Provenance research and Repatriations

Provenance research means investigating how an object came into the museum. And researching the background of the objects in the collection is one of the most important tasks of a museum, also in order to be able to tell the stories about the objects. And, of course, this includes how the object came to the museum, to whom it belonged before. In many cases, it is a matter of specifically looking for clues from which we can conclude that injustice and crime led to an object entering the museum.

Provenance research therefore deals with the reconstruction of the ownership succession and relationships, i.e. with the history of the museum’s collection, as completely as possible. In order to research the origin of the objects, all available data is evaluated. This includes, for example, inscriptions directly on the object or labels attached to it, as well as old entry books that can provide information about the previous owners. Letters, collectors’ diaries, exhibition catalogs, sales documents, and archival records can also provide important clues. In the case of some objects, the origin can be determined completely within one working day; in the case of other exhibits, it is a laborious search for clues that can take years (sometimes, unfortunately, unsuccessfully).

If the provenance of the objects is known and the country of origin desires repatriation, then the Übersee-Museum recommends that the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen and the Foreign Office initiate such repatriation.

Provenance Research on looted art during NS

Since 2015, the Übersee-Museum has conducted two long-term projects on NS looted property in its holdings. The Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung (Working Group for Provenance Research) and its successor, the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property), funded these projects.

The Overseas Museum is committed to the “Washington Principles” of 1998 and the “Joint Declaration” of 1999. In the case of items seized as a result of Nazi persecution, the aim is to find the rightful owners or their descendants in order to reach a fair and equitable solution with them regarding the further handling of these objects.

A study of selected accessions to ethnographical and natural history collections

The subject of the investigation was natural history and ethnographic objects that were recorded in the house’s register of entries in the period from 1933 to 1945 and whose provenance, as noted in the register, raised questions.

These were, for example, ethnographical objects from Peru, which go back to the Bremen entrepreneur Ludwig Roselius. He is known to have acquired objects from Jewish property during the Nazi era. People who were persecuted as Jews were often forced to sell their property or it was taken from them. Also investigated, for example, was an approach mediated by the military economy leader Franz Stapelfeldt. Here it is said that the pieces were bought from a lady to help her in a financial emergency.

Among other natural history accessions, two insect collections were studied. Here in particular, the research proved difficult. The suspected cases were examined and the origin could not always be clearly clarified, also a Nazi persecution-related depossession could not be proven for any of the respective arrivals.

In the course of her research, however, the project researcher came across the Franzius Collection, which had not been considered until then. The acquisition of this collection by the Übersee-Museum is a provable Nazi persecution-related deprivation. The sad story about the Jewish collector couple Franzius is illuminated in the exhibition “Spurensuche – Geschichte eines Museums”.

Interior view of the Lüderitz Museum in Böttcherstraße | CC BY-SA 4.0Übersee-Museum Bremen, Historisches Bildarchiv

The Lüderitz Museum of Ludwig Roselius. Critical review of an NS inventory.

The Übersee-Museum received the “Lüderitz Museum” collection in 1955. This collection of several hundred numbers of natural objects and artifacts was donated by the “Böttcherstraße GmbH”, management company of the Bremen street Böttcherstraße, which is seen as a gesamtkunstwerk. Its founder was the entrepreneur Ludwig Roselius (1874–1943).

Roselius also established a museum that honored Bremen’s “colonial pioneer” Adolf Lüderitz (1834–1886). Located on Martinistraße, neighboring Böttcherstraße, and opened in 1940, this museum was destroyed during the war. She exhibited animals, ethnographies, documents and paintings. The collection was formed by purchases from dealers and private individuals in the 1930/40-ies. The museums Böttcherstraße, also created by Roselius, have made several returns.

Roselius acquired art and cultural-historical objects at auctions, but was also active in the art trade himself and had connections – some of them difficult – in political circles. Therefore, it was important to examine the holdings of “Lüderitz Museum”. It was not possible to prove a Nazi persecution-related looting, but among the objects examined there are quite a number whose exact provenance could not be determined. For example, Ethnographica purchased in German-occupied Paris requires further review.

Furthermore, all objects related to the “Lüderitz Museum” collection originate from a colonial context. The history of the former “Lüderitz Museum” is presented in more detail in the exhibition “Spurensuche – Geschichte eines Museums”.

To the exhibition “Spurensuche”
An object from the former Lüderitz Museum, now on display in the “Tracing” exhibition | CC BY-SA 4.0 Übersee-Museum Bremen, Foto: Volker Beinhorn

Provenance research on objects from colonial contexts

Ancestral and trophy skulls from former German New Guinea

The Übersee-Museum owns human skulls from Melanesia, which presumably originate from the German colonial period. The northeast of New Guinea and the offshore islands were a German colony from 1885 to 1914/19. Ancestral and trophy skulls, artistically worked and from ancestors or enemies of people of the culture of origin, as well as human remains resulting from anthropological collecting activities, are kept in the house.

The current provenance research project focuses on 125 skulls. During the first year of the project, the various source genres and scattered information were consolidated. Basic knowledge of this part of the collection was developed.

For the time being, four groups of contributors have been identified:

  1. unprocessed skull brought back from a travel by a museum employee in 1912;
  2. overmodeled Sepik skulls sold by the Neuguinea-Compagnie (New Guinea Company), collected by a captain of the company in 1910
  3. overmodeled Sepik skulls sold by the Bremer Südsee-Gesellschaft (Bremen South Sea Company), which a company member provided around 1913
  4. skulls traced back to employees of missions and companies.

Based on the established data, further sources will be evaluated in order to make the acquisition circumstances of the skulls transparent and to determine the persons involved. The aim is to enter into a dialogue with scientists/representatives of the Papua New Guinean societies of origin on the basis of the findings obtained, in order to initiate a repatriation of the skulls if desired.

Examinations of 18 Benin bronzes

In the collections as well as in the exhibitions of the Übersee-Museum Bremen there are 18 objects from the former Kingdom of Benin, located in today’s Nigeria. The six-month project “Research on the Provenance of 18 Objects from Benin”, funded by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property), aims to document chains of provenance, reveal possible contexts of injustice, and thus pave the way for potential returns to Nigeria.

The project results, which historians Dr. Jan Christoph Greim and Henrike Schmidt are working on, will be made publicly available in the central database of the “Digital Benin” initiative.

“Digital Benin” Initiative

Current provenance research project

The Legba Dzoka-project – Multidisciplinary team reappraises colonial collection of Ewe spiritual artifacts

Since December 2023, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Ghana, Togo, Germany, the Netherlands and two Vodu priests from the “Afrikan Magick Temple” (in Accra/Ghana) has been tracing the origins of a collection of Ewe artifacts. Between 1892 and 1914, Carl Spiess, a missionary of the North German Missionary Society (NMG), collected around 500 objects, at least half of them spiritual and sacred, in the then German colony of Togo and the then British colony of the Gold Coast under hitherto unexplained conditions and handed them over to the Bremen museum. The collection offers a window into pre-colonial, pre-Christian Ewe cosmology, in particular the way in which Ewe appropriated the forces of nature for the purposes of protection and healing, as well as the attitude towards this cosmology on the part of the mission and the museum.

Before the Ewe converted to Christianity at the urging of the NMG missionaries in the mid-19th century, they worshipped their own gods. For example, they placed legba figures at the entrances and exits of their houses and villages. These legbawo are inhabited by a god or spirit who protects people from danger. A legba acts as a messenger between the people and other gods. Dzokawo (singular: dzoka) are spiritually charged cords with strong powers. The missionaries dismissed the Ewe religion as “idolatry” and propagated the Christian faith, which many Ewe joined towards the end of the 19th century, when the German colonial power consolidated itself in the area. During this period in particular, missionaries brought legbawo, dzokawo and other spiritual artefacts to German ethnological museums, which flourished as a result of German imperialism and legitimized a colonial world view by exhibiting indigenous artefacts. This included Carl Spiess, who donated at least 250 spiritual artifacts to the Übersee-Museum Bremen, probably more.

Ethnographic Collecting in “Neumecklenburg” During the German Colonial Period – a Research Project in Cooperation with New Ireland/Papua New Guinea

New Ireland is a province of today’s Papua New Guinea. During the German colonial period from 1884 to 1914 it was called “Neumecklenburg”. The province was one of those regions whose cultural assets, especially carvings, were highly valued and therefore collected in museums. In “German New Guinea”, punitive expeditions were partly carried out by the Imperial Navy and police units, as in “Neumecklenburg”. The area was considered a reservoir of labour. Men and women were sometimes forced to work. Contacts between the locals and Germans in New Ireland during the colonial period were therefore very conflictual.

The Übersee-Museum, which opened in 1896, investigates its 716-number collection from New Ireland. It is interested in its provenance and in how the named historical context affected ethnographic collecting. In the first year of the project, a carver from New Ireland and his apprentice were guests of the museum for four weeks. Together with the project worker and the museum team, they worked in the collections. In addition, one of the guests set up a Facebook page in cooperation with the museum. Having done this the museum hopes to make New Irland cultural assets from Bremen known in the province. It would like to start a conversation with New Irelanders about the pieces. On the basis of the knowledge gained through the project, the question of the return of New Ireland cultural goods could be discussed in dialogue with the societies of origin.

Restitutions and repratiations

Return of human remains to Hawai’i

Provenance research in this case has revealed that the human remains were transferred to the Übersee-Museum from a variety of sources.

According to this, two of the human remains were given to the museum in 1934 by Kurt-Felix (also Kurd-Felix) Franke and in 1865 by Hermann von Eelking, respectively. For two other human remains, Prof. Hugo Schauinsland, founding director of the Übersee Museum, is listed as the submitter and the date of submission is estimated to be 1897.

For the remaining four, this information is completely missing. The inscriptions of at least five of the skulls provide clues for a more precise geographic assignment. According to this, four of the iwi kūpuna are said to be from Kaua’i and one from Moloka’i. However, the sources on which this information on origin is based could not be traced in the course of the research.

In the case of two other human remains, an origin from the island of Hawai’i (Big Island) can possibly be considered on the basis of the sources. The OHA (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) approached the Übersee-Museum Bremen in 2019 with a request for return. The latter then joined forces with the Senator for Culture and the OHA, sponsored by the Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property), to research and process the matter within the framework of accessible sources and on the basis of ethical standards.

After careful examination, the Übersee-Museum recommended the return of the human remains to the Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. The latter approved the request in February 2022, and the formal return ceremony to representatives from Hawai’i took place on February 8, 2022.

Video from the livestream of the return ceremony

Return of human remains to the Moriori and Māori people

The human remains of the Māori and Moriori came mostly from a collecting and research trip of the founding director of the Übersee-Museum Bremen, Prof. Hugo Schauinsland, to New Zealand in 1896/1897. The ancestors’ bones of the Moriori were excavated by him on the Chatham Islands without explicit permission from the descendants. Presumably, there was also no permission from the British colonial government at the time.

A request for return was made by New Zealand in July 2013. The Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen agreed to this in May 2016 for ethical reasons. It was returned to the State of New Zealand in May 2017, represented by a delegation from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the Ambassador of New Zealand, Peter Rodney Harris, in a handover ceremony at the Übersee-Museum Bremen. You can watch excerpts of the ceremony on YouTube:

Video of the ceremony

Return of human remains to New Zealand

Two Toi moko were deaccessioned by the Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen in 1999 and offered for return to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. After the Übersee-Museum received an official request for return in 2006, the two heads were transferred to New Zealand, where the restitution ceremony took place.

Return of human remains to Tanzania

The return of the skull of the “Sultan Makaua” was demanded in §246 of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Various attempts by the British government to get it during the interwar years failed. Governor Edward Twining made another attempt in 1953, apparently with the motivation of British colonial power to secure the loyalty of the Wahehe. The Übersee-Museum, represented by its director Helmuth O. Wagner, was open to an investigation in the museum’s magazine. The authenticity of the skull had already been uncertain when it was handed over in 1954. However, Adam Sapi, representing the community of origin, officially accepted it as the skull of the ruler Mkwawa. The skull was returned to East Africa and presented to Chief Adam Sapi in a solemn ceremony on June 19, 1954. Today it is exhibited in the Historical Museum (Mkwawa Museum) in Kalenga (Tanzania), a town near Iringa.

Return of letter copy books and documents Hendrik Witboois

In 1935 August Wulff (1878-1952) sold two books with copied letters and other documents of the Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi (1830-1905) to the “Deutsches Kolonial- und Übersee-Museum”. The purchase price according to the entry register was RM 425.

Als 1904 der Witbooiaufstand ausbrach, verliessen die Witboois den Platz Gibeon, wo ich damals ansässig war, um sich in Riedmond/Mariental, wo ich damals ansässig war, zu sammeln. Die Bevölkerung von Gibeon, rund 40 Weisse, war Monate ganz auf sich selbst angewiesen. Aus Sicherheitsgründen brannten wir damals die ganzen Eingeborenen-Werften nieder. Vorher durchsuchten wir jedoch flüchtig die Hütten, und kamen hierbei, die zwei Eingeborenen-Bücher und Briefe in meine Hände. (When the Witbooi uprising broke out in 1904, the Witboois left the place Gibeon, where I was resident at the time, to gather in Riedmond/Mariental, where I was resident at the time. The population of Gibeon, about 40 whites, spent months entirely on their own. For safety reasons, we burned down all the native shipyards at that time. Before that, however, we made a cursory search of the huts, and in the process, the two native books and letters came into my hands.)

Thus, in November 1940, Wulff described in a letter the seizure of Witbooi’s documents.

Dr. Henning Scherf, Mayor and President of the Bremen Senate formulated in the context of restitution in 1996:

Die Rückgabe dieser Papiere ist der Ausdruck unseres tiefen Respekts vor dem kompromisslosen Kampf für die Freiheit der Menschen in Namibia und vor ihren Führungskräften. Mögen diese Dokumente ein Beitrag für die Erforschung der namibischen Geschichte sein. (The return of these papers is the expression of our deep respect for the uncompromising struggle for the freedom of the people of Namibia and for their leaders. May these documents be a contribution to the study of Namibian history.)

In 1994, a history student discovered the historical Witbooi documents in the archives of the Übersee Museum. The Bremen State Archives restored the documents. On the initiative of Dr. Viola König, director of the museum, and Dr. Peter Junge, head of the Africa collection department, the documents were returned to Namibia.

The handover was made by Dr. Henning Scherf, Mayor and President of the Bremen Senate during a banquet at Bremen City Hall on June 20, 1996, on the occasion of President Dr. Sam Nujoma’s first state visit to Bremen. The documents are now in the Namibian National Archives.

Links to further information on this topic

On the website of the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museums Association) you will find best-practice examples on how to deal with collections from a colonial context.

Reader Guidelines for the Care of Collections from Colonial Contexts

Here you can find the Kulturjournal’s coverage of provenance research. (Status: 3.5.2021)

Kulturjournal, 3rd May 2021 (German

Funded by Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property)

To the website