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Archives, Collections and History

What is the significance of ethnological archives and collections today?

How can their potential as memory institutions for indigenous societies, museums and the public be reassessed?

As one of the oldest cultural anthropological research institutions in the German-speaking world, the Institute has been addressing these questions long before the current restitution debate. Developed primarily in the context of research trips since 1904, the Institute's extensive archives and collections form an essential part of its identity. The rock art archive, which has been nominated for recognition as a UNESCO World Documentary Heritage, has a special position in this context, as it documents many prehistoric picture ensembles that have suffered considerable damage through natural environmental influences and in the last hundred years through mass tourism, industrialisation, graffiti or other forms of vandalism. Comparisons with copies from the early 20th century show the often tragic decay of the originals. Some of them can only be accessed today through the illustrations kept at the Institute, which in turn have become something like “original copies”.


Completed and ongoing third-party funded projects:

(Richard Kuba, Martin Porr, DFG, 2020 2024)

Expansion of the Middle India Archive
(Roland Hardenberg, Peter Steigerwald)


Projects in the application phase:

Zimbabwean digital rock art archive
(Richard Kuba, Volkswagen Foundation, new submission planned)

European scientific heritage from Africa and research ethics: facing the current crisis of perceptions
(Richard Kuba, Sophia Thubauville, EU project Horizon 22)

The ethnographic archive. Indexing, evaluation and restitution of unpublished ethnological sources in university, museum and research collections in the German-speaking world
(Holger Jebens)

Film as process and ethnographic becoming through repatriation of archival footage
(Roland Hardenberg, Igor Karim, Sophia Thubauville, DFG)

Digitisation of the excerpt by Prof. László Vajda
(Richard Kuba, DFG)


Further information on the focus…

The Institute has been working on its rich holdings for over twenty years in the spirit of a strategy that has now also been accepted throughout Germany and was formalised in 2020 as the “3 Ways Strategy for the Acquisition and Digital Publication of Collections from Colonial Contexts in Germany” (Access - Transparency - Cooperation). These three paths are not understood as a predefined “top-down strategy”, but as an open process, after the Institute began early on to systematically transcribe, translate and partially publish unpublished original sources in close cooperation with scholars from the countries concerned as well as with local or indigenous societies. In addition, the corresponding image collections have been and will be presented locally within the framework of jointly curated exhibitions and made available digitally as well as in high-quality printouts - among others, in 2008 in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), 2012 in Abuja, Ife, Makurdi, Minna and Yola (Nigeria), 2015 in Addis Ababa and Jinka (Ethiopia), 2017 in Dakar (Senegal), 2019 and 2021 again in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and 2022 in Derby (Australia). In an ethnologically informed and thus culturally sensitive way, the Institute thus makes historical source material accessible to the people in the regions and countries where it was created in the course of the 20th century. In this context, the photographs and drawings from the otherwise very image-poor early period of the 20th century are just as important as the unpublished travel diaries, field notes and letters, which often serve as the earliest written sources on site.

The indexing of the holdings, which takes place in joint research work, benefits considerably from the fact that people from the countries of origin contribute their own ontologies and contexts of meaning on the basis of local knowledge. Prerequisites for this are long-standing and trusting relationships as well as openness and sensitivity towards the often problematic ethical contexts of the documents' creation as well as towards the specific local needs that the research should serve (history for whom?). The multi-perspective and self-reflective processing of the holdings leads to an understanding of how they should be indexed, published and used in the future, and ultimately to responsible digital restitution. In the process, the Institute's online databases are being further developed in accordance with the principles of FAIR (findable, accessible, inter-operable, re-usable) and CARE (collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, ethics), and regional thematic portals such as the Ethiopia Database, the Middle India Archive (MIA) or the Kimberley Archive (Frobenius Expedition Material for the Wanjina Wunggurr Determination Area) ( are being created.

In addition to their importance for those involved in the research work and for local or indigenous societies as a whole, the archives and collections also serve as source material for the Institute's members and external scholars when dealing with their own subject history. Worthy of mention here are, above all, more than two dozen researchers' personal papers and bequests, the Institute's administrative archives and the archives of the German Society for Ethnology, a total of around 200 metres of shelves, including approximately 50,000 documents of various types that are digitally recorded and searchable via an online database. In analysing these holdings, the aim is not least to objectify the often very emotional debate about the historical role of the subject of ethnology and to critically examine the institute's namesake. In addition, individual aspects of the history of research will be examined in large public exhibitions - for example, in 2016 in Berlin (Martin-Gropius-Bau), 2017 in Mexico City (Museo Nacional de Antropología), 2019 in Frankfurt am Main (Museum Giersch), 2021 in Zurich (Museum Rietberg) and 2023 in Darmstadt (Hessisches Landesmuseum) and Paris (Musée de l'homme).
Due to their expertise in dealing with archives and collections, two members of staff were appointed to the "Colonial Heritage in Hesse" commission set up by the Conference of Hessian University Presidents at the suggestion of the Hessian Ministry of Science and Art. In addition, there is close cooperation with the "Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts" at the Kulturstiftung der Länder (Cultural Foundation of the Federal States), and employees of the Institute were or are active in the Germany-wide "Network of Colonial Contexts", where they have been instrumental in developing recommendations for "collaborative digitisation projects".

Currently, the Institute is involved in an EU Horizon project proposal on African materials in European memory institutions. For the future, it is planned to continue the work in the research focus “Archives, Collections and Subject History” with projects on the extensive and as yet not indexed excerpts by Leo Frobenius, Hermann Baumann and László Vajda, among others. Another, somewhat broader project deals with the relationship between subject and institution, i.e. between the former Ethnological Museum and ethnology as a whole, from a historical and specifically ethnological perspective. The close cooperation between the Frobenius Institute and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt is also of great value here.