Collage of head of a Benin bronze, mat with geometric patterns, mask and shaman drum

The special exhibition "Handle with care" (1. Juni 2022 – 22. Januar 2023) examined different facettes of sensitive objects in the Ethnological Collection of the Museum Natur und Mensch and pursued the question how they should and could be treated today.

Sensitive Collections?

Colonial looted art, provenance research and sensitive collections: in recent years, ethnological museums and the objects preserved in them have become the focus of critical public scrutiny as never before. But what actually makes ethnological collections and their objects "sensitive"?

In the context of museum collections, "sensitive" can encompass many different facets, such as the circumstances of the acquisition and the provenance of objects, the culture-specific significance but also, as in the case of human remains, their materiality. The selected examples in the exhibition illustrate this responsibility and these challenges, but also the opportunities that obtain when dealing with sensitive objects. Each and everyone of them require a respectful approach that is oriented towards their significance in their respective societies of origin. New information, international cooperation or even reinterpretations continue to change the understanding of sensitivity in the respective societies of origin as well as in museums. The reappraisal of sensitive objects and collections is, therefore, a dynamic and multi-layered process and a central component of ethnological research and the work undertaken by museums.

Desk with books, computer desktop showing archival files and historical photographies
Provenance Research on colonial-era collections in the Museum Natur und Mensch (Photo: Godwin Kornes)

Sensitive origin - What makes museum collections historically sensitive?

Objects and collections are considered historically sensitive if they were collected, acquired or produced in places and periods in history characterised by a massive inequality of power. The spectrum here ranged from the influence of discriminatory ideology, such as racism, via oppression or war, to genocide.

The collections of ethnological museums were largely created within colonial contexts and are thus by definition historically sensitive. They can include objects from widely different circumstances of acquisition: on the one hand, objects that were looted under duress or the use of violence and, on the other, those that were freely made by the members of the societies of origin for trade. In order to be able to assess these circumstances, museums conduct provenance research and investigate by whom and in what way collections were assembled. The circumstances of production, the use of the objects in the respective societies of origin and their significance are also the subjects of research. Cooperation with representatives of the societies of origin plays a vital role in this instance. Their own views and interpretations expand our general understanding of the objects – both past and present – in a seminal way.

A current research project being conducted at the Museum Natur und Mensch focuses on objects that were collected by a collector couple during German colonial rule in Oceania, which were bequeathed to the museum in 1901. You can find out more about the provenance research project "Provenance research on the Oceania collection Eugen and Antonie Brandeis", funded by the German Lost Art Foundation (2020-2022), here.

View into exhibition room containing showcases filled with objects and projection surfaces with films
View into the first room dealing with the topic of "Sensitive heritage" (Photo: Axel Killian)

The question of the circumstances of acquisition is the core of provenance research. First of all, the type of acquisition must be clarified. In the case of this bronze head from the Kingdom of Benin, this is clear. The capital of the Kingdom of Benin was invaded and destroyed by British troops in 1897 during a so-called punitive expedition. Over 4,000 bronze and ivory objects were looted. Many of them arrived in German museums via trade. The then Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde bought the commemorative head from the British antiques and arms dealer Fenton & Sons, which resold looted bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin. Nigeria demands the return of this looted property.

The Ethnological Collection advocates the restitution of unlawfully appropriated objects in the collection where respective societies of origin desire their return. As a result, it provides information proactively about objects from the Kingdom of Benin on corresponding platforms such as the "Database for Benin Bronzes in Germany".

Historically, the emergence of ethnological collections in Germany is closely linked to quondam German colonial rule.  To acquire their collections, museums used a network of German individuals who were domiciled in the colonies and colonial contexts for various reasons. They were specifically approached by museums and asked for collections.

This suona, a woodwind instrument played at weddings and funerals, was given to the museum by Karl Dürr (1854 - 1919). As deputy governor of the city of Tsingtau (Quingdao), he was active in the former German colony of Kiautschou in East China. In 1898, he was asked by the museum founders to acquire objects for the museum. He subsequently made several donations to the museum, but without any indication of the circumstances of respective acquisitions.

Which animal is depicted on the button blanket? What is its significance for the Haida? To clarify the questions about this animal motif, a toad, the Ethnological Collection contacted the Haida Gwaii Museum in Canada. This led to cooperation regarding the provenance of the object. Haida weaver and repatriation manager of the Haida Gwaii Museum aay aay Albert Hans describes the significance of the button blanket as follows:

"They were also made to be given away at potlatches, for payment of totem poles or canoes. Nowadays, it shows us who we are as a clan with the design on the back. They are now presented at what we call the Haida Grad, where we mark the occasion of when students graduate from high school and go on to college/university. [...] Also, families now hand Haida names to said student.”

Button Blankets of the Haida Nation.
Julia Weder 2022, all rights reserved

For the special exhibition, Haida-filmmaker Julia Weder made a film about the significance of the button blankets for the Haida in the present.

Sensitive significance - What culturally-specific significance makes an object sensitive?

Objects can also be sensitive, access to them can be restricted, or they can be particularly worthy of protection on account of their culturally-specific significance. In this room, different facets of culturally-specific sensitivity are highlighted. They have far-reaching consequences for almost all fields of the work undertaken by museums, such as exhibiting, communication, preserving and researching in ethnological collections. The question of culture-specific significance shifts the focus from purely museum-based requirements to ethical and respectful handling from the perspective of the respective society of origin. This means that the handling of objects in museums should take into account their significance for the respective societies of origin.

Redyo masks were made for and used in warime rituals. At other times when the ritual was not taking place, the masks were kept secret from the uninitiated. Warime rituals are no longer performed due to social change and the effects of Christianisation; thus, the masks have been made exclusively for sale since the 1980s. Exclusion and restrictions can also apply to people who do not belong to the society of origin, such as museum staff. This has profound implications for the work undertaken by museums, as culturally-specific norms influence the conditions under which objects with restricted access can or may be displayed, researched or otherwise preserved.

As the custodian of such objects, the museum tries to reflect and consider culturally-specific understandings. This is also the case with tobacco pipes, which can be sacred objects. Smoking them is a sacred act. For the Dakota Sioux, the very act of assembling the individual pipe components initiates the ritual. For this reason, the pipe requires a special method of storage and display in the museum: it may be seen, but not assembled.

Showing a part of an exhibition space with showcases, on the wall the topic of module is announced as "What power does the object have?"
The second room of the special exhibition is devoted to the question "What culturally-specific significance renders an object sensitive?" (Photo: Axel Killian)

Sensitive images and human remains. What responsibility do museums have when dealing with human remains or effigies?

In the past, human remains and effigies were included in ethnological collections. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries in particular, large collections of historical photographs were compiled, which often bear witness to the colonial contexts in which they were taken. Effigies were also produced, collected and exhibited in three-dimensional form, known as figurines. Besides mere effigies, museums also had a special interest in human remains. Although the Ethnological Collection in Freiburg does not include an anthropological collection, it also preserves human remains. They are the ancestors and family members of people from societies of origin. The ethical and humane handling of such objects is one of the most sensitive areas of the museum's work.


Seemingly realistic, life-size figurines gave visitors the impression of meeting people from distant lands face to face. This is why figurines and dioramas were a popular attraction in museums, especially at the beginning of the 20th century.  They were modelled imaginatively or as images of real people. The Freiburg-based sculptor Friedrich Meinecke (1878–1913) used photographs by the Swiss anthropologist Fritz Sarasin (1859-1942) to create the "Vedda Woman". Through their mass reproduction, humans became anonymous models, often without their consent. Fixed in time and space, figurines are stereotypes that shaped the museumgoer's idea of the "Other".

Many historical photographs document the contexts of injustice and violence in which they were taken. The portrait depicts the 65-year-old Truganini from Bruni Island, one of the most famous leaders in the resistance against the expulsion of the Tasmanians by white settlers. She was long considered the last surviving Tasmanian woman. For this reason, she was photographed in 1866 for the Colonial Exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. Her photograph became museum-based evidence of a vanished Aboriginal Tasmanian culture and was regarded as document recording genocide perpetrated by Europeans.

An exhibition space where historical photographies are shown
View into room 3 of the special exhibition (Photo: Axel Killian)



Translation: Timothy Connell.