Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany / Edition 1

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In the late nineteenth century, Germans spearheaded a worldwide effort to preserve the material traces of humanity, designing major ethnographic museums and building extensive networks of communication and exchange across the globe. In this groundbreaking study, Glenn Penny explores the appeal of ethnology in Imperial Germany and analyzes the motivations of the scientists who created the ethnographic museums.

Penny shows that German ethnologists were not driven by imperialist desires or an interest in legitimating putative biological or racial hierarchies. Overwhelmingly antiracist, they aspired to generate theories about the essential nature of human beings through their museums' collections. They gained support in their efforts from boosters who were enticed by participating in this international science and who used it to promote the cosmopolitan character of their cities and themselves. But these cosmopolitan ideals were eventually overshadowed by the scientists' more modern, professional, and materialist concerns, which dramatically altered the science and its goals.

By clarifying German ethnologists' aspirations and focusing on the market and conflicting interest groups, Penny makes important contributions to German history, the history of science, and museum studies.

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Editorial Reviews

George W. Stocking
By examining the history of ethnographic museums in Germany with attention to the specificity of local institutional processes, at the same time placing them in an international market framework and the role of conflicting interest groups and audiences, Penny offers an historically grounded contrast to what are by now the somewhat predictable tendencies of post-colonial critical literature.
From the Publisher
By examining the history of ethnographic museums in Germany with attention to the specificity of local institutional processes, at the same time placing them in an international market framework and the role of conflicting interest groups and audiences, Penny offers an historically grounded contrast to what are by now the somewhat predictable tendencies of post-colonial critical literature. (George W. Stocking, University of Chicago)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807854303
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

H. Glenn Penny, assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is coeditor of Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire. His dissertation, on which this book is based, won the Fritz Stern Prize of the German Historical Institute.

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Objects of Culture

Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany
By H. Glenn Penny

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 H. Glenn Penny
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0807854301


By 1900, Germany's leading ethnographic museums had descended into chaos. A wild array of artifacts from all over the world pushed these museums well beyond their material limits: totems from Canada's west coast, porcelains from Peking, wooden bowls from Australia, Polynesian canoes, Eskimo clothing, Mayan alters, Benin bronzes, statues of Buddhist and Hindu gods, weapons from the Amazon (and essentially everywhere else), even collections of ancient pottery and Roman coins found throughout Germany were all there to see. These ever-expanding collections were crammed into exhibition halls, overflowing from display cases, and set out in "temporary installations" that remained for years in crowded entryways, walkways, and stairwells. Boxes brimming with artifacts that had been packed away for decades were stacked to the ceilings of basement rooms, storage sheds, and offices. By the turn of the century, the overwhelming disorder of things forced German ethnologists to cancel public tours, repeatedly delay publishing guidebooks, and engage in heated debates about the very nature and purpose of such collecting and display. These conditions forced ethnologists to recognize that they had reached the limits of their empiricism, and they encouraged a younger generation to abandon the project that had driven these institutions for over thirty years.

Despite the disheveled condition of German ethnographic museums, ethnologists and museum directors across Europe and the United States continued to deem them the world's leading ethnographic institutions. With some chagrin, O. M. Dalton, a curator at the British Museum, jealously complained in 1898 that in contrast to the British, "Germans of all classes find ethnography of great interest," and he estimated that the collections in the Berlin museum alone were "six or seven times as extensive" as those in London. Similarly, Northcote W. Thomas, the editor of a series on the native races of the British Empire, went so far as to maintain that in the last "twenty-five years the Berlin Museum has accumulated ethnographical collections more than ten times as large as those of the British Museum." In Germany, he wrote ominously, "the work of collection goes on incessantly." Yet England, "with the greatest colonial empire which the world has ever seen, lags far behind." German colonies, he reminds us, were relatively modest, and German ethnologists' origins were even rather provincial. But their ethnographic museums set the standard for decades.

The ethnographic project that initially shaped these museums grew out of a strong liberal-humanist tradition in the German cultural sciences and a more general desire among many Germans to connect with the non-European world. Aspiring ethnologists such as Adolf Bastian, who directed Berlin's ethnographic museum from 1873 to 1905 and who became the leading ethnologist of the day, drew on the cosmopolitan character of the Humboldtian tradition to fashion their world views. Like Alexander von Humboldt, they sought global explanations in their studies of the natural and human sciences, and they shared a desire for comprehensive descriptions of the universe. They believed strongly in a unitary humanity, and they argued that only a comparative analysis of "mankind's many variations" would allow them to locate the most fundamental elements of "the human being" and use this knowledge to help them explore their own essential nature. Moreover, they also argued that this analysis could only be pursued in museums, where the empirical traces of human history could be brought together, and where theories about humanity could be generated and tested. They gained support for their project from upper- and middle-class Germans who eagerly consumed the travel literature generated by scientific "explorers" like Humboldt, and who were willing to extend their enthusiasm into the creation of these museums. These "worldly provincials" were enticed by the idea of participating in this international science, and they sought to use it to enhance and advertise the cosmopolitan character of their cities and themselves. In Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, and Munich, the cities at the center of this ethnographic project, scientists and their supporters created Germany's largest and most well-known ethnographic museums. These museums were closely connected to Germans' search for a sense of "Self," and this accounts for much of their success and the character of their displays.

Germans developed a future-oriented ethnology centered around large collecting museums, and they regarded their displays as working arrangements for exploring human nature, rather than static explanations about humanity and the world. These museums were created in conscious opposition to the wonder cabinets of an earlier age, and they represented a determined attempt to move beyond curiosity and toward an empirically based science of human culture and history. They were also more ambitious than the museums we are familiar with today. Ethnologists presented their new museums as archives of interrelated visual texts, which, when complete, would function like thesauri of mankind. As Bastian envisioned it in the early 1870s, the ideal ethnographic museum would contain material culture from across the globe and throughout time. But it would not be constructed to articulate explicit narratives. Bastian favored open collections, in which objects were arranged in cabinets made of glass and steel, flooded by natural light from large windows and glass ceilings, and positioned in such a way that a well-informed visitor could move easily through the geographically organized displays, gain an overview of the objects from entire regions, and make mental connections between the material cultures of people living in different times and places. Such arrangements were fundamentally different than what one might find in art museums or even in the colonial museums and exhibitions that became so popular later in the century. No particular object, grouping, or arrangement was suppose to stand out, or be emphasized. There were no developmental series of artifacts or evolutionary arrangements such as one would find in many British and American museums. Moreover, the museum's goal was not to instruct its visitors with didactic exhibits or project particular principles through its displays. These displays were meant to function as tools of induction and comparative analysis that scientists could use to locate and explore the elementary characteristics of a unitary humanity and the fundamental nature of "the human being."

Regardless of the distinctive nature of this ethnographic vision and the praise heaped upon German ethnologists and their museums at the turn of the century, the history of nineteenth-century anthropology has been dominated for decades by the Anglo-American context. Indeed, German ethnologists and their museums have received relatively little attention in this historiography. There are a number of different explanations for this absence, but primary among them is the trauma of National Socialism and German anthropologists' complicity in Nazi racial policies, which has made the history of late-nineteenth-century German ethnology difficult for historians to reconstruct. The majority of scholars who have examined this period have generally focused on either locating antecedents to the racial and biological theories promoted by German anthropologists during the Weimar and Nazi periods, or they have sought to expose ethnologists' connections to imperialist desires and colonialist policies. But they have not explored the appeal of ethnology in Germany, nor have they tried to explain why Germans, more than a decade before they began seizing colonial territories, created the world's largest ethnographic museum. Scholars have been unable to explain why German scientists like Bastian, who isolated themselves from the race debate, were energetically spearheading a worldwide effort to "save" the material traces of humanity. Indeed, despite Franz Boas's leading role in shaping American anthropology, and the fact that he gained his early training in Germany's large collecting museums, no one has sought to understand what these museums were like, how they developed, why they grew so rapidly, or what their impact on the history of anthropology might have been. One can occasionally find references to nineteenth-century German ethnologists and their museums in the more general literature on the history of anthropology. We know from George W. Stocking's work, for example, that Edward B. Tylor in Britain was influenced by Bastian, and Curtis M. Hinsley has made it clear in his work on the Smithsonian Institution that Otis T. Mason's conceptions of museum display were shaped in fundamental ways by his visits to Leipzig's ethnographic museum. But for the most part, historians have paid surprisingly little attention to German ethnologists and their museums during the period in which they were arguably their most influential.

Moreover, it is my contention that German ethnographic museums, like all such institutions, have to be seen as the sum of the forces that went into their making rather than the simple articulation of Bastian and his counterparts' ideals. German ethnographic museums were arranged according to Bastian's essential principles, but there was a rich historicist tradition and a wealth of human interests tied up in these institutions that visitors could only glimpse in their displays. The Grassi-Museum in Leipzig, for example, was a monumental building that opened to the public with fanfare in 1896. It was filled with the thousands and thousands of artifacts acquired by its founding association over the preceding three decades. Its large majestic windows and central glass ceiling flooded the interior with natural light, and its artifacts were geographically arranged. As visitors entered the museum, they could move directly into displays from Indonesia and the South Seas on the first floor, or go up the central staircase to Asia on the second floor, Africa and the Americas on the third, or a small prehistory collection on the fourth. On any of these floors the visitor would encounter hallways and rooms furnished with Bastian's glass and steel cabinets, arranged in long rows and filled with an array of artifacts. Here were the working arrangements that invited visitors to make connections for themselves. On the second floor, for example, a visitor's movement through the rectangular hall mimicked a long circular journey through southern India and Ceylon, Persia, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and into Japan. In a single cabinet devoted to Persia, one could find colorful pieces of clothing, jewelry, embroidery, decorations for lanterns, amulets, drawings, lacquer ware, bows, arrows, powder horns and cartridge cases, as well as horns, whistles, and other musical instruments. From this case one could easily look across to those from China and Korea and see the similarly constructed reflex bows and the variations in religious icons and begin to contemplate the interrelated nature of these cultures as well as identify their particularities. Such similarities and differences were only rarely pointed out by guidebooks or labels; but the connections were there for the observer to see. Indeed, these were precisely the connections the museums' ethnologists were in the process of making, and they expected their visitors to take part in making them as well.

But each of these objects was not only part of an indigenous peoples' material culture. They were also artifacts of the worldwide cultures of collecting taking shape in the late nineteenth century and the localized cultures that shaped these museums. As such, every object also had its own story to tell about the international character of the ethnographic project being pursued in these museums and the variety of people who contributed to it. For example, on the first floor of the Grassi-Museum, in the section devoted to Australia, one of the cabinets contained a stone hatchet made of an elongated piece of greenstone and a thin piece of wood that was wrapped around the thicker end of the stone and bound together with human hair. This piece had been acquired by Amalie Dietrich, the daughter of a working-class family in Siebenlehn Saxony, while she was working as a collector for the Hamburg trading firm Godeffroy and Son from 1863 to 1872. After she acquired it in Queensland, Australia, it traveled along with other artifacts on one of Godeffroy's steamers to Hamburg, where it was received by the naturalist J. D. E. Schmeltz, the curator of Godeffroy's private museum, who later became director of the national ethnographic museum in Leiden. Doubles of any artifacts were quickly sold to other collectors and institutions. But this particular piece was placed in Godeffroy's collections and was one of the artifacts surveyed during the next decade by Bastian and other visiting ethnologists, described in Dutch, Danish, German, English, and Austrian scientific journals as one of the best collections of its kind, and fought over by the directors and supporters of German ethnographic museums when Godeffroy placed his collections up for sale in 1879. In 1885 it traveled along with other objects in the collection to its new home in Leipzig, where it was greeted with fanfare but left in shipping boxes for over a decade before being presented to the broader public in the newly opened Grassi-Museum.

But the greenstone's historical trajectory did not end as it was finally put on display. Its importance, its usefulness, indeed its very meaning continued to change. Its future was dependent on the shifting urban and institutional contexts in which it was located as well as larger national and international trends. The display, in this sense, did not constitute its subject; that process of definition depended on many individuals' transitory points of view. Dealers and collectors of such artifacts, for example, immediately focused on the economic value attached to an artifact's unique character. Ethnologists thought first of its value for their science. Both saw these values change as new objects were acquired, similar objects disappeared, and scientific standards for collecting changed. For Bastian's generation, the greenstone hatchet was one more clue in their great ethnographic puzzle. But for a younger generation of ethnologists, it became a theoretical and pedagogical tool, a proxy in an emerging war of influence and ideas. Patrons and municipal sponsors, however, remained focused on its utility for their own projects, while visitors' reactions to it, regardless of how it was displayed, ranged from informed contemplation to curious fascination.



Excerpted from Objects of Culture by H. Glenn Penny Copyright © 2002 by H. Glenn Penny.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Modernist Visions and Municipal Displays: The Founding and Development of German Ethnographic Museums 17
2 The International Market in Material Culture 51
3 The Cultures of Collecting and the Politics of Science 95
4 The Audience as Author: Museums in Public 131
5 Museum Chaos: Spectacle and Order in German Ethnographic Museums 163
Conclusions 215
Notes 221
Bibliography 253
Index 277
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