This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

H. Glenn Penny. Im Schatten Humboldts: Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie. 287 pp., 37 illus. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2019.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the C. H. Beck Verlag for kindly providing me with an advance manuscript of this book in the original English. Parenthetical page numbers below refer to the manuscript, rather than the published translation.

Salvage anthropology has carried something of a sour reputation ever since the term was introduced by Jacob Gruber in 1970. This has good reasons. One has to do with the fatalism that this practice implies: the moral mission of early ethnographers, according to Gruber, was “not to stem the tide of civilization’s advance, but to preserve that which was about to be destroyed.”[1] Even the most humane impetus to “rescue” the pristine cultural heritage of indigenous groups took the inevitable disappearance of those groups for granted.

Anthropology was born, one might say, under the shadow of extinction. At the same time as the discipline lamented this extinction as a necessary consequence of ever-expanding Western influence, it also fetishized the moment of “first contact.” Even the more self-critical figures of twentieth-century anthropology in America—like Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber—tended to repudiate the modernity of the people they studied, focusing instead on preserving their supposedly unchanging folkways, legends and implements before they vanished for good.[2] Salvage anthropology thus placed a perhaps disproportionate stress on museum collecting as a means by which the escalating loss of human diversity could be objectified and preserved. “The very operation of the collection itself,” Gruber notes, “infused the data with a sense of separateness, a notion of item discontinuity that encouraged the use of an acontextual comparative method and led only to the most limited (because they alone were observed) ideas of functional correlation.” In the same way that biology had to investigate pathological bodies in order to constitute a “normal” physiology, anthropology harnessed what it considered feeble and imminently doomed native societies as the raw material for a universal “science of man.”[3]

One of the most singular figures in the history of salvage anthropology is the German explorer and ethnologist Adolf Bastian, almost certainly the most well-travelled European of his time. Over the last quarter of the nineteenth century—when global mobility had only recently become realizable and when European influence had not made itself felt in many parts the world—Bastian explored the globe nearly uninterruptedly, as if pursued by a demon, subsisting for long stretches on a diet of chocolate and boiled eggs. And he collected as furiously as he travelled: in addition to texts, legends and grammars, he collected sculptures, tools, idols, material culture of any kind. These all wound up in the museum of which he was the director (albeit mostly in absentia): the Berliner Museum für Völkerkunde. In fact, he collected and acquired so much that the museum’s clutter soon became proverbial; even its warehouses were overstuffed. Today some might call Bastian a “hoarder”—or, as the American historian H. Glenn Penny more generously suggests, a hypercollector.

Penny’s latest book, Im Schatten Humboldts. Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie (In Humboldt’s Shadow: A Tragic History of German Ethnology), tells the story of German museum anthropology in its salvage mission, revealing new aspects of the ideas and institutions that made up the German tradition known as Völkerkunde or Ethnologie (a term roughly equivalent to the English sense of “cultural anthropology”).[4] Over five gripping chapters, the book follows the personal and institutional activities of anthropologists like Bastian, Felix von Luschan, and the Americanist and director of the Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde, Franz Termer. Working through the ideas and personal events relayed by these men’s correspondence, Penny provides an up-close look into their struggles, at home and abroad, to augment and maintain their museums’ collections as well as the generations-old global infrastructure that supported them. Many were the obstacles they faced: from obstructive bureaucratic and budgetary constraints and uncomprehending museum officials to the cataclysm of Nazi rule (which made itself felt as far away as the German emigrant communities in Guatemala that composed Termer’s close-knit network). Penny’s book is, in a sense, a global history of Germany, told through its ethnographic museums and the people who kept them alive. 

If there is a central question to this book, it is this: what should be the role of ethnographic museums today? It is only by understanding the history of these museums and their collections, Penny contends, that we can navigate their future—including fraught questions like the repatriation of looted artifacts. Bastian’s role in this story is central. His obsessive collecting, both personally and by proxy, formed part of a universal scientific project in the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos: what Humboldt had done for nature, Bastian would do for man. He conceived of ethnography as an inductive science that requires a broad range for comparison. Inasmuch as a given people’s artifacts and implements were the “sediments of their folk spirit [Abdrücke ihres Volksgeistes],” they allowed insights into the Weltanschauungen of their makers (10). Specifically, he posited the existence of certain Elementargedanken (elementary ideas) that structured all human thought, and which ramified into ethnically specific Völkergedanken (ethnic ideas). As Bastian elaborated:

In the incidental features of narration, in nursery tales and proverbs, sayings and modes of speech, we encounter the same idea, be it in England or Abyssinia, in India or Scandinavia, in Spain or on Tahiti, in Mexico as well as in Greece. If we look carefully enough, it will be the same idea which emerges from the hiding place of ethnic peculiarities and manifests itself in the thoughts of mankind in a fashion that, unless perceived as being part of cosmic harmony, appears to be incomprehensible.[5]

By allowing for a maximum of visibility and comparative analysis, Bastian’s museum displays were designed in the interest of producing a veritable Gedankenstatistik, a “statistics of ideas.” Going through the museum, the visitor would be able to travel through a complete catalogue of the ideas mankind had produced and could draw conclusions about their relation to each other, and to herself. In Bastian’s words, the goal was to make the Berlin museum into a “reading room [Lesehalle] for the inductive study of the science of man” (62).

For this reason, the collections had to be as comprehensive as possible; gaps could not be tolerated. Bastian’s synoptic ambitions, however, had proven impracticable already in his lifetime, and things only got worse after his death in 1905. Due to constraints of space, time, money, and internal and external politics, the vast majority of the artifacts in the Berlin collection have never seen the light of day and are still hidden away in offsite storage one century later. One of the reasons Penny gives for the failure of Bastian’s Humboldtian project is the “overwhelming dominance of art and art historians in the museum world” (221). Most museum officials simply had no appreciation for the empirical purpose of these collections and were opposed to what they saw as frivolous expenditures for the sake of savage doodads. Wilhelm von Bode, the General Director of the Königliche Museen after Bastian’s death, pushed successfully to reorganize the collections into modest, strikingly arranged showcases of the most aesthetically pleasing “exotic” objects: Schausammlungen to instruct and entertain a wider public. “We lost a great deal as a result,” Penny writes. “We lost the recognition that Völkerkunde museums were unlike art museums. They were never meant to articulate, demonstrate, or illustrate. They were built to be workshops, in which data could be assembled and knowledge produced” (14). 

In effect, Im Schatten Humboldts warns that ethnological museums today need to salvage a part of their own disappearing history: namely, the universal vision pursued so doggedly by Bastian and his successors. For “over time, we also all but forgot that nineteenth century German ethnology … was incredibly liberal. It was characterized by its practitioners’ refusal to entertain unproven racial hierarchies, and their quest to analyze and understand the great diversity of unitary humanity across space and time. That set German ethnology apart from its counterparts in America, Britain, France, and much of the rest of Europe” (14-15).[6] As argued in the book’s conclusion, the creation of Berlin’s much trumpeted and much contested Humboldt Forum presents an opportunity to realize that grandiose vision in a manner adequate to the present postcolonial moment. Penny’s history intervenes directly into the volatile controversy surrounding that institution with a clear message: this opportunity is being squandered.

The spokespersons of a Prussian palace filled with foreign spolia would have good reason to align their aims with Bastian’s, whose reasons for collecting were neither colonial nor imperial in nature. Some have even placed him within a tradition of so-called “liberal ethnology” that includes Leibniz, Herder, the Humboldt brothers, Georg Forster, and most recently Aby Warburg.[7] One of the Humboldt Forum’s three founding directors has vehemently repudiated any equivalence whatsoever between Germany’s ethnographic museums and those of the “great colonial powers.” In a 2018 interview, Horst Bredekamp argued that the “conditions of [German] collecting had been established generations before” the Wilhelmine Empire’s (relatively) short-lived colonial adventure, such that its ethnographic museums belong to the illustrious lineage of idealistic humanism: the “best German tradition of all.”[8] He goes on to assert that the lived realities of political and social fragmentation prior to national unification in 1871 naturally endowed Germans with a more open-minded and relativistic worldview than members of neighboring nation-states—a Weltanschauung that the crucifix-capped Humboldt Forum will, presumably, embody.[9]

With tongue in cheek, one might call this school of thought “German universalism.” Yet the same exceptionalist “Sonderweg (special path) narrative that Bredekamp embraces—not least the very legacy of Alexander von Humboldt—has been made to serve divergent ends in the past. It was a legacy celebrated not only by Bastian, whose Ecuadorean expedition followed in Humboldt’s footsteps, but also by nineteenth-century colonial enthusiasts for whom Humboldt’s humanistic, “peaceful conquest” of Latin America represented a glittering national contrast to (Spanish) pillage and (British) profiteering.[10] There is much indeed that can be concealed beneath Humboldt’s shadow. Hence when another founding director, Neil MacGregor, professes not to “understand the harshness of the debate,” he is quick to invoke the talismanic importance of the word “Humboldt” for his enterprise: “Both Humboldt brothers sought to regard all cultures as of equal value. That is a pre-colonial view of the world which we would like to use fruitfully for the post-colonial era.”[11] The museum directors’ strategy for deflecting postcolonial critique consists, it seems, in the flight to an idealized pre-coloniality.

Such cherry-picked narratives about the history of anthropology are as beguiling as they are dangerous. While Penny is frankly sympathetic to his protagonists, he also recognizes the complexity of German ethnology’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism, and at certain captivating points he faces the ambiguities of its salvage collecting head-on. This “tragic history of Germany ethnology” has its fair share of Faustian bargains. I can only address one particularly visible example here: the Benin bronzes. The consequences of the British raid on the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, both for the history of African art and British colonialism, have been widely discussed.[12] Here, Penny focuses on a different but related question:

Even today, people have difficulty explaining why by 1919 there were some 580 objects from Benin in Berlin’s collections and a mere 280 in London, or why about half of what British soldiers seized from the city ended up in German museums. Germany, after all, had no colonial interests in Benin; Germans played no role in the devastation of the city; and essentially all of the Benin bronzes and ivories left the city in British hands (112-113).

Felix von Luschan, Bastian’s successor at the Berlin museum, was quicker than most of his contemporaries to recognize the uniqueness and importance of these artworks, and he tirelessly plied his energies and trading networks to “save” them for science.[13] His efforts carried an ulterior motive as well: in his writings, like the 1919 book Die Altertümer von Benin, Luschan used the looted bronzes and ivories as aesthetic ammunition to “annihilate the thesis of race inferiority,” in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois (125)—though Du Bois actually held a far more ambivalent opinion of the German anthropologist’s motives than Penny implies.[14]

In recent decades these artifacts have become iconic of an ongoing international debate about the restoration of expropriated cultural heritage.[15] “The Benin bronzes and ivories,” Penny declares,

have become the poster children for Raubkunst [looted art], and many activists, journalists, and quite a few scholars are eager to question why a person from Africa, Nigeria, or Benin City is required today to travel to Germany to see a great deal of the Kingdom of Benin’s cultural patrimony. Luschan’s answer would unsettle many: they have to do that because British soldiers seized it.  More importantly: they can do that because German Völkerkundler saved as much as they could (148).

Indeed, one of the reasons Luschan’s hypothetical answer might appear shocking to some is that it subverts the usual provisions of a debate that has largely been framed in terms of guilt: “Do Luschan’s motivations for collecting matter for our evaluations of his actions, for the tales we tell about his collections, and for our characterizations of the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde or other German Völkerkunde museums?” (127). After all, for all his positive contributions to the European perception of African culture, the same Luschan who pleaded that insurgents in the Herero Wars be treated humanely also did not hesitate to use these conflicts (and the ensuing genocide) as an opportunity to acquire the body parts and skulls of vanquished Africans—once more, for science (127-133). Franz Boas’s own grave robbing escapades are equally well known.[16] Does this invalidate his achievement in shaping North American cultural anthropology, against the Zeitgeist, into an anti-racist discipline? Does the fact that Bastian—a staunch anti-colonialist—pleaded to the German government to send a “scientific expedition to China during the Boxer Rebellion” (141) diminish the humanistic value of his ethnographic practice?

These are the kind of difficult questions that the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum need to take more seriously, rather than simply brushing off the history of German colonialism as an epiphenomenon to the triumphal march of German universalism. The narrative of nineteenth-century “liberal ethnology” has much to teach us still; but it remains only one of the many strands that make up the history of German anthropology. Of course, by focusing on the Benin bronzes here, I am to a degree guilty of sensationalizing—for, as Penny remarks rightly, “no one discusses the uncontroversial objects [in the Berlin collections], their hidden histories, and their great potential” (264). This potential can only be unlocked, he argues, through an increased emphasis on education and research, which current plans for the Humboldt Forum have so far sidelined. 

Funding has to be redirected away from the Humboldt Forum as a municipal display—a statement of self-aggrandizement—and toward restaffing the museum with experienced, motivated curators, supporting basic research with the collections, reconnecting that research to the universities, funding working relations with indigenous groups that are willing … to build working relationships while unpacking the treasures in the museum and releasing their secrets about human histories (269-70).

Penny ultimately advocates for a more open and engaged museum that fosters “joint knowledge production” with indigenous communities (such as the Yu’pik of southwestern Alaska, who sent a delegation to Berlin’s museum in 1997). Readers who wish to read Penny’s eloquent defense of these ideas (in English) are referred to this blog entry.

Besides being eminently readable, Im Schatten Humboldts makes a powerful case—and one that deserves more attention. It is not without its own blind spots. For instance, it would have benefitted from more insight into how these anthropologists engaged with their subjects in the field (rather than with their German intermediaries) as well as the ideas expressed in their own writings. But even granted that his concern is museum anthropology, Penny’s reverential treatment of Bastian may raise some eyebrows. Despite protestations that he is not “advocating a return to the chaos of the nineteenth-century museum or Bastian’s exaltation as a kind of guru,” Im Schatten Humboldts begs the question whether such a guru was necessary to begin with (251). Do we really want to resume the long-abandoned project of Gedankenstatistik? Without explicitly saying so, Penny seems rather more intent on casting Bastian’s Elementar- and Völkergedanken in the mold of the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology.[17] Yet for all their homologies, these approaches are marked by pronounced differences that demand closer reflection. 

In his obsession with distilling the “elementary ideas” of humankind from its products, Bastian ultimately subordinated the study of cultures to the study of culture.[18] Precisely thanks to his Humboldtian obsession with producing an inductive and empirical science of man, he left behind a life’s work that is characterized as much by its imposing scope as by its incoherence and impenetrability. This became the legacy of his museum as well: an institution embarrassed if not handicapped by its own riches. “From the need for salvage,” wrote Gruber over fifty years ago, “there emerged a kind of intellectual myopia whose distortion accelerated the process of an empirically based observational, item-oriented, theory-safe anthropology.”[19] This myopia is, to some extent, to some extent, that of Bastian himself, a man too busy rescuing cultural heritage for humankind to consider the possibility that “the people whose art he wanted to save might themselves lay claim to it.”[20] Nonetheless, it is tempting to hope that a more community-engaged and theoretically-informed ethnographic museum—a workshop for comparing ontologies, rather than a fantasy of universal knowledge—could extend Bastian’s vision beyond its nineteenth century limits. Only the future will determine whether that vision, too, will be salvaged.

[1] Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, 72, no. 6 (1970): 1289-299, p. 1294.

[2] See Stephen Warren and Ben Barnes, “Salvaging the Salvage Anthropologists: Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin, Carl Voegelin, and the Future of Ethnohistory,” Ethnohistory, 65, no. 2 (2018): 189–214, 199.

[3] Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage,” 1297. 

[4] German Anthropologie, by contrast, corresponds more to “physical anthropology.”

[5] Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte.  Zur Begründung einer psychologischen Weltanschauung, (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1860), 10, as translated in Klaus Peter Köpping, Adolf Bastian and the Psychic Unity of Mankind: The Foundations of Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Germany (Münster: LIT Verlag, 1983), 180.

[6] For an interesting attempt at a comparative history of the field, see Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin, and Sydel Silverman, One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[7] See Horst Bredekamp, Aby Warburg der Indianer. Berliner Erkundungen einer liberalen Ethnologie (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2019). Bredekamp’s main authorities on the tradition of “liberal ethnology” in this book are Han Vermeulen’s Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) and no less than eight texts by H. Glenn Penny, including his important monograph Objects of Culture. Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[8]Bredekamp widerspricht Savoys Empfehlungen: ‘Ich lehne diese Argumentation der Gleichsetzerei ab,’” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 26 November 2018 (accessed 10 May 2020). 

[9] Susanne Zantop has memorably articulated how, on the contrary, “the fragmentation of Germany in the eighteenth century, which enforced colonial abstention, produced a sense of moral superiority, a moral highground for judging the performance of others.” Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 8.

[10] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 17.

[11] Interview with Neil MacGregor, originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 24 August 2017: (accessed 10 May 2020). Scholars from many disciplines have made convincing arguments that German precoloniality per se cannot simply be presumed “innocent”, and rarely ever entailed an even-handed judgment of other cultures. See Fritz Kramer, Verkehrte Welten. Zur imaginären Ethnographie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1997); Zantop, Colonial Fantasies; as well as George Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).

[12] See, for instance, Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museum, Material Culture and Popular Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Barbara Plankensteiner (ed.), Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria (Ghent: Snoeck, 2007), as well as the forthcoming book by Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (London: Pluto Press, 2021).

[13] On Luschan’s study of Benin artifacts, see Stefan Eisenhofer, “Felix von Luschan and Early German-Language Benin Studies,” African Arts 30, no. 3, Special Issue: The Benin Centenary, Part 1 (Summer, 1997): 62-67, 93-94.

[14] Penny cites from Du Bois’s recollection, circa 1946, of the First Universal Races Congress that had taken place in London in 1911. But the full quote is telling. “I remember with what puzzled attention we heard Felix von Luschan, the great anthropologist from the University of Berlin, annihilate the thesis of race inferiority and then in the same breath end his paper with these words: ‘Nations will come and go, but racial and national antagonism will remain. … [A nation] has to respect the right of other nations as well as to defend her own, and her vital interests she will, if necessary, defend with blood and iron.” W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History; Enlarged Edition, with New Writings on Africa, 1955–61 (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 5; cited in Kris Manjapra, Colonialism in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 142. As Manjapra points out, Du Bois actually “remembered von Luschan’s research as an expression of militarism and racism” (Manjapra, Colonialism, 143). 

[15] See, for instance, this New York Times Article from earlier this year.

[16] Cf. George Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture and Evolution. Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 129. 

[17] E.g.: “The objects are varied, their histories numerous, and they have much to teach us about different ontologies, about different Weltanschauungen, and ultimately about the human condition” (269). 

[18] More critical receptions of Bastian’s work can be found in Fritz Kramer, Verkehrte Welten. Zur imaginären Ethnographie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1997), 74-81; and Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[19] Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage,” 1296.

[20] Kramer, Verkehrte Welten, 78.

Matthew Vollgraff: contributions /