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Colonial discourse in the history of Marburg university collections

El discurso colonial en la historia de las colecciones de la Universidad de Marburgo
Rainer Brömer, Edith Franke, Ernst Halbmayer, Tanja Pommerening, Susanne Rodemeier, Dagmar Schweitzer de Palacios et Katrin Weber
p. 37-52


Four collections that originated in the context of formal or informal colonialism served as hosts for the workshop on “Decolonizing academic disciplines and collections” at the University of Marburg: the pharmacognostic, anatomical, and ethnographic collection and the Museum of Religions. Historically, the related academic disciplines had grown based on the study of items often appropriated against the will of source communities. Decolonizing has to go beyond the material aspect of negotiating the future treatment of collections, by examining the role of colonial injustice and transcending Eurocentric taxonomies of academic knowledge as well as pursuing ways of advocacy for the communities of origin. This opening article sets the scene of academic collections within which the rest of the discussions are conducted.

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1After the German Reich had officially begun setting up formal colonies in Africa and the Indo-Pacific region starting in 1884, the appropriation and distribution of objects of scientific interest from the Reich’s own and other colonies was controlled in a centralized manner through the “Königliche Museum für Völkerkunde” in Berlin (SMB, n.d.). Accordingly, peripheral universities like the one in Marburg were not in the strongest position when it came to receiving objects for their research and teaching collections. Nevertheless, their holdings are highly significant for an understanding of the history of academic collecting in a colonial context, particularly in places that did not experience major losses during World War II. Thus, today the University of Marburg is in charge of some 40 collections from many areas/fields of academic research, and the historical sections have remained largely intact (Otterbeck & Schachtner, 2014). The provenance of the items curated at Marburg varies widely, yet it has long been clear that a significant part of the holdings came to the university in the context of colonial activities pursued by Germany or other colonial states, both before and after the period of formal German colonialism. Accordingly, the circumstances that allowed for the appropriation of these items have to be investigated.

2At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that those objects were of significant importance in the establishment and formation of various disciplines, ranging from natural sciences, like physical anthropology, biology, pharmacy, and anatomy, to human sciences and humanities, including ethnology, cultural and social anthropology, study of religions, and art history. It is not possible to separate the colonial past of academic collections from the colonial impact on the disciplines taking shape and evolving through the study of these collections and in return affecting the activities of individuals in the field trying to fulfill the requests of the scientific community in the colonial centers.

3The article shows how very complex discussions of “decolonization” can be for academic collections. What does it mean to ethically collect, curate, or display items in a world of power imbalances? Marburg collections demonstrate the many challenges – and opportunities – for engaged academics to consider and reconsider their historical collections. Four collections in particular serve as examples: the Pharmacognostic Collection, the Medico-Historical Anatomical Collection, the Ethnographic Collection and the Collection of the Museum of Religions.

Figure 1: Samples of China bark, Pharmacognostic Collection (Wigand’s Drug Collection).

Figure 1: Samples of China bark, Pharmacognostic Collection (Wigand’s Drug Collection).

Photo © Susanne Saker, Marburg University Library

The Pharmacognostic Collection: Wigand’s drug collection

4Attempts to control trade routes for spices and pharmaceutical drugs were among the early drivers of expansion already in ancient Egyptian times. With the growing range of seafaring in the 15th century, new knowledge reached Europe from recently contacted or newly accessible continents. The impact of these encounters can be impressively demonstrated from the 16th century until today. Spices and medicinal plants in the form of seeds, pressed herbarium material, plants to be grown in botanical gardens or applied as medicinal drugs arrived in Europe together with translated reports of Indigenous knowledge revealed in books produced in large print runs (Sánchez-Menchero, 2016). Until the 19th century, the materia medica used for healing consisted of parts of plants, animals, and minerals. Their use and preparation into medicinal products was described in pharmacopeias. Knowing the appearance of an individual medicinal plant drug and the ability to distinguish it from counterfeits circulating on the market was necessary for any person working in the medical sector. Accordingly, with the emergence of professional training for pharmacists at universities in the 19th century, we find the first teaching collections of such drugs to appear in places of pharmaceutical training, whereas they had existed already in so-called cabinets of naturalia built by apothecaries since the 17th century.

  • 1 Pharmacognosy is the science of medicinal drugs, their provenance, appearance, and content of activ (...)

5In Marburg, the pharmacognostic collection1 was founded in 1854 by Albert Wigand (1821-1886), professor of botany and pharmacognosy (Rumpf-Lehmann, 2014). His purpose was to create a collection for teaching and presentation to students of pharmacy at the University of Marburg. He built his collection based on a small materia medica collection inherited from his father Friedrich Wigand (1788-1850), apothecary in Treysa near Marburg. Albert Wigand expanded the collection until eventually it contained up to 4000 crude drugs, including a rich selection of China barks and related counterfeit substances of varied provenance (for a somewhat earlier history of China barks and their globalization, cf. Gänger, 2021).

6At present, the collection still holds approximately 2600 herbal and animal drugs not only from Europe but also from Western Africa, Brazil, and North America. In addition to crude drugs in the form of plants, animals and minerals, the collection contains commodities typical for 19th-century pharmacies, such as tea and coffee, as well as other substances still in use in today’s food and drug industry. The collection took shape in the context of global trade relations in the 19th century when Europe evidently benefited from colonial structures, which in turn encouraged the professionalization of disciplines like pharmacy – topics that have been widely studied in recent years (Anderson, 2010; Anderson, 2021). Wigand published a book on pharmacognosy that went through several editions (the first one being Wigand, 1863), demonstrating that the drugs being used and studied in his time were sourced from all over the world.

7At the time of the decolonizing academic collections workshop in June 2023, parts of Wigand’s drug collection were exhibited at Marburg University Library under the title “News about old pharmaceuticals,” providing the opportunity to ask the participants from the Global South specific questions during a guided tour. The visitors were delighted to discover samples of their 19th-century Indonesian or Brazilian flora in Marburg. The local hosts asked for their assessment: How would they deal with the individual drugs? Should historical plant parts from all over the world be returned to their home countries? The responses emphasized the desire to learn together from the objects and exchange experiences on how to study and use them, especially as the drugs on display were known as part of the current global stock of remedies. In these conversations, the historical dimension of the collection faded into the background, especially considering the fact that these objects were derived from organisms that can still be found in the regions of origin where they had been collected under colonial conditions. Although the exhibition had been designed with a focus on the continued pharmaceutical relevance of traditional materia medica, the visit brought out once more the importance of addressing the historical context of colonial drug trade in far greater depth than what was possible during one brief tour. It is intended to examine the history of the Wigand collection from the perspective of decolonization in the context of a planned PhD project.

Figure 2: Catalog of the “Racial Skull Collection” reexamined by Eduard Jacobshagen 1938.

Figure 2: Catalog of the “Racial Skull Collection” reexamined by Eduard Jacobshagen 1938.

© Institute for the History of Pharmacy and Medicine, Philipps University Marburg, Photo: Katrin Weber

Medico-Historical Anatomical Collection

8In the 18th century, collecting parts of human bodies became an important element of medical education. Given the central role of anatomy in the exercise of medicine, the scarcity of corpses available for teaching and research was in part compensated for by preserving dissected body parts by various methods, under liquids like “spirit of wine,” in dried form, and as bones, using increasingly sophisticated techniques. The entire spectrum of preparation techniques can be seen in the Marburg collection started in 1812 by anatomist Christian Heinrich Bünger (1782-1842), though he integrated numerous specimens created or purchased in the 18th century for the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel (Ulrich 2017). Given the particular status of the human body, tight regulations applied from the beginning, even though they were often bypassed. In most cases, the bodies of persons with no known next of kin who would pay for a regular burial were statutorily transferred to anatomical facilities. From this perspective, it becomes obvious that the sourcing of anatomical specimens was inherently characterized by social imbalances: members of marginalized groups were infinitely more likely to be dissected and potentially preserved in anatomical collections compared to socially well-integrated individuals. The structural gradient of power has been labeled “internal colonialism,” which not only describes the relationship between regions within a state, but may also refer, as in the case presented here, to the hierarchies of power between groups within a community, such as the educated elites of the government ministries and universities managing the processing of the dead bodies of persons who did not have the means to determine their own posthumous fate.

9The ambivalence of anatomy regarding enlightened claims to equality among human beings becomes even more apparent when looking at the entanglement of the discipline with the emerging “racial” anthropology in the late 18th century. Over the course of the 19th century, Marburg anatomists purchased a number of human skulls from all over the world, mostly through colonial trade, and during the Nazi period, the extant specimens were reevaluated by anatomist Eduard Jacobshagen (1886-1968), who eclectically used and modified dominant concepts of human “races” promoted by leading anthropologists closer to the regime (Grundmann, 1995, pp. 363, 365).

10In the second half of the 20th century, the collection lost much of its relevance for teaching and research and was mostly neglected until the middle of the 1980s, when anatomist Gerhard Aumüller found some space to curate a permanent exhibition, known as the Museum Anatomicum, opened in 1988 with support from biologist Kornelia Grundmann. The exhibition became a popular albeit at times controversial fixture in public life in Marburg (Grundmann and Aumüller, 2012; Aumüller, 2014).

11After the closure of the museum to public visitors in 2019 due to safety and ethical concerns, the university’s Institute for the History of Pharmacy and Medicine devised a series of initiatives to assess ethical and didactic issues arising from the curation, potential scientific research, and public display of human remains, including questions regarding potential repatriation of skeletal remains from colonial and imperial contexts. The so-called "racial skull collection" is the current PhD project of Katrin Weber. Her research includes "collecting activities" of local professors of anatomy from the 18th to the 20th century, their organization and restructuring of the collection, and the use of the skulls in research and teaching. It also examines possible political and socio-cultural influences on the scientists’ studies concerning the collection. Other aspects of the dissertation will include a historical reappraisal of the contexts of injustice through which the skulls came into the collection. Where possible, the regional and cultural origins of the individuals will be analysed on the basis of historical source research. According to the current state of knowledge, the remains of the deceased were appropiated from various countries occupied by former European colonizers, such as various countries on the African continent, Oceania, the Americas, and Asia. For those human remains acquired through colonial contexts, the project will help decide future steps for the treatment of the remains in conversation with communities in the regions of their presumed origin.

Ethnographic collection

Figure 3: Makonde masks, Collection Ronsiek, Tanzania (East-Africa), acquired by the Ethnographic Collection Marburg in 1967.

Figure 3: Makonde masks, Collection Ronsiek, Tanzania (East-Africa), acquired by the Ethnographic Collection Marburg in 1967.

The masks were originally part of a larger collection donated by Friedrich Ernst Ronsiek, a plantation administrator to the Wiesbaden Collection of Nassau Antiquities in 1918.

© Ethnographic Collection Marburg, Photo: Hannah Jacobs

12Ethnographic university collections were mainly used for teaching social and cultural anthropology and to document academic research activities at the respective universities. In contrast to anthropological museums – at least in Germany – ethnographic university collections have only very limited possibilities in terms of funding, staff, and infrastructure to systematically engage in collection-related research or to curate exhibitions for a larger audience. The same holds true for acquiring objects. Their nevertheless highly relevant activities are often based on personal engagement of academic anthropologists and anthropology students, departmental activities, and the strategic use of contextual opportunities, while they may be limited by institutional restrictions.

Re-writing history: The collection’s entanglements with formal colonialism

13Academic anthropology in Marburg goes back to Theodor Waitz (1821-1864) and Karl von den Steinen (1855-1929). While Karl von den Steinen left Marburg University in the 1890s arguing that there is no point in teaching anthropology without a museum (Voell 2001), it took until 1925 to decide to establish an ethnographic collection within the area of geography, as ethnography or social anthropology was not yet institutionalized as a discipline of its own. In 1929, the first objects arrived as loans from the ethnographic museum in Berlin.

14Thus, the collection was established after World War I, at a time when Germany no longer had any colonies. Its main focus was instructional. Most objects entered the collection as donations, via the incorporation of parts of other collections, or were collected during research activities and travels of department members and students. Therefore, the Marburg collection never was a colonial institution established in the context of the German empire, yet colonial relations were nevertheless inscribed into it from the very beginning, as a critical re-examination shows, with regard to both objects and acting persons.

15The founder of the collection was Leonhard Schultze-Jena, professor of geography in Marburg from 1913-1937. Today, his legacy is assessed quite ambivalently. His ethnographic and language-based research in Mesoamerica (1929-31), with a focus on ritual and the 360-day calendar system, later served to decipher sequences from pre-colonial codices. His translations of Quiché and Aztec texts (see Schultze-Jena, 1933-38) are still held in high esteem by renowned contemporary Mesoamerican scholars (Broda, 2008; Dehouve, 2012).

16However, before his time in Marburg he had been actively engaged in colonial activities and research. From 1903-1905, he conducted physical anthropological research among the Nama in German South West Africa (today Namibia) (Schultze-Jena 1907, 1928). His activities were supported by the German Schutztruppen and General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the genocide of the Herero and Nama, and he participated as a war correspondent in the fights against insurgent Nama. Schultze-Jena conducted research and examined bodies of dead Nama persons, most likely in hospitals related to German concentration and internment camps, and was involved in shipping human remains of Herero and Nama individuals to Germany (Förster & Stoecker, 2016). Between 1910 and 1911, he led a German-Dutch New Guinea Border Expedition to determine the position of the border meridian between German New Guinea (Kaiser-Wilhelmsland) and Dutch New Guinea. During his time in Marburg, he became the founding director of the Institut für Deutschtum im Ausland (Institute for Germandom Abroad), later called Institut für Grenz- u. Auslandsdeutschtum (Institute for Germandom in Borderlands and Abroad), which arose from an initiative of colonial scholars at the University of Marburg with initial support of the late German Empire.

17The first objects received from Berlin and other collections, such as the one in Göttingen, were at least partly colonial objects. Until the 1960s, items from French, British, and Dutch colonies acquired through trading houses or in the context of research activities also entered the collection. However, the most substantial number of colonial objects came to Marburg in the 1960s on the initiative of Horst Nachtigall, Professor for Social and Cultural Anthropology from 1963 to 1989, when the non-European section of the collection of Nassau antiquities moved from Wiesbaden to Marburg. More than a thousand objects were transferred, acquired mainly by German and Dutch soldiers and colonial officials (on account of the connection between the Duchy of Nassau and the Dutch Oranje) as well as by private entrepreneurs. These objects, whose original appropriation dates reach back to 1828, originate from regions today located in countries including Cameroon, Tanzania, South Africa, and parts of West and North Africa, as well as from China, Japan, Indonesia, Oceania, Australia, and a few even from South America, including Chile, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Provenance research in the ethnographic collection as a contribution to decolonization

  • 2 The documentation of the results has been published on the university’s collections website and the (...)

18The objects from Africa – in particular Tanzania and Cameroon – appropriated under German colonial rule were part of the first provenance research project in Hesse, “Provenances of ethnographic objects from colonial contexts in Central Hesse” (2020-22), funded by the German Lost Art Foundation. This project brought together the Marburg holdings from the Nassau antiquities collection – with highly dispersed documents about their possible provenance – and the ethnographic collection of Gießen City Museum (Oberhessisches Museum). In addition, contacts were established with representatives of the countries of origin, Cameroon and Tanzania. The ensuing collaboration not only served the regional identification of objects, but also enabled the development of different perspectives on the colonial past.2

The ethnographic collection as a document of the history of decolonial efforts and engaged anthropology

19While many objects of the collection become relevant in view of colonialism, there are also objects that document the history of decolonial efforts: The early South American anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) is the focus of a series of national and international projects. He traveled to Brazil and neighboring regions of Colombia and Venezuela on four occasions: 1899-1900, 1903-1905, and 1911-1913. At the beginning of his fourth and final journey in 1924, he unexpectedly passed away in Brazil. Koch-Grünberg’s scientific legacy, including his writings, correspondence, sound recordings, and photographs have been part of the university’s ethnographic collection since 1999 and continue to attract academic attention. The travel diaries and his documentation of Indigenous languages are the core of the Nachlass, providing valuable information about Koch-Grünberg as a researcher. In 2014, a conference and a workshop on the Koch-Grünberg Collection were organized at the Ethnological Museum Berlin with the participation of Indigenous representatives from the Rio Negro Area (Kraus, Halbmayer, Kummels, 2018). The diaries from Koch-Grünberg’s first journey have been available in print since 2004; the diaries of his third journey, titled From the Roroima to the Orinoco, have recently been published to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth (Kraus, Halbmayer, 2023). In addition, an exhibition titled “Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the Production of Science” has been installed in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology as part of three special exhibitions called “Focus on Theo” set up in Marburg, at the Museum im Spital in Grünberg, and at the Oberhessisches Museum in Gießen, respectively (Schweitzer de Palacios & Halbmayer, 2023). The exhibition in Marburg focuses on Koch-Grünberg’s research goals and the collection of data and forms of documentation, reflecting the colonial conditions in which the researcher worked as well (see also Halbmayer & Halbmayer-Watzina 2023). The presentation highlights the emerging field of ethnology and the developing method of participant observation.

20The collection of Aché objects from Eastern Paraguay dates back to field research by Mark Münzel in the early 1970s. During his stay in Paraguay, Münzel found the Aché, a nomadic group of hunters and gatherers being confronted with genocidal forms of internal colonialism and oppression. In the early 1970s, the persecution and decimation of the Aché reached a sad climax under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Their habitat, the forest, was to be used for livestock farming, resulting in the subjugation of the remaining Aché population through violent and cruel means as well as by missionary practices. During this period, anthropologists began analyzing ethnocide and became engaged in supporting Indigenous rights and self-determination, an emancipatory and decolonial stance which has ever since been central for Marburg’s social and cultural anthropology. In Münzel, the Aché had a tireless advocate (Münzel 1973; 2008). The publication by Münzel and his collaborators on the ongoing genocide was to make a significant contribution to bringing the bloody persecution of Indigenous groups onto the world politicalstage and to the attention of the judicial authorities, serving as the basis for an international indictment of the Stroessner regime (Schweitzer de Palacios, 2018, p. 436; Parellada & Beldi de Alcántara, 2008).

Current projects and student involvement

21A project on “The relations between German-speaking and Brazilian social anthropology in the 20th century: Theory flows and ethnographic collections” has just been started jointly with the Universidade Federal do Pernambuco, funded by the CAPES and the DAAD, in order to publish the correspondence between Koch-Grünberg and Curt Unckel Nimuendajú, a founding figure of Brazilian anthropology and restless advocate for the Indigenous groups. The question of ontological and epistemological decolonization is also at the heart of the EU Horizon Project “EDGES. Entangling Indigenous Knowledges in Universities,” which involves a network of 18 European and (mainly Latin) American Universities (EDGES, n.d.).

22Students participate in all activities related to decolonization. Courses focus on colonial appropriation and debates on how to handle objects in collections. One example is the Koch-Grünberg exhibition, which was organized with the participation of students. Another example is the teaching research project “May this be on the exhibition display?” (“Darf das in die Vitrine?”), where students analyzed sensitive objects to shed light on ethical issues in exhibition practice.

Museum of Religions (Religionskundliche Sammlung/collection of religious objects)

23The founding of the Museum of Religions (1927) was intended to facilitate knowledge of religious diversity (Franke & Matter 2022, p. 26; Runge 2022, pp. 327-329). This concern pervades the history of the collection until today and can be understood as an interest in the diversity of religious ideas and practices that goes beyond a Christian-influenced understanding of religion. However, this openness in terms of content was not linked to its consistent reflection of Eurocentric and Christocentric perspectives in processes of acquiring, inventorying and presenting religious objects. Against the background of a sensitization for the influences of colonial power relations, we now see it as an outstanding task to contribute to the decolonization of museums, university collections and scientific disciplines.

  • 3 English edition: The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the D (...)

24The collection and exhibition of religious objects in a university and museum context was and is unique not only in Germany, but also internationally. Unlike disciplines such as ethnology, anthropology or the natural sciences, the comparative study of religions and history of religions has focused for a long time on texts as essential sources for research into the history and development of religions. The Philipps-Universität Marburg founded the Museum of Religions as a teaching and research collection in 1927 on the initiative of the Protestant theologian and historian of religion Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) (Franke & Runge, 2017, p. 2). In 1917, Otto published his now famous book Das Heilige.3 His intention was to show the variety of manifestations of the “holy/sacred” in different religions – and to achieve a better understanding of religious diversity through objects from different regions and religions. With his interest in religious objects and rituals as well as the dimension of experiencing religion, Otto established an important cornerstone for researching religions not only through written sources, but also by explicitly focusing on religions in their practiced forms. The objects he acquired on various journeys to Asia and the Near and Middle East formed the basis of the Museum of Religions’ collection (Otto, 1926). This was successively expanded over the years through acquisitions and the inclusion of collections and bequests from scholars and missionaries. As in the first exhibition entitled “Fremde Heiligtümer” (“Foreign Shrines / Sanctuaries”), the focus of acquisitions was on religious cultures that were perceived as “foreign,” particularly Islam and the religions of India and East Asia (Fremde Heiligtümer: Ausstellungstext, 1929, p. 2). The fact that a second section of the first exhibition was run by Christian missionary societies and displayed objects and object ensembles from African countries, Southeast Asia, and Oceania is an indication that, compared to religions with extensive written traditions, these were regarded as the “Religion und Kultur der sog. Primitiven” (“Religion and culture of the so-called primitives”) (Runge, 2022, pp. 336-364) and that their categorization in museums was characterized by taxonomies and stereotypes that did not do adequate justice to the autonomy and complexity of these religious traditions.

Figure 4: Reduction of religious complexity through Eurocentric perspectives: Ancestor Figure, Baule /Ivory Coast; RS: Ag 196/1897 under Rudolf Otto’s tropical helmet.

Figure 4: Reduction of religious complexity through Eurocentric perspectives: Ancestor Figure, Baule /Ivory Coast; RS: Ag 196/1897 under Rudolf Otto’s tropical helmet.

Photo: Heike Luu © Museum of Religions

  • 4 “In the cross of Christ, Christian feeling has carried out the most vivid application of the ‘categ (...)

25The founding of the Museum of Religions came at a time when the still young discipline of the Study of Religion, with its focus on different religions, was explicitly distancing itself from a Christocentric and Eurocentric understanding of religion and striving to emancipate from theological, denominational restrictions and a missionary attitude towards non-Christian religions. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) provided an essential foundation for this attitude and the emergence of comparative study of myths and the Study of Religion with his 50-volume work Sacred Books of the East (Oxford 1879 to 1910). The focus of research interest on historical texts as sources for gaining knowledge about religions is clearly recognizable here. Rudolf Otto, on the other hand, saw the study of religious experience and the material culture of religion as an essential key to understanding religions in their lived and practiced forms. Although the founder of the Museum of Religions thereby broadened the research perspective, he remained largely committed to a Christian-influenced understanding of religion and set the Christian religion as the highest standard: “im Kreuze Christi hat das christliche Gefühl die lebendigste Anwendung der ‘Kategorie des Heiligen’ vollzogen und damit die tiefste religiöse Intuition hervorgebracht die je auf dem Gebiete der Religionsgeschichte zu finden gewesen ist”4 (Otto, 2014, p. 200 [1. ed. 1917]).

26Whereas under Otto’s direction the focus was mainly on a comparative presentation of religious diversity, his successor, the Protestant theologian, scholar of religious studies and missiology Heinrich Frick (1893-1952), focused his acquisitions on objects from missionary areas outside Europe, and at the end of the 1930s also on Germanic and German religious history (Heinrich, 2002, pp. 123, 152-157). Friedrich Heiler, who directed the collection from 1953 to 1968, acquired objects on his travels to Japan and Southeast Asia, while Martin Kraatz, as long-time director (1968 to 1998), maintained close contact with Japan and encouraged research and exhibitions on East Asia. It is clear that the acquisition and presentation of objects is closely linked to the research interests of the scholars responsible for the collection and changes accordingly. Objects originating from colonial contexts primarily became part of the collection in the 1930s to 1950s (acquisitions, donations and bequests). Since the early 2000s, objects have been acquired in close cooperation with the contexts of origin, that is, with those who previously used the objects. The focus of the collection work is increasingly on researching the existing holdings with regard to their provenance, analyzing the power relations in the context of their acquisition and problematizing museum and scholarly taxonomies and interpretations. This work benefits from the recent prominence of contemporary research in the Study of Religion on the materiality of religions, which is often summarized in a comprehensive sense under the keyword “aesthetics of religion” (Houtmann & Meyer, 2012; Grieser et al., 2019, pp. 1-19; Koch et al., 2020), and from the far-reaching, critical examination of Eurocentric taxonomies in the study of religion (Masuzawa, 2005). A persistent difficulty, however, is that greater consideration of emic perspectives can lead to difficult-to-resolve collisions with the influence of internal religious perspectives.

27We have to ask ourselves and discuss with the (religious) communities what is appropriate when exhibiting objects that have been or are still considered sacred: What processes of musealization might be acceptable? Furthermore, it is the concern of exhibitions curated with a Study of Religion approach to show processes of change and the respective historical context of religious objects as well as to take into account intra-religious diversity and thus non-dominant religious traditions. This is true for objects from colonial and missionary contexts as well as for exhibitions that show competing religious traditions side by side. We see an opportunity to contribute to the decolonization of the Study of Religion and the Museum of Religions in a consistent and transparent examination of emic and religious perspectives, questions of provenance and the origin, scope and plausibility of scientific taxonomies and epistemes.

Provenance research in the study of religion as a contribution to decolonization

  • 5 The exhibition elucidates a research process that Susanne Rodemeier undertook as curator together w (...)

28Research on objects from colonial contexts has become a key concern of the Museum of Religions. Since 2021, objects that have been stored in the repository of the Museum of Religions for many years have been on display again in a newly conceptualized exhibition area. The primary aim of this presentation is to highlight the underlying research and the problematic, often unresolved issues surrounding objects of colonial provenance. In the exhibition developed with students, the presentation of objects from Oceania provides insights into the influence of colonial rule and missionary activities as well as the creation of museum collections and the associated ethical challenges. Accordingly, the presentation is less about exhibiting objects and more about revealing museum problems, unequal power relations in the process of musealization and unresolved research questions, which aims to encourage interaction with and participation by visitors interested in research.5

29The disclosure of questions, working methods and underlying theories of the researchers and curators not only offers the possibility of greater participation of all those involved, but also the prerequisite for the integration of people from the contexts of use and origin of the collection objects. Such an approach abandons the view that museums function as repositories of knowledge or as “mediators of secure knowledge.” It provides space for an attitude of understanding university and museum collections as “laboratories,” as places of encounter and interaction or as “platforms” with a great openness for participation (Cameron, 2015; Clifford, 1999).


30Encounters of international visitors from a wide variety of museum and collection contexts on the premises of selected university collections in the hosting institution in Marburg offered a broad spectrum of settings for critical conversations: How are we to deal adequately with the historical circumstances of the events that led to the appropriation of many of the collected items, some of which are considered highly sensitive in different ways? The workshop demonstrated that decolonizing is complex, as all involved try to balance the often-competing interests of colonizers and colonized, researchers and academics, originating community members and governments, visitors and curators, among others. Marburg collections illustrate the complexities of many of these attempts to balance past and contemporary practices. Many participants of the event, therefore, expressed the need to consider multiple approaches to “decolonizing” beyond the strict dichotomy of “community of origin” and former colonial power and beyond the focus on repatriation. Most important, all agreed, was the creation of an equitable international research community in continual dialogue.

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1 Pharmacognosy is the science of medicinal drugs, their provenance, appearance, and content of active ingredients. To this day, pharmacognosy continues to be an important topic in the training of pharmacy students. However, the subject name has been changed to “Pharmaceutical Biology,” given that approaches to drug examination nowadays are no longer limited to macroscopic and microscopic inspection but include a variety of current methods from the life sciences more broadly.

2 The documentation of the results has been published on the university’s collections website and the analyzed objects are on display

3 English edition: The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. London u.a.: Oxford University Press, 1969 (English translation first appeared in 1923). The book has now been translated into more than 35 languages.

4 “In the cross of Christ, Christian feeling has carried out the most vivid application of the ‘category of the holy’ and thus produced the deepest religious intuition that has ever been found in the field of religious history.”

5 The exhibition elucidates a research process that Susanne Rodemeier undertook as curator together with students. Virtual tour through the exhibition space:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Samples of China bark, Pharmacognostic Collection (Wigand’s Drug Collection).
Crédits Photo © Susanne Saker, Marburg University Library
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Figure 2: Catalog of the “Racial Skull Collection” reexamined by Eduard Jacobshagen 1938.
Crédits © Institute for the History of Pharmacy and Medicine, Philipps University Marburg, Photo: Katrin Weber
Fichier image/jpeg, 384k
Titre Figure 3: Makonde masks, Collection Ronsiek, Tanzania (East-Africa), acquired by the Ethnographic Collection Marburg in 1967.
Légende The masks were originally part of a larger collection donated by Friedrich Ernst Ronsiek, a plantation administrator to the Wiesbaden Collection of Nassau Antiquities in 1918.
Crédits © Ethnographic Collection Marburg, Photo: Hannah Jacobs
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k
Titre Figure 4: Reduction of religious complexity through Eurocentric perspectives: Ancestor Figure, Baule /Ivory Coast; RS: Ag 196/1897 under Rudolf Otto’s tropical helmet.
Crédits Photo: Heike Luu © Museum of Religions
Fichier image/jpeg, 283k
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Rainer Brömer, Edith Franke, Ernst Halbmayer, Tanja Pommerening, Susanne Rodemeier, Dagmar Schweitzer de Palacios et Katrin Weber, « Colonial discourse in the history of Marburg university collections »ICOFOM Study Series, 52-1 | 2024, 37-52.

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Rainer Brömer, Edith Franke, Ernst Halbmayer, Tanja Pommerening, Susanne Rodemeier, Dagmar Schweitzer de Palacios et Katrin Weber, « Colonial discourse in the history of Marburg university collections »ICOFOM Study Series [En ligne], 52-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2024, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rainer Brömer

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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Edith Franke

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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Ernst Halbmayer

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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Tanja Pommerening

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany
Email: pommeren[at]

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Susanne Rodemeier

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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Dagmar Schweitzer de Palacios

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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Katrin Weber

University of Marburg – Marburg, Germany

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