This project aims to investigate Lübeck’s historical trend of bourgeois collecting and trading of ethnographic artifacts outside the realm of scientific ethnography, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since its establishment in the early 1800s, the Völkerkundesammlung collected mainly gifts and donations of ethnographica from Lübeck’s own citizens – merchants, doctors, military or maritime officers. As ethnography was emerging as a scientific discipline in nineteenth-century Europe, ethnographic expeditions were central both to the collecting of data and objects from other cultures, and to the establishment of ethnographic museums as institutions of knowledge. The Völkerkundesammlung in Lübeck however, lacks the field research and documentation that often accompanied contemporary collections.
This may have factored into Lübeck’s collection being perceived as incomplete and of less scientific value than contemporary ethnographic museums, which in turn fuelled a call for artifacts from residents of the city in order to fill these thematic gaps within the collection – the so-called phenomenon of “bürgerliches Sammeln”. This energetic collection coincides chronologically with the race to conquer territories and diplomatic allegiances in the peak of German colonial history. This resulted in the collection being largely without proper documentation – it is unknown how most of these objects made it into the collection – whether they were purchased in person, collected by dubious means, purchased off the art market, or simply purchased at Human Zoos, with little to no information about purpose or origin. Collectors and donators were not required to provide relevant documentation and indeed apart from very few journals of collectors, there is not much information available about the objects.
This project seeks to analyse the framework within which the museum received and documented its objects, and to deconstruct the bridge between the museum’s own socio-political identity as an institution of science on the one hand, and the stark contrast of its representation of material heritage of unknown origin on the other. The project uses the donation of one collector, Senator Eduard Rabe (1844–1920), as a case study to examine this exchange and mobilisation of ethnographic objects in the 19th century.
Eduard Rabe, previously a merchant and owner of a colonial goods shop, was elected as Senator of Lübeck in 1906. His status as a public figure meant that he was frequently mentioned in newspapers and other documentation – making it possible to trace his activities both with regard to museum donations as well as in the import of consumables and artifacts from colonised countries. He had connections to contemporary trade, shipping, and imports, as he also worked in the Chamber of Commerce and the German Nautical Society. Despite the disbanding of the Hanseatic League, Lübeck’s ministers continued to negotiate international agreements with their trading partners well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it is likely that Rabe had established a network of exchange for his shop of colonial wares.
The project takes an interdisciplinary approach to the case study, by exploring two main pathways of information: Firstly, material analysis and artifact research of the surviving objects in the Völkerkundesammlung, with an aim to create object-biographies for the objects, with a focus on culturally sensitive materials, such as human remains or artifacts with spiritual or religious connotations that may have been misrepresented. Second, a historical reconstruction and archival research to investigate the procurement of the objects via the personal and professional trade and exchange networks of Eduard Rabe are crucial to understanding the sources of this artifact collection.
The key aims of this research project are to investigate the conditions of mobilisation – procurement, trade, exchange, collection, donation – of ethnographica in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Lübeck, and the role of the city in contemporary colonial collecting networks, as well as the socio-cultural framework that was created through this practice of collecting ethnographica.
Dipika Nadkarni completed her Masters in Conservation and Restoration of Archaeological and Museum Objects at Durham University in England (2016 – 2018), with a focus on ethnographic objects and material analysis. She also completed a Masters programme in Numismatics and Archaeology at the University of Mumbai in India (2012 – 2015) with two exchange semesters at the Freie Universität Berlin, and has since worked as a conservator at various museums in Germany and the UK.
Her research project is combined with a scientific traineeship since January 2021 at the Völkerkundesammlung, as part of the “Lübecker Modell”. Her PhD project is supervised by Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn (Goethe Universität Frankfurt).
- Nadkarni, Dipika: “A Plaster Cast of a Mesopotamian Lioness in the Durham Oriental Museum” in Caple, Chris, and Garlick, Vicky (eds.) Studies in Archaeological Conservation. 1st Edition. Routledge Publishing 2021.
Image ©Völkerkundesammlung der Hansestadt Lübeck