Provenance research Searching for traces collaboratively

Joint viewing of the Max von Stetten Collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Professor Albert Gouaffo, Project Manager Cameroon, with Yrine Matchinda (right), staff member for the francophone part of the collection and Karin Guggeis, General Project Manager
Joint viewing of the Max von Stetten Collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Professor Albert Gouaffo, Project Manager Cameroon, with Yrine Matchinda (right), staff member for the francophone part of the collection and Karin Guggeis, General Project Manager | Photo (detail): Stefan Eisenhofer © Museum Fünf Kontinente

The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich has embarked on a collaborative venture with scientists and communities of origin in Cameroon to research its collection from colonial times.

By Dr. Karin Guggeis

The “Blue Rider Post” and the collection put together by Max von Stetten between 1893 and 1896 in Cameroon are the focus of this provenance research project, which began in November 2019. The collaborative German-Cameroon search for traces aims to investigate the context of acquisition and local significance of the individual cultural artefacts in Munich’s Museum Fünf Kontinente in as much detail as possible. Furthermore, the research addresses the history shared between Germany and Cameroon in this early phase of colonial expansion, using Max von Stetten as an example. The idea is to show through critical reflection on colonial concepts that Africans – even in the colonial era – were not just victims, they were also protagonists.

For twelve months the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation, Department of Colonial Contexts) and the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts will fund the project, in which they are researching the exact origin and context of acquisition of more than 200 works in the collection, as well as Max von Stetten’s activities during the colonisation of Cameroon by the German Empire.

Urgent need for research for several reasons

The collector was involved in what were termed punitive expeditions, and as chief of the police force, he subsequently became commander of the “Schutztruppe” (protection troop) over there. Furthermore, the collection includes one of the most prominent works in the Africa collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, which is named the “Blue-Rider-Post” because of its depiction in the Blue Rider almanac by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (1912). What is currently known about it forms a stark contrast with the outstanding significance of this carved wooden block for Munich’s local history, as well as art history on a global scale: we can only guess its function, meaning and origins.
  • The “Blue Rider Post”, a block of wood from Cameroon carved on two sides, in the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich Lino Mirgeler © picture alliance/dpa
    The “Blue Rider Post”, a block of wood from Cameroon carved on two sides, in the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014 Marietta Weidner © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014
  • Provenance research in the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the North America section of the permanent exhibition © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the North America section of the permanent exhibition
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Oceania section of the permanent exhibition  © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Oceania section of the permanent exhibition
Other artefacts in the collection, according to the accession catalogue, are likely to be spoils of war. Like the “Blue-Rider-Post”, they illustrate the far-reaching potential of collaborative and intensive searching for traces as a long-term project with partners in Cameroon. The coordinator of this project on the Cameroonian side is Professor Albert Gouaffo, assisted by scientists Yrène Matchinda, Lucie Nankeng and Professor Joseph Ebune.

Dialogue with the communities of origin can begin, mutual trust can be developed, oral traditions about the historical purpose, importance or users of these 130 year-old cultural objects – and at the same time about this phase in which their communities were colonised by the German Reich – can be gathered. As a result, the Cameroonian people will have a say on the subject of relocating the cultural artefacts and their shared (colonial) history.

Time is short

But there are numerous challenges. The greatest one is the tight timescale. The artefacts in the collection come from various communities in Cameroon, which for the most part need to be located accurately first of all. Additionally, objects that may look unremarkable to us might have had a huge ritual significance in their community of origin, so that all works have to be researched in as much detail as possible. Furthermore, it turned out that not all the artefacts were acquired by von Stetten in Cameroon, and some even dated from far earlier than the time they arrived at the museum.

The project is a work‑in‑progress that’s only just started. The first step towards searching for traces collaboratively has been taken. The aim is to create a public awareness of the shared history between Germany and Cameroon. We are aware that history is not only topically relevant for the here and now, but also for the future.

Once the project is completed, a further cooperative venture is planned; the idea is to maintain the networks that have been created in Cameroon as far as possible. The results will be made accessible to the public through exhibitions in Munich and Cameroon, as well as on a global scale through a multilingual online publication.

Dr. Karin Guggeis heads the provenance research project of the Museum Fünf Kontinente.