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Theoretical and critical views on decolonization

Framing participatory methods in provenance research: From the restitution of objects to a collaborative production of knowledge

Encadrer les méthodes participatives dans la recherche de provenance : De la restitution des objets à une production collaborative de connaissances
Jan Kuever
p. 74-88


La recherche sur la provenance des collections de musées européens d'origines coloniales est un processus de production de connaissances à partir de la reconstruction des trajectoires des objets de collection ainsi que des souvenirs et significations qui y sont attachés, envisageant souvent une restitution éventuelle à leurs supposées communautés d'origine. Cet article examine comment ce processus d'examen et de retour éventuel de reliques physiques de l'extraction coloniale risque de reproduire les connaissances coloniales et leur accessibilité. Afin de contrer ce risque, il propose un changement conceptuel vers des approches participatives engageant à la fois les communautés académiques et locales des deux côtés, pour partager et développer des connaissances sur et à partir des collections, et créer un accès mutuel équitable aux différentes couches des connaissances produites. Les réflexions présentées ici sont étayées par des exemples et des expériences de recherche sur le terrain collaboratives sur des collections d'objets sélectionnées des musées allemands dans des communautés potentielles d'origine en Tanzanie.

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Field research for this article was conducted within the project “Provenance research on the East African collection of the Witzenhausen Museum,” which was funded by the German Lost Art Foundation.

1Iringa Boma Regional Museum and Cultural Centre is a cultural space housed in a former German colonial building in Iringa. The space is run by the culture and heritage conservation and promotion initiative fahari yetu Tanzania. Apart from its core function of curating exhibitions on the culture and history of Iringa and the Southern Highlands, Iringa Boma supports community artisan groups in basket weaving, pottery, music and dance, and contemporary arts, develops a regional archive and library, and hosts cultural events. In the last several years, it has increasingly been engaged as a Tanzanian partner in different collaborative provenance research projects with German museums and universities, mostly conducting ethnographic field research on the origin, meaning, and acquisition of selected object collections from these institutions in Tanzanian communities. In my role as the team leader of these research tours, I have come across a number of questions waiting to be addressed in theory as well as in practice:

  • What is object knowledge, in which ways is it generated, and how can it be shared and negotiated?

  • How does provenance research relate to colonial collecting?

  • What is the aim of restitution and what is to be restituted?

2This paper sets out to explore these conceptual questions through selected object stories from the project “Provenance Research on the East Africa Collection of the Museum Witzenhausen.” The project was funded by the German Lost Art Foundation and carried out by the German Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture (DITSL), a successor of the German Colonial School (DKS). It investigated the holdings of East African origin in the collection that were collected in colonial contexts by former DKS graduates.

3The following analysis starts with a conceptual reflection on the meaning and rationale of provenance research and object restitution, followed by an interrogation of the practice of provenance research and its possible references to colonial collecting as experienced in the above-named project. From there I will ponder questions of collaborative knowledge production and sharing and conclude with thoughts towards a decolonial research practice.

Object restitution and provenance research

4Provenance research on collections from colonial contexts in European museums and universities investigates the origin and acquisition of selected objects or object groups. It is basically about creating knowledge about the objects – the reconstruction and evocation of memory, meaning and all other forms of knowledge associated with them – together with creating inclusive access to that knowledge in society. While provenance research usually has focused on contexts of forced or violent acquisition of belongings, recent positions suggest it should more generally address the social, economic and political persistence of colonial structures in order to contribute to a comprehensive decolonization process. Transnational cooperation and concrete collaboration with representatives from science, art, culture, and local communities in the countries of origin are thereby of central importance. Moreover, provenance investigations should be done with a view toward creating a basis for negotiating concrete prospects and procedures for the restitution of collections with possible communities of origin. The restitution of ethnographic collections from European museums to their societies of origin means reconnecting heritage to local processes that were cut off from their cultural growth. Reconnecting them means not only to link them back to the communities of origin, but also to turn them into resources for contemporary development of these communities.

Collection and archive research

  • 1 In his concept of object diasporas, Paul Basu addresses the question of ownership of museum collect (...)

5In provenance research practice, knowledge about the objects in question is accumulated in two different spheres. In the first one – collection and archive research – we basically gather knowledge of other people’s belongings in their diaspora1 by tracing them through various post-collection spaces such as depots, museum exhibitions, archives and libraries. Following an object-based approach, we first examine the object’s materiality in its depot or exhibition setting. What can be deduced from the object itself regarding the materials that it is made of, its dimensions, its function, its state of preservation and its possible origin? What do entry books, inventory cards, and other available sources of information supporting the collection reveal about these questions and the object’s context of acquisition? To what extent does the information correspond to the objects themselves, and where does it need to be corrected? Are there similar objects in other collections that may serve for comparison of information to support the assumptions made?

6Let us take three examples from the Witzenhausen collection: The first is object No. 309 in the inventory, a wooden “headrest” measuring 33 x 14 cm from the Ngoni people in Southern Tanzania. A similar object with similar measurements and description is found in the holdings of the Ethnographic Collection of the University of Göttingen, hinting at the possibility that we are indeed dealing with Ngoni headrests. We also take four spear shields of different sizes, which according to the inventory numbers 1, 2, 3 and 6 may be the oldest objects in Witzenhausen. Despite the possibly correct term “Zulu shields,” I had doubts about their country of origin being South Africa. I knew that this type of shield was also introduced to East Africa by the Ngoni people, originally a splinter group of the Zulu who migrated into southern Tanzania during the 19th century (Makukula, 2022). The type of shield was then adapted from the Ngoni by the Hehe people further north. Therefore, the shields could be Ngoni or Hehe shields from Tanzania. The State Museum of Lower Saxony in Hanover (NLMH) holds a collection of shields, of similar make but different size, which are almost certainly Hehe shields. And in our cooperation with the city museum Gießen, we examined another Hehe shield of about the same size as the ones in Witzenhausen, whose inventory card conveyed contradicting information about year and place of collection. The third example is a bangle made of ivory, 10 cm in diameter and 5.5 cm high, that the DKS received as a gift for the collection in the spring of 1905 (Museum und Sammlungen, 1904/05). The Ethnological Museum Berlin has two similar ivory bangles from the same collector in its collection.

7Secondly, in the same sphere we apply a historiographic approach to further investigate the collection. While the object’s historicity is implied in the supporting information attached to it, we can trace its history through separate historiographic sources such as archival material and historic or academic literature. A particular focus thereby lies on the reconstruction of the object collectors’ biographies through available archival sources. In the case of the headrest, the collector was the physician and colonial politician Wilhelm Arning, who served in the Kaiserliche Schutztruppe as well as being engaged in independent research explorations in German East Africa at different points in time. It is likely that he acquired the headrest on one of his travels through the south-eastern part of the colony. Art historians have highlighted the importance of carved headrests in African arts and crafts and point to their prominent function, particularly in South African societies, where they served not only as pillows but also as a medium of communication with ancestors in dreams (Vendryes, 1999; Nettleton, 2007). In German colonial literature, there are some indications of the distribution of these objects among the Ngoni people. At the beginning of the 20th century, Fülleborn (1906) noted that carved headrests could be found here and there, but that they were no longer needed due to simplified hairstyles. A few years later, Weule (1908, plate 22) identified a comparable object as a stool and not a headrest.

  • 4 The term Hehe wars, as coined by Alison Redmayne (1968), describes a conflict between the Hehe peop (...)

8The provenance of the shields in the NLMH has been clarified: They were acquired by force in the battles of the Hehe Wars.4 The largest collection was taken from Hehe warriors who were killed in their attack on Useke in 1893. The collector Bernhard von Bothmer was himself killed in the subsequent retaliatory raid of the Schutztruppe on Konko (Herrmann, 1895). We can only make assumptions about the provenance of the shields in Witzenhausen. It seems plausible that they were taken from Hehe warriors who were killed under the command of the above-mentioned Wilhelm Arning in the Battle of Munisagara in 1892 (Arning, 1893). Arning brought them to the nearby military station Kilosa, from where they were shipped to Witzenhausen around 10 years later. In their ethnographic descriptions and accounts of the war, both Herrmann (1895) and Nigmann (1911; 1908) point to the high importance of shields as a symbol of recognition and source of pride for the Hehe warriors.

9The ivory bangle was donated by former student Richard Kracke, who was employed by the Berlin Mission Society after leaving the DKS and worked as an accountant for the Mwakaleli mission station in the southwest of German East Africa from 1904–1911. In August 1917 he was killed in action during World War I in East Africa. Today, numerous handwritten letters from Kracke to the school director E.A. Fabarius in his student file are available in the DITSL archive, several of which were also printed in the school’s publication Der Deutsche Kulturpionier. There are also extensive files on Richard Kracke and the Mwakaleli mission station in the Berlin Mission Archive, all of which are available online in digital form.5 However, none of the available files provided further information on the ivory bangle.

  • 6 See Polanyi, 1958; 2009 [1966]

10Basically, in the sphere of collection and archive research we seek to gather explicit knowledge that – in a Polanyian sense6 – has been codified into formal taxonomies of the objects in question. The selected examples headrest, shields, and ivory bangle refer to the above-mentioned knowledge taxonomies of materiality, dimensions, function, origin, and ownership.

Field research in communities of origin

11In addition to gathering knowledge about belongings of the other from post-collection spaces, the second sphere of provenance seeks to investigate them in the context of their supposed location of origin or space of pre-collection. Based on Viktor E. Frankl’s school of psychotherapy (Frankl, 1978), Timothy King Lent (2016) conceptualizes the difference between “indirectly knowing about” and “directly knowing” in the context of human relationships, whereby the latter expands the former through a personal encounter which requires leaving one’s own world and entering the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional world of the other.

12The idea appears to be applicable to the process of provenance research, in which the researcher, after they have known everything about the object from the European archives and libraries, wants to get to know the object itself through personal encounters with its assumed cultural bearers. For this encounter, they have to step out of their own and into the intellectual or spiritual world of the bearers. The knowledge sought from the encounter is not explicit but implicit knowledge embodied by the encountered person, which is articulated in the context of the encounter. Only when the researcher succeeds in accessing this tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 2009 [1966]) and translating it into formalized knowledge is the research process of knowledge production on the object complete.

13Assessing tacit knowledge on objects from colonial collections is usually done through ethnographic inquiries of individual or group memories, associations and connections with the object in possible communities of origin. Because the objects rarely travel with the researcher to these communities, the assessment in most cases is not based on the object itself in its materiality, but on object photographs taken in the depots of the holding institutions. In the case of the above-named provenance research projects on collections at the NLMH and in Witzenhausen, we first identified possible communities to visit from available sources of information supporting the collection in order to inquire about the origin, meaning and appropriation of selected objects. Our inquiries were conducted both in the form of group discussions, which are characterized by dynamic interaction between different community members in dealing with the topic, and in the form of individual interviews with local cultural authorities such as chiefs or traditional healers. In addition to the interviews, the research team’s participant observation – consciously experiencing and feeling the places visited and interactions experienced, both together with and independent of local intermediaries – was also an important part of the data collection. The research team usually consisted of three to four members – team leader, liaison coordinator, note taker and photographer – in some cases supported by student assistants. Target persons for the focus groups and interviews were generally members of the respective communities – among them especially older people and local authorities such as chiefs, clergy, or village leaders. As a basis for the discussion, we presented them photo prints of the object, along with a series of key questions related to its identification and naming, cultural attribution or belonging, purpose/function and its transformation, materials and manufacturers, links to historical memories or events, potential interest in its restitution, and possible recipients and uses after return.

14On our research trips through the Ngoni region Ruvuma and its neighbouring regions, not a single respondent in any discussion or interview identified the wooden objects as headrests. Instead, they were consistently identified as stools or benches to sit on, including by my research teammates. When two of them saw the object in Witzenhausen and realized that it was actually too small to be a stool, they suggested it to be a scaled-down miniature version of a bench, specially made for colonial administrators and anthropologists. I did not buy this theory, but rather suggested the interpretations might be a result of cultural changes. It can be assumed that headrests are relevant to a migratory way of life. Different from Nilotic groups further north, the Ngoni were not a pastoralist people and by the late 19th century had settled permanently in Ruvuma, while the colonial occupation had put an end to their war campaigns against neighboring groups. Moreover, adaptation to Tanzanian national culture has certainly progressed over the past hundred years, in the course of which cultural characteristics brought from southern Africa may have faded. While further research is needed to support these assumptions, the Ugandan art dealer Joe Ndyanabangi (2020) sums them up in advertising a “Ngoni Headrest” on his website: “The headrests were used as pillows to help someone to have good sleep. They were also used to help protect ceremonial coiffure. In some occasions, headrests are used as stools.”

15Nowadays, Hehe shields are rarely found in the villages and communities in Iringa. Participants in the group discussions in Iringa identified the objects in the photos as shields, but hardly as typical Hehe shields. In some cases, there were statements that this type of shield used to be important and that there used to be plenty, but today no one is familiar with how to make them. Even at the site of the battle at Munisagara, the villagers were unable to identify the shields. However, they could remember stories of the battle between the Hehe and the German colonial troops on the banks of the nearby Mkondoa River. In order to avoid pursuit by the Schutztruppe and to be able to carry out swift attacks of their own, when possible, the Hehe troops were hiding in the surrounding hills at the time.

Fig. 2: Impressions from focus groups in different locations.

Fig. 2: Impressions from focus groups in different locations.

Photos © Herry T. Sanga

16During our research visit to Mwakaleli mission station, we were able to gather interesting information about the coming of the missionaries and the cultural changes they brought with them, but no one remembered the name Richard Kracke. Based on the pictures, the respondents were able to immediately identify the object as an ivory bracelet, called ikosa in the local Nyakusa language. They remembered that elephants used to roam the area and were hunted. While they were not sure if it was Arab traders or local artisans who carved bangles from their tusks, they agreed that the bangles were worn by women, especially older women.

Provenance research and colonial collection

17The next question is how the knowledge production in provenance research relates to the idea of colonial knowledge. By colonial knowledge we understand knowledge that was created from the systematic extraction of resources from the colonized people to facilitate their governance and exploitation by the colonizers. The process included the collection of culture in the form of material objects and information through various agents such as colonial troops and administrators, missionaries, and anthropologists. The latent aim of collecting culture was to appropriate the tacit knowing of things vested in the objects that were taken and convert them into explicit knowledge of the culture bearers, the people.

18The objects or belongings in European museum and university collections of colonial origin are physical relics of the process of the extraction of culture from the colonies and thus loaded with attached layers of colonial knowledge found in colonial archives and literature that overlays their intrinsic meanings and functions. Relying on the historical vocabulary as well as on the stories of the collectors in tracing provenance, conventional provenance research based on these sources inevitably reproduces colonial knowledge to some extent. Consequently, the recent trend of emphasizing elements of involving supposed communities of origin in the research process is a countermeasure to avoid such reproduction through which further layers of knowledge are added to the objects.

19But the challenge of reproducing patterns of colonial knowledge is not resolved in this way. Our encounters with various potential communities of origin – as positive and productive as they almost always were – turned out to raise a latent doubt if what we are doing is not again a form of colonial collection, an effort of extraction of knowledge from people with limited agency compared to us. We as scholars are not satisfied with the knowledge that we found in our archives and libraries, so we go again to fill the gaps from the people who once made these things. Whose purpose does the provenance research agenda serve if not a German one? How relevant is the knowledge that we generate for the communities that we visited as well as for the mediating Tanzanian scholars? Or do our efforts of engaging communities of origin as well as knowledge mediators on the other hand support the deconstruction of colonial knowledge that is vested in the diasporic trajectories of the objects? Ultimately, I think what we do in provenance research is a bit of both – recolonizing and decolonizing at the same time, and it is our duty to develop the methods we apply in a way that it strengthens the decolonizing elements. Only then can provenance research and subsequent restitution measures make sense. The question is how we can make approaches more decolonizing, in conceptual thinking as well as in practical application.

Decolonizing knowledge production and sharing

20In his contribution to a joint workshop in Dar es Salaam on the question of the collection of human remains in German East Africa, the Tanzanian archaeologist Pastory Bushozi (2023) pointed out that not only the human remains and ethnographic objects in German holdings themselves, but also the knowledge accumulated in connection with them would have to be repatriated to Tanzania in order to conduct collaborative research on an equal footing. His plea refers first of all to German collection inventories, archival material and historical literature. In a private conversation later that day, one of the workshop organizers from the German side told me that he was puzzled about this request, wondering why Tanzanian scholars would want access to the often overtly racist historical information about themselves, why they would want to confront themselves with this degrading image accompanying the knowledge of things and events. In another conversation, Wilson Jilala, conservator at the National Museum of Tanzania, emphasized that in his eyes this thinking is exactly the problem. He said that we cannot today examine collections as if they were separated from their historical context. An equitable discussion first of all requires the acknowledgment of the injustice of the past and its continuing effects in the present, for which European scholars and societies have to face up to their wrongdoings in ideology and practice in front of the former colonial subject. Such confrontation would be necessary to revisit the knowledge and re-interpret the colonial narratives.

21In interpreting Jilala’s statement further, the problem is not the knowledge gathered in or from colonial collecting itself, but its hegemonic and hardly inclusive character. From the present perspective, the goal must therefore be to share this knowledge equitably, to make it accessible and inclusive for scholars and communities in the formerly colonized countries.

Building scholarly capacities

  • 7 The Maji Maji war was an armed rebellion of a united front of different ethnic groups against Germa (...)

22Archived knowledge on the collections in question is largely based on object descriptions and memories not accessible to Tanzanian scholars due to language barriers as well as because of its fragmented locality. This body of knowledge could be restituted through comprehensive translation, a centralized digital database, and the provision of means for concerted capacity building of Tanzanian scholars in development, management, and use of historical archives, databases, and depots. In addition to creating transparency, such measures could provide Tanzanian researchers with new starting points for researching, for example, resistance movements against German colonial rule, even after the death of the last contemporary witnesses. Research on the Maji Maji war7 in Tanzania is a good example in this regard. For decades, Tanzanian scholarship on Maji Maji relied on a number of post-independence research studies which have narrowed the focus of attention to particular sites and regions in the vast area of the war. The same applies to the Hehe wars, which seem to be reduced to the battle of Lugalo, the fall of Kalenga, and the return of Chief Mkwawa’s skull.

23Now, a number of objects and photographs from the Witzenhausen collection in Germany bear witness to a more diverse range of war events and have served to widen this narrow body of knowledge for Tanzanian scholars. The shields in the Witzenhausen and Hanover collections, for example, widened this geographical scope of the Hehe wars to the more peripheral battlefields of Konko and Munisagara. Similarly, the ivory bangle served as a hook for investigating a publicly underrepresented part of the Maji Maji war history. In a letter to the director of the DKS in February 1907, Kracke reports on events and developments related to the south-western theatre of the Maji-Maji War in Njombe. He describes both the mistreatment and executions of prisoners allegedly involved in the uprising and the rampant famine among the local population as a result of reprisals by the German colonial troops.

24After identifying a starting point, tracing biographies and travel movements from historical sources is also necessary preparatory work for planning places and routes to be visited in field research. It appears that the role of Tanzanian scholars in researching the provenance of collections in German museums has been to coordinate the field research in supposed communities of origin and then serve as mediators between the collection holders and the culture bearers or inheritors. Unrestricted access to historical sources would furnish mediating scholars not only with more agency in selecting destination and route planning, but also empower them to design and implement research independent from German collection holders. However, practical participation and coordination supports capacity building in applying ethnographic research methods. We have utilized the provenance research tours as vehicles for every fahari yetu team member to develop their competences in participant observation, interviewing techniques, and focus group moderation, debriefing and reporting, data processing and analysis, and media documentation. As one of the outcomes, my colleagues and I are now fully aware of the scope and diversity of the Maji Maji rebellion and how communities remember and interpret its localized contexts. On another tour, we visited local communities near farms established or worked by former DKS graduates during the colonial era in order to investigate the provenance of selected object groups from the Witzenhausen collection, to link the objects to local memories of the farms and their relationship with the people, and to trace continuities and transformations in the history of the Tanzanian plantation economy. Based on the inspiration he got from the tour, my colleague Jimson Sanga repeatedly expressed his intention of developing this line of inquiry further in future independent research endeavors, emphasizing how important it would be to have access to the archival information without being dependent on a German partner to initiate such projects. While the archival sources in this as in most other cases follow the traces of German farmers and administrators, he said that his aim would be to reinterpret these European narratives by finding African protagonists to project the history on through telling their story – such as those of traditional rulers around the localities of the farms or local labourers who hired themselves out.

25Apart from restituting knowledge on the collections through creating access to colonial archival information and participating in community research, the restitution of knowledge also includes knowledge generated from the collections or from their management. This means to share the resources needed to build Tanzanian capacities in collection conservation and management as well as archive and database development, including the provision of any supporting technology needed. Jilala said: “When we get the remains of our ancestors or cultural belongings back, then what? In order to take care of them properly, we also need to get the means and skills back that have been accumulated from keeping them for so long.” At Iringa Boma, we are trying to put this form of knowledge restitution into practice through the establishment of a physical archive and a digital database of our collection and our work on the regional culture and history. The objects from the collections in Germany that we do provenance research on, whether they will be restituted to us or not, are only a small fraction of the digitized knowledge, but they exemplify the point of converting cultural resources from the past into present capacities in heritage conservation and management.

Community participation and empowerment

Fig. 3: Archive and database development at Iringa Boma.

Fig. 3: Archive and database development at Iringa Boma.

Photos by Jan Kuever.

26Due to linguistic and cultural barriers, in most cases the life of the collection objects in the diaspora – documented in the inventory lists, legacies and literature sources of European museums, archives and libraries – remains inaccessible to representatives of their societies of origin even more than to trained scholars. Participatory provenance research in possible communities of origin can therefore be understood as an effort to remove these barriers and instead deliberately create access to and return the knowledge accumulated in the object’s biography. This approach engages researchers and members of these communities as possible bearers and inheritors in sharing and negotiating knowledge attached to the cultural belongings in question. In addition to the research interest, the participatory involvement of people is intended to raise awareness of the collections in exile in the communities of origin, to explore options for possible restitution and exhibition projects, to identify links to pressing socio-economic development needs, and to promote intercultural perspectives and skills.

27At this point, we engage in the above-raised process of accessing the implicit and often personal knowledge found in the communities and translate it into formal, systematic language. When we take the examples mentioned, the question arises what kind of tacit knowledge there is about objects such as the headrests, the shields, or the ivory bangles, what individual and collective interpretations of particular historical events such as the Maji Maji or the Hehe war, and in some cases also what spiritual memories of the deceased victims of colonial violence exist. First, some technical modalities need to be considered in this process. In the case of the headrest, for example, it was difficult for the respondents to recognize the size or dimensions of the objects from the available photos. In order to generate a stronger response from communities, objects should therefore also be made accessible in their physical three-dimensionality. This can initially be done by creating 3D models and printing them out for use in the field. Furthermore, our field research has shown that a number of historically significant objects are barely extant nowadays in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. One goal must therefore be to return the objects themselves and make them accessible to the people. We are working on returning the Hehe shields and other objects from the NLMH and Witzenhausen collections to Iringa and display them at the Boma museum. Once in Iringa, they will become part of the research with the culture-bearing communities as well as of our ongoing education campaigns in primary and secondary schools.

28But the technical questions are just the surface. At a deeper layer, I have been dealing with a feeling of discontent over a degree of social inequality between me and the majority of the people I meet and work within our research and conservation activities, inequality in terms of valuable knowledge, education, and most urgently individual economy. I guess those are the parameters of coloniality that we experience and seek to address at the same time. We of course deal with the situation that communities often view me and my team primarily as an economic promise, a premise that we must break down as we interact. The discontent also arises in view of the often precarious economic situation of my teammates at the museum and in the provenance research. I would wish, for example, that a Tanzanian guest would not have to speculate if a German colleague will pay for his dinner at the restaurant when participating in an international workshop, as often happens.

29On the other hand, I also argue against a tendency of totalizing the prevalence of asymmetric power relations rooted in colonialism. Similar to object descriptions and memories in the German language for Tanzanian researchers, narratives from possible communities of origin are initially difficult to access for German provenance researchers. Their command of the implicit knowledge that researchers are looking for furnishes cultural custodians in the communities with a degree of agency to act as gatekeepers who set the terms for knowledge extraction. Just recently, I had a discussion with the Hehe elder Mzee Kasige about the prospect of returning remains of their ancestors and keeping them in the Boma museum. He said that this would be possible in principle as we have the physical and administrative facilities needed. But we would not be able to handle the spiritual custody of the remains, talking to or communicating with the ancestors in the adequately appeasing manner. That work can only be done by competent elders who need to be attached to the museum and be part and parcel of the procedure.

30Another example is an incident from researching the provenance of a shield and a historical picture of the Mbugwe people in the Manyara region in central Tanzania. The Ward Executive Officer in a place along the highway called “German Baobab Tree” took us to the clinic of a healer who is also the Chief of the Mbugwe in the area. The clinic was packed with customers waiting for the Chief to perform an ancestral ritual, and we barged into the atmosphere as unwanted intruders with our project vehicle. However, the Chief reluctantly agreed to briefly look at the pictures and said that such shields nowadays are only used in ancestral rituals as the upcoming one. We were not allowed see the one that is part of his shrine, but he showed us a traditional homestead similar to the one seen on another picture. While we were going through the homestead, he told me that his grandfather was taken by the Germans during the colonial era. He would bear all costs himself if I could help to find his ancestor and bring him back where he belongs. I was emotionally touched by the unexpected revelation and tried to apologize for what my ancestors did. Unfortunately, I haven’t found traces of his ancestor’s remains in German depots.


31Provenance research is about accessing and mediating knowledge in collection objects from different sources, vested in the objects themselves, gathered in museum depots and archives, and remembered by people in communities of origin. The mediation process may enable collection holders, mediators and inheritors to think of cultural heritage beyond colonial categories and foster decolonial approaches to knowledge, education and human development. Coming to new ways of knowing about something and knowing something requires turning the direction of colonial extraction around, making it two-way traffic. In cooperation at eye level, in one direction European ethnographers may continue extracting tacit knowledge gathered in communities and translating it into formalized knowledge, while scholars from the countries of origin extract approaches, methods, and resources to build capacities in knowledge generation and management. For the case of fahari yetu projects, two-way traffic also means that experiences from the exhibition, research, and educational measures on the returned objects in Iringa will be incorporated into the exhibitions of the Göttingen Collection, the NLMH, and the Witzenhausen Museum, using comparable objects or their virtual models in order to depict the connections and entanglements between the two places. In this sense, the objects will serve to shape an identity-forming cultural narrative in Tanzania and to address knowledge gaps and stereotypes regarding colonial history in Germany, fostering a relationship ethics of knowing and empowering each other.

  • 8 In homage to the work of James Clifford (1997).

32The Centre for Advanced Study’s project inherit. heritage in transformation conceives the decolonization of knowledge as a pluralization of values and meanings (decentring, n.d.). The holdings of museum collections can tell stories about broader historical events or ruptures that took place by the time of their collection. While the events or ruptures themselves emerged from the asymmetric power relations of colonialism, their repercussions in post-colonial societies may have ambiguous implications. This contribution has shown how this ambiguity is reflected in researching shared or entangled heritage with its diverse and ambivalent interpretations and layers of knowledge. To embrace this ambiguity with its doubts and uncertainties is a requirement for an inclusive transformation and democratization of the values of culture and heritage (transforming, n.d.). In this vein, this contribution is an attempt to formulate and arrange my thoughts on the matter. In medias res8, they are inherently imperfect and unfinished, inviting to be picked up for further development.

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1 In his concept of object diasporas, Paul Basu addresses the question of ownership of museum collections of colonial origin. He recognizes that objects from these collections exist in a space between one sociocultural context and another and mediate across the different worlds encompassed in their biographies. For more information, see Basu, 2011.



4 The term Hehe wars, as coined by Alison Redmayne (1968), describes a conflict between the Hehe people and the German imperial forces that arose over the control of the lucrative caravan trade through the central parts of German East Africa. The conflict culminated in a lengthy conquest of the land of the Hehe people against the grim resistance under their famous Chief Mkwawa. For a detailed course of events in the Hehe wars see Redmayne, 1968; Pizzo, 2007.


6 See Polanyi, 1958; 2009 [1966]

7 The Maji Maji war was an armed rebellion of a united front of different ethnic groups against German colonial rule in the south-eastern part of German East Africa. The war was triggered by German policies of taxation and forced labour in the emerging cash-crop plantation agriculture designed to exploit the local population – and it lasted from 1905-07. The war resulted in up to 300,000 total Africans dead, mostly civilians dying from famine. For detailed accounts and interpretations of the war see Gwassa 2005 [1973], Iliffe 1967; Giblin & Monson 2010.

8 In homage to the work of James Clifford (1997).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Headrest2, collection of shields, and ivory bangle3
Fichier image/jpeg, 512k
Titre Fig. 2: Impressions from focus groups in different locations.
Crédits Photos © Herry T. Sanga
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Titre Fig. 3: Archive and database development at Iringa Boma.
Crédits Photos by Jan Kuever.
Fichier image/jpeg, 656k
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Jan Kuever, « Framing participatory methods in provenance research: From the restitution of objects to a collaborative production of knowledge »ICOFOM Study Series, 52-1 | 2024, 74-88.

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Jan Kuever, « Framing participatory methods in provenance research: From the restitution of objects to a collaborative production of knowledge »ICOFOM Study Series [En ligne], 52-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2024, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jan Kuever

University of Iringa and fahari yetu – Iringa, Tanzania
Email: jkuever[at]

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