Haut, Haar und Knochen. Koloniale Spuren in naturkundlichen Sammlungen der Universität Jena

Förster, Larissa; Stoecker, Holger
Laborberichte 9
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Yann Le Gall, Universität Potsdam

When addressing the issue of human remains from Namibia in German collections, research publications have usually focused on skulls and skeletal remains. To be sure, bones tally best with our appreciation of scientific racism: we are, for instance, rather familiar with earlier methods of measuring cranial features to determine and hierarchize physical difference. “Haut, Haar und Knochen” instead investigates the provenance of the scalp of a Herero individual housed by the Phyletic Museum of the University of Jena, and thus illustrates the broad range of human remains in German collections, from skin to bones. Acquired at the beginning of the twentieth century in German South-West-Africa (DSW) by zoologist Leonard Schultze, the lingering presence of this piece of skin in the collection attests of the colonial entanglements of this institution. Besides, it unveils the porous borders between zoology and anthropology, as well as between Western scientific truth and colonial thought.

Larissa Förster and Holger Stoecker take the specimen as a starting point to retrace its history in the zoological department, from today’s perspective. Tainted by different inscriptions indicating its serial number, its collector and its ethnic origin, the skin is a palimpsest: an inventoried object with a label and a number, an object nevertheless fundamentally human, as the authors remind us. The death of the Herero individual and the act of preparing the skin for scientific purposes have punctuated a process that has anonymized, objectified and vilified the body of the colonized subject. Before 2007, the scalp belonged to the Zoological Institute and was therefore classified alongside animal specimen as part of a collection used for teaching purposes by University staff. But traces left in the archives of the university cast doubt upon the actual role of these human remains in such a heterogeneous collection. Contents of the collection have indeed been repeatedly moved from one institution to another depending on short-term decisions, be they political, administrative, or contingent on financial reasons. In this light, assuming the existence of clear scientific or educational purposes for keeping human remains from the colonial era in German collections seems ludicrous. What is more, the diverse nature of the collection and the difficulty in retracing the objects’ histories in the museum – some having been lost in the meantime – challenge a discourse emphasizing on the meticulous care given to collections and on their absolute worth for the scientific community.

In the second part of the book, Leonard Schultze’s biography and his role in German colonial history sustain Förster’s and Stoecker‘s investigation on the acquisition of the scalp. In contrast to the lack of knowledge on the Herero individual, Schultze’s life is extensively documented. Alike recent publications examining specific remains acquired during the colonial era1, the collector’s biography offers significant insight into practices of anthropological acquisitions, working through a violent history of colonial oppression. Schultze travelled from 1903 until 1905 in DSW and actively participated in the genocidal campaign against the Herero, Nama, Damara and San, while selfishly profiting from it. In his words, he could “make use of the victims of the war and take limbs from fresh corpses of the natives which gladly / conveniently completed the study of the living body (captive Hottentots were often at my disposal)” (p. 59).2

While his motives are painfully explicit, the context of acquisition of the scalp remains unclear. Following Sybille Krämer’s suggestion to resort to “intelligent assumption” when knowledge can only be supposed and inferred thanks to the interpretation of traces, Förster and Stoecker suggest three possible trajectories providing the links between Schultze’s life and the recent re-emergence of the scalp in the collection of the University of Jena. First, it could have been shipped alongside other anthropological remains: two identified skulls and unidentified organs originating from DSW were sent by the zoologist to the Berlin anthropological collections in 1905. Schultze also brought back two skeletons and one skull of three Herero victims on his return to Jena. The second possible path leads directly to the zoological collection. This hypothesis rests on proofs of Schultze’s interest in outlining and comparing the building and evolution of hair and skin colour by Nama, Herero and San people. The book gives examples of research publications and exhibitions curated by the Phyletic Museum which show that the scientific community often drew on capillary typology to support modern zoological and racial classification up until the fifties. Third assumption: the former Ethnographic Museum in Jena. Not only was Schultze in charge of its collections from 1908 onwards, the museum also displayed great interest in DSW ever since the official launch of German colonialism in 1884. The year 1900 marked the opening of a colonial exhibition which asked for greater ethnographic acquisitions, but also included zoological and anthropological material. Together with cultural objects, one could find faunal specimen and the skeleton of a Herero in the collection. It is conceivable that such a sweeping assortment would have comprised the scalp under scrutiny.

“Haut, Haar und Knochen’s” strength lie in its historical thoroughness and the authors’ cautious decision to offer several object biographies which additionally inform on the diverse colonial entanglements of the institution. Owing to state-of-the-art experience with anthropological museum collections and colonial history, both Förster and Stoecker are highly aware of the intricacies of archives and the dangers of reproducing colonial discourse. The book displays judicious linguistic and editorial choices in that regard, among others the deliberate absence of any photograph of the scalp.

One will however regret the absence of sources engaging more emotionally with the issue, which could have provided a counterpoint to the dryness and detached tone of scientific discourse. The essential human character of the scalp could be probably best rendered when the voices of people from the Herero community are foregrounded to convey the violent history of their objectification, colonisation and genocide in the postcolonial present. Larissa Förster argued in an earlier publication that the skulls repatriated in 2011 from Berlin to Namibia could be to a certain extent considered as “eye witnesses” of the genocide.3 This interesting perspective has unfortunately vanished in the case of the scalp, despite its relevance in the search for traces: according to Krämer, a trace is, among other attributes, a proof of an act of disruption when something / someone must have had the violent strength to disturb an order in order to “imprint themselves”, i.e. to emboss history with their presence.4

Significantly contributing to an academic landscape currently preoccupied with traces of the colonial era left by, inside, and on the facades of museums, this book still exposes further evidence of the unethical scramble for bodies of colonized people. In addition, it seriously questions any wish to keep such remains in the custody of German museums.

1 See Sarah Fründt, Die Menschen-Sammler: Über den Umgang mit menschlichen Überresten im Übersee-Museum Bremen, Marburg 2011, pp. 60–71; Andreas Winkelmann / Barbara Teßmann, “… und gewinne die Leiche“ – Zur Geschichte eines australischen Skeletts in der Berliner Anatomischen Sammlung, in: Holger Stoecker / Thomas Schnalke / Andreas Winkelmann (eds.), Sammeln, Erfor-schen, Zurückgeben? Menschliche Gebeine aus der Kolonialzeit in akademischen und musealen Sammlungen, Berlin 2013, pp. 184–198.
2 Translated by Yann Le Gall. Original text: “die Opfer des Krieges zu nutze machen und frischen Leichen von Eingeborenen Teile entnehmen, die das Studium des lebenden Körpers (gefangene Hottentotten standen mir häufig zu Gebote) willkommen ergänzten.“
3 Larissa Förster, “You are giving us the skulls – where is the flesh?” Die Rückkehr der namibischen Human Remains, in: Holger Stoecker / Thomas Schnalke / Andreas Winkelmann (eds.), Sammeln, Erforschen, Zurückgeben? Menschliche Gebeine aus der Kolonialzeit in akademischen und musealen Sammlungen, Berlin 2013, p. 441.
4 Sybille Krämer, Was also ist eine Spur? Und worin besteht ihre epistemologische Rolle? – Eine Bestandsaufnahme, in: Sybille Krämer / Werner Kogge / Gernot Grube (eds.), Spur: Spurenlesen als Orientierungstechnik und Wissenskunst, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 16. Original text: „Dem, was sich in der Spur zeigt, muss überdies eine Form von Gewaltsamkeit eigen sein, die Kraft, sich einzuschreiben, einzudrücken, aufzuprägen.“

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