Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany

Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany

Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany

Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany


In the late nineteenth century, Germans spearheaded a worldwide effort to preserve the material traces of humanity, designing major ethnographic museums and building extensive networks of communication and exchange across the globe. In this groundbreaking study, Glenn Penny explores the appeal of ethnology in Imperial Germany and analyzes the motivations of the scientists who created the ethnographic museums.

Penny shows that German ethnologists were not driven by imperialist desires or an interest in legitimating putative biological or racial hierarchies. Overwhelmingly antiracist, they aspired to generate theories about the essential nature of human beings through their museums' collections. They gained support in their efforts from boosters who were enticed by participating in this international science and who used it to promote the cosmopolitan character of their cities and themselves. But these cosmopolitan ideals were eventually overshadowed by the scientists' more modern, professional, and materialist concerns, which dramatically altered the science and its goals.

By clarifying German ethnologists' aspirations and focusing on the market and conflicting interest groups, Penny makes important contributions to German history, the history of science, and museum studies.


By 1900, Germany’s leading ethnographic museums had descended into chaos. A wild array of artifacts from all over the world pushed these museums well beyond their material limits: totems from Canada’s west coast, porcelains from Peking, wooden bowls from Australia, Polynesian canoes, Eskimo clothing, Mayan alters, Benin bronzes, statues of Buddhist and Hindu gods, weapons from the Amazon (and essentially everywhere else), even collections of ancient pottery and Roman coins found throughout Germany were all there to see. These ever-expanding collections were crammed into exhibition halls, overflowing from display cases, and set out in “temporary installations” that remained for years in crowded entryways, walkways, and stairwells. Boxes brimming with artifacts that had been packed away for decades were stacked to the ceilings of basement rooms, storage sheds, and offices. By the turn of the century, the overwhelming disorder of things forced German ethnologists to cancel public tours, repeatedly delay publishing guidebooks, and engage in heated debates about the very nature and purpose of such collecting and display. These conditions forced ethnologists to recognize that they had reached the limits of their empiricism, and they encouraged a younger generation to abandon the project that had driven these institutions for over thirty years.

Despite the disheveled condition of German ethnographic museums, ethnologists and museum directors across Europe and the United States continued to deem them the world’s leading ethnographic institutions. With some chagrin, O. M. Dalton, a curator at the British Museum, jealously complained in 1898 that in contrast to the British, “Germans of all classes find ethnography of great interest,” and he estimated that the collections in the Berlin museum alone were “six or seven times as extensive” as those in London. Similarly, Northcote W. Thomas, the editor of a series on the native races of the British Empire, went so far as to maintain that in the last “twenty-five years the Berlin Museum has accumulated ethnographical collections more than ten times as large as those of the British Museum.” In Germany, he wrote ominously, “the work of collection goes on incessantly.” Yet England, “with the greatest colonial empire which the world has ever seen, lags far behind.” German colonies, he reminds us, were relatively modest, and German ethnologists’ origins were even . . .

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