“On the Scope of Biographical Research in the History of collections”

Philipp Müller, Goethe-University Frankfurt/M.

The premise of the “Imperial Lives” conference points to an important development. The reappraisal of the colonial history of the ethnological museum should not only take place in relation to the colonized, but also in an examination of the colonizers and museum actors themselves. Particularly in the research of the collections, the focus is often on individual collectors, because the motives and strategies for collecting were indeed very diverse and, especially in museums, single individuals were often very influential. But: only a few collectors were in the colonies only or primarily to collect. And even the collectors themselves sometimes attached importance to the biographical narrative of their lives in order to stage themselves as adventurous collectors.

I would like to illustrate this with an example from my research. It will be about a correspondence from the collector network of the Stuttgart museum director Karl Graf von Linden with the captain Richard D. Volkmann, which I examined. Volkmann was an up-and-coming member of the Schutztruppe who made a career in the German military as a result of numerous campaigns of conquest and also collected ethnographica during his stay in German Southwest Africa. In a letter Volkmann tells about his “Okavango journey”: “Unfortunately I could collect little, since I had to shoot around with the powerful chief Himarua right at the beginning and then had to move 325 km along the Okavango among Owakwangeni tribes, which belong to the most disreputable between Congo and Oranje. So I was glad (…) to reach the set goal “Andara” – the latter was the seat of the legendary “King Andara”, chief of the Mambokuschen; after his death, his son Diewe ruled, who lives on a rocky island, wild-romantic, like in a robber baron’s nest (…). According to the principle of “divide et impere”, I befriended him, gave him an old (…) horse and, if possible, incited him against his neighbor. (…) Here I collected nice things, of which no museum owns a piece.” (Volkmann-Linden 11.09.1903) The indigenous people appear in Volkmann’s depiction as romantic-exoticized as well as dangerous “others”.

Collecting here goes hand in hand with subjugation and is thus a symbolic continuation of the conquest and appropriation of the “alienated” Other. The indigenous people become extras in the romantic self-representation of the “heroic conqueror” and their interests and purposes play no role for the “adventurer.” If one were to write a history of the “collector Volkmann” based in this activities, this would be a trivialization, and by focusing on the individual and his career, the colonial project would be individualized. At this point, it may be more profitable to deconstruct the story and focus on the racist worldview that underpinned the collecting in order to illuminate the structural, ideological dimension of the whole that fueled it. If we now return to the initial question, it can be stated: Colonial actors were themselves partly interested in constructing adventurer biographies, a fact that should be noted in a critical examination and the methods and modes of representation that accompany it.

Nevertheless, to the extent that the individuals who appropriated the objects are embedded in the context of colonial ideologies and political-economic interests, biographical research can be a useful method for contouring the history of collection and thus ensuring a contribution to the critical reappraisal of the colonial past.

Philipp Müller is doing his PhD at the Institute of Ethnology at Goethe University Frankfurt on legitimation patterns of museum appropriation and collection practices in German Southwest Africa. His research focuses on racism theory, the colonial history of ethnological museums, and the collecting of ethnographica.

(Photo: Jonathan Leliveldt)