During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, German universities inspired the reformation of higher learning institutions throughout Europe and the United States (Barth et. al. 2005).  Early museums and museum pioneers in the United States were likewise influenced by the collecting practices and ideas of their German counterparts.[1] High profile museum anthropologists in various national contexts—Franz Boas among them—relied on connections and correspondence with German colleagues. For a time anthropology in German museums appeared unproblematically forward thinking, growing out of a liberal-humanist tradition to connect Europe with the rest of the world, shaped by the desire to extend beyond curiosity cabinets toward the systematic, empirically driven study of mankind.[2]

As a historian most interested in anthropology, my main focus in this short essay is to examine the vestiges of this moment by analyzing the current exhibitions at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany. This museum holds an estimated 700,000 artifacts and documents. In exploring its galleries, the lasting influence of turn-of-the-century anthropology remains relentlessly palpable. In fact, so strong is the abiding force of anthropology’s past on its present, one wonders if some institutions might be better understood today as museums of cultural history rather than as current representations of the discipline. Stated another way, at what point does an anthropology museum become a history museum—one which offers testimony not only about those cultures indicated by the objects in cases, but about those peculiar cultures which collected them? Even with modernized displays and more recently acquired cultural objects, the ghosts of earlier eras seem omnipresent. Making these ghosts even more visible might, paradoxically, turn these museums into far more vital and present-oriented sites for the meeting of cultures.

Founded in 1879, Hamburg’s Museum für Völkerkunde came into existence during an era when explorers and scientists traversed ever-greater distances in efforts to engage with and study unique cultures around the globe. German anthropologists, like their British and French counterparts, returned with objects intended for preservation and display. The pull of salvage anthropology—or the thrust to preserve purportedly “vanishing” cultures—proved overwhelmingly strong.[3] Likewise, a competition between nations emerged, as a desire to create the best museums fueled moves to collect the most impressive cultural artifacts and display both cultural and imperial supremacy.


The Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany. Photo taken by author.

The museum is situated near the University of Hamburg, in a bustling neighborhood in the northern part of the city. Originally constructed between 1908 and 1912, the current building was expanded in the late 1920s and has recently been refurbished. The museum reports that about 180,000 people tour the galleries annually. A permanent exhibition on Native American cultures from North America greets visitors on the ground floor—a reminder of the feverish fascination Native American cultures held for German anthropologists and members of the general public at the turn of the century (Penny and Bunzl 2003). Though modest in size compared to some collections found in the Americas, the materials on display include remarkable masks gathered from the Pacific Northwest and California Indian baskets. Visitors from the United States might be surprised to see masks on exhibit whose display might be objectionable to living descendants; in recent years, many museums in North America and elsewhere have responded to critique from tribal delegations by removing objects only intended for viewing by members of specific clans or particular genders. Such debates have occurred in Europe (and, with great impact, in Australia and the Pacific); yet it appears that European museums have been slower to accommodate requests for both withholding images from display and for repatriation.[4]

At the very end of the hall, museum educators offer lessons on Native American traditions in two sizable replica Plains Indian tipis. Children race through the exhibit, taking photographs with small digital cameras and mimicking the sounds of traditional Plains music they hear reverberating from videos. The museum strives to create a forum for cross-cultural dialogue, but the exhibit’s focus on “traditional” objects—collected at the moment of German imperial expansion, and now frozen in time—relegates the cultures on display to the past rather than breathing life into contemporary and continuing situations. For a more specific example, at another end of the hall, a modern automobile, small mock-up cafe, and handful of recent artifacts do remind visitors that Native Americans are not just distant vestiges of past worlds. Still, in spite of these glimmers of contemporaneity, people seem nearly absent from the narrative. Given Hamburg’s “sister city” relationship to Chicago, a missed opportunity becomes apparent: in the second half of the twentieth century, Chicago was one of the most important centers in the United States for the American Indian Movement, a push emerging from urban spaces and echoing back to reservations around the continent. Curators might trace the many connections between the two cities while showcasing the lives and political struggles of American Indians (including artists and activists) still living in Chicago.

The museum dates back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the global expeditions of German ethnographers; everything from field notes to photographs to objects and artifacts intended for display and study returned to Europe, destined for the permanent storage in the museum. The exhibit text in an African ethnography gallery acknowledges that even in the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists were still partly swept up in the search for “pure” civilizations, thought to be less influenced by Western contact and colonialism. These aims and the practicalities of achieving them could be made the explicit content of the museum. The ground floor, for example, features an exhibit about museum sponsored fieldwork in Africa between 1954-1956, when anthropologist Kunz Dittmer and his wife Martha Dittmer collected hundreds of objects (such as jewelry, clothing, and baskets) as they traveled through the Upper Volta in West Africa in what is now Burkina Faso. The sheer number of objects the Dittmers brought back to Germany underscores the nature of museum anthropology through much of the twentieth century: building large collections of seemingly remote and exotic cultures was paramount in supplying object-based empirical studies. Growing imperial connections, territories, and bustling trade routes expanded European access to non-Western cultures. In the exhibit, wooden shipping crates repurposed as glass-topped display cases allude to the expedition, echoed by the inclusion of numerous black and white photographs of anthropologists in the field. Indeed, boxes bursting with artifacts from around the world arrived nearly every day at museums in Europe and the United States. Field notes, ledger books, and other archival objects might also have been displayed, to attest to the massive effort these projects demanded.

The Victorian Era mania for Ancient Egypt is also strongly in evidence. A small gallery displays stelai, pottery, and, unsurprisingly, several mummified bodies. Again in this gallery, visitors are pushed to consider the objects as part of the distant past, rather than as entangled in much more recent economic and cultural relationships (Thomas 2007). Nearly all of this material was collected in the first years of the 1900s, but some found its way back to Germany during World War I. Collecting Ancient Egyptian artifacts became a minor industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with some dealers making small fortunes. In addition to private collectors, museums played a part in this growing market, which in turn encouraged the pillaging of important archaeological sites for profit.[5]

Some of the museum’s exhibited material was acquired very recently. Considerable floor space is devoted to collections from Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America brought to the museum over the past thirty years. Another temporary gallery explores perceptions of beauty in Africa, effectively combining recent and older objects including historic dress, anthropomorphic statues, and photographs from different periods. In spite of perceived problems associated with recent trends in migration and immigration, Hamburg is a city celebrating its relatively newfound global multiculturalism. These sections of the museum suggest it is not just concerned with past societies encountered during the heyday of museum building; whereas other sections of the museum present a remote history and block out more recent and contemporary relations, these sections prove more effective in representing dynamic, extant human societies.

While the museum offers important cultural insights in certain sections, I could not help but think other sections—most notably the North American Indian displays—subtly reinforced stereotypes about Native American history. Many scholars continue to wonder why Germans remain so fascinated with American Indians; part of the answer surely lies in major museums in Germany which project American Indians as simultaneously exotic and within reach (Haircrow 2013).

The museum admirably strives to include explanatory materials on the history of collecting for Hamburg. It could do more, however, to situate its own story within broader global histories of colonialism, collecting, war, and the history of science. Open storage could serve the museum well by emphasizing the diversity of the collections while also highlighting numerous important themes. For instance, displaying entire collections together as they were acquired might reveal the central concerns that guided earlier generations of anthropologists. Alternatively, grouping similar objects together collected over different periods might help demonstrate change over time and enrich the viewer’s notion of living cultures. Moreover, a greater emphasis on the museum’s own place in the history of ethnographic collecting in Germany could allow visitors to better appreciate the historical context and political implications of these practices, as well as the ways they have changed over the past century.

While portions of the museum address contemporary questions, most of the displays found in Hamburg are decidedly backward looking—both to their own origins, and to the notion of non-Western cultures as the “past” of humanity. In relying so heavily on their turn-of-the-century materials, have museums like the Museum für Völkerkunde been transfigured over time into history museums— time capsules of an earlier moment in European history— rather than anthropology or social science museums? Ongoing consultation and collaboration with living descendants becomes especially critical if we wish to see these institutions remain vibrant. Video interviews with living people explaining historical artifacts and comparing them to objects they currently make or use can draw visitors’ attention to ongoing cultural production and create space for Native voices to guide visitors toward important ideas. Displays along these lines have proven effective at the National Museum of the American Indian and dozens of smaller tribal museums across the United States. Collaborations with native artists, incorporating contemporary music, fashions, and art can engage visitors’ attention while simultaneously emphasizing the continued existence and vibrancy of modern-day communities. The museum might commission new artwork based on their existing collections.

As an historian of museums it seems to me that museums such as Hamburg’s would do well to provide a deeper contextual and historical appreciation of the materials on show, emphasizing both the methods and aims of their acquisition as well as the distinctiveness of the cultures from which they derive. Instead of mostly ahistorical cases of tomahawks and descriptive texts about scalping, displays might emphasize the influence of incursions by European settlers in increasing violence in Native communities, and also note that some of the materials on exhibit were collected as part of the international competitions among European colonial powers which led to the so called “War to End All Wars.”[6]

Anthropology museums in Europe and the United States should strive to lift the veil on their institutional histories, and show how their collecting practices embody and express their own cultural values and practices. This will only enrich the possibilities for a better representation of dynamic, contemporary cultures from around the world as well as the histories linking them. This is a tall order, to be sure. But for a science founded on such vast ambitions, whose aims continue to mark the layout and archives of its museums, working to address both the past and present seems imperative for these institutions to truly thrive.


Works Cited

Barth, Frederick, Robert Parkin, Andre Gingrich and Sydel Silverman, eds. One Discipline: Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Crane, Susan A. Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Fagan, Brian. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

Haircrow, Red.  “Germany’s Obsession With American Indians Is Touching – And Occasionally Surreal.”  Indian Country Today, March 23, 2013.

Jenkins, Tiffany. Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Penny, H. Glenn.  Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Penny, H. Glenn  and Matti Bunzl, eds. Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Zimmerman, Andrew. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.


[1] For more on early nineteenth century German collecting see Susan A. Crane, Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000). See also, Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[2] Historian H. Glenn Penny details the growth of German museums in an era of colonialism: H. Glenn Penny, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); H. Glenn Penny and Matti Bunzl, eds., Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

[3] For more on salvage anthropology’s influence on German anthropology see Susan A. Crane, Collecting and Historical Consciousness, especially pages 38-39.

[4] A recent, contrarian text on European resistance to repatriation is Tiffany Jenkins, Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] A classic text on this history is Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

[6] Closely related debates have raged around colonial and ethnographic museums in Brussels and Berlin: for instance, see coverage in  The Independent and Dark Matter.

Samuel J. Redman: contributions / website / sredman@history.umass.edu