (assisted by Stephanie Bussler)

Julianne de Sousa, Lina Derbitz, Nicolas Gerling, Myriam Gröpl, Sara Hanfler, Pia Hartmer, Julia Heitmann, Gabriel Huppenbauer, Anna Jäck, Sophie Jungjohann, Annika Linsner, Christian Michaelis, Christopher Schwedthelm, Karen Stubbemann, Irina Troitskaya, Kristin Uelze

Michael Dills

Photos & Picture Editing
Gesa Grimme, Meike Röttjer, Brigitte Saal, Paul Schimweg

Final Edit
Gesa Grimme, Meike Röttjer

With kind support of the Hamburg Senate Chancellery

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more