In the shadow of Humboldt
A Tragic History of German Ethnology
From the high ideals of Alexander von Humboldt to the bitter dispute over the Humboldt Forum, a long and tortuous path leads through German history. Hardly anything illustrates it better than the Berlin Museum's ethnological collection - with 500,000 objects one of the largest in the world. In his illuminating book, H. Glenn Penny describes how this gigantic collection was created, the motifs behind it and why its original idea is still hardly noticed today. His book is an indispensable contribution to objectifying the debate about the colonial heritage of German museums.
It is a tragic story, and - as so often it begins in Germany - with great ambitions: Following in Humboldt's footsteps, ethnologists bring together objects from all over the world to create a "laboratory" of human history. It is intended to preserve the heritage of endangered cultures and put a stop to emerging racist ideas. But soon collectors were caught in the suction of the colonial era and made devil's pacts to ensure that their holdings grew faster. The original vision also changes: Wilhelm von Bode turns the think tank into a mere foam museum. And as is the case today, the museum soon becomes the scene of political instrumentalizations that are about power of discourse, but not about the significance of the collection itself.
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