Bronze head tells a tale of African culture and European plunderers

1 June 2012

The Ethnographic Collection of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is tucked away in the basement of the Forum universitatis. The more than 3,200 objects not only tell the stories of foreign cultures but also reveal just as much about the culture of European collectors over the past century. Custodian Dr. Anna-Maria Brandstetter provides insight into this treasure trove.

The heavy fire-proof door to the basement of the Forum universitatis does not seem to hold great promise at first. It looks as if it might simply lead to a boiler room. The uninitiated visitor would probably assume that there is nothing more than pile of yellowed files stored here. However, this door is the entrance to a world of treasures. Dr. Anna Maria-Brandstetter of the Institute of Anthropology and African Studies at JGU turns the key in the lock and leads the way to the Ethnographic Collection. "In the first room we have the objects that are a bit larger," she says before entering.

In one display case is a warrior's armor made of coconut fibers. It comes from the Gilbert Islands in Micronesia. A Congolese fetish figure glares through the glass. It is covered in nails, while its navel contains a snail shell. And an odd conical creation made of plant fibers and clay comes from the highlands of Papua-New Guinea. It has two faces. "We do not even really know if it is actually from the highlands," states Brandstetter. A collector brought it home from there decades ago. On being asked what exactly it is, all she can say is: "We don't know."

3,200 items in the basement

Nevertheless, Brandstetter, as custodian, knows a lot about the 3,200 items in the three large rooms and the angular passages connecting them. A wooden figure with a leather apron lies on a table in the middle of the first room. It is almost a meter tall. The arms are attached with nails, nails are also used to indicate the eyes and glass beads decorate its neck. "In the 1930s, a collector in Namibia commissioned this and six other figures." The carver then made sculptures of his own family: his wife and children.

"The Ovambo do not have any tradition of wood carving," explains Brandstetter. The results are thus understandably unsophisticated. The breasts of the women are fastened with nails. "Actually, I find these figures really beautiful and they are really impressive when you see them together." The custodian bends over her "patient". "This leather apron here is the only thing we need to fix." The leather is torn and so this figurine is on the table, separated from the rest of the family.

Major Mainz Congo expedition

In 1950, when the Ethnographic Collection at the newly founded Institute of Anthropology was first being formed, one woman came to dominate the process. Dr. Erika Sulzmann was the head of the Mainz Congo Expedition from 1951 to 1954, the first large-scale, postwar German research expedition. She met stiff resistance as it was very unusual to have a woman appointed to such an important post at the time. She brought more than 500 objects back to Mainz. Further trips and additional objects followed. After being hired as an assistant at the Institute, Sulzmann became the custodian of the collection from 1960 to 1976. And even after her official retirement, she continued to work on the collection in the basement of the Forum universitatis.

Brandstetter draws attention to Sulzmann's old card-index cabinet. In addition to descriptions, the cards include precise drawings. An old Adler typewriter sits enthroned above the cabinet. These things have now themselves become cherished items in the collection, just like the display cases, which are all from Sulzmann's era. They are representative of academic history, witnesses of an era when it was still considered normal practice to transport back masses of material specimens from journeys to foreign lands.

Sacred and secret

But such times are long past and even the items in the collection are now handled differently. Brandstetter points out a covered display case. "Collections like ours still have items that are sacred and secret. We have things you simply can't put on display." Behind the paper-covered glass are cult objects used by Australian aborigines as companions on their dream journeys. These artifacts were simply carted off to Europe about a century ago, but are now being preserved responsibly in consultation with the relevant Australian authorities. This concept is known as "virtual repatriation". "The items remain where they are but those involved are given a say in what happens with them," states Brandstetter.

A bronze head from the former Nigerian city state of Benin also exemplifies the way in which objects from other cultures are now being differently treated. "It is an ancestral statue created to honor the memory of a dead prince, an Oba," the custodian clarifies The British took it when they looted the country in 1897. Back then they called it a punitive expedition as several researchers had been killed in the region. "Many of the items were then auctioned off to finance this supposed punitive expedition."

The Oba's scars

A collector acquired the valuable piece and then donated it to the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart. It came to Mainz when it was exchanged for other objects. "We acquired most of our items with a problematic past through such transactions," says Brandstetter, before turning back again to the head. "Every Oba has an individual appearance. Look at the headdress and the facial scars. This is clear evidence that African art is not merely abstract."

Brandstetter gives talks on the Ethnographic Collection, items are lent to museums and even students work with the treasures in the basement. "For example, there is currently a seminar on the history of collecting," says the custodian. The collection is thus thoroughly integrated into teaching.

When walking through the low basement rooms, the custodian focuses on just a few objects. However, she has many stories and anecdotes to relate and provides background information that tells us just as much about the collectors as about the pieces they collected. The collection not only reflects African, Australian, and Micronesian history but also reveals an era of European history. It is as if time has stood still, and Erika Sulzmann has just finished writing her last file card.