Discussing human remains
in German Collections

Similar to many university collections, there are also human remains from former German and European colonies in Göttingen. Most of them were taken without the consent of the local people – by scientists, travelers, colonial officials or traders. Robbery and grave looting were not uncommon. Two Göttingen University Collections still hold around 1,300 human remains from various countries, including from Africa and Oceania.
This exhibition centers around several short films made by the cultural anthropologist and filmmaker Sofia Leikam, in her attempt to develop a multi-layered picture of this sensitive topic. In three chapters – Introducing, Doing Research, Giving Context – each of these films portrays the visiting scientists and their different approaches,
from archival work to work in the collections to artistic forms.
The digital exhibition „Unpacking Colonialism“ is dedicated to the perspectives of five guest researchers from countries related to these collections in Göttingen. What are their reflections upon encountering these human remains? What questions and demands do they rise about
the handling of these remains?
With every cardboard box they open, they not only
get a glimpse of the human remains stored inside.
At the same time, they open the chapter of
European colonialism and its continuities that has remained closed for a long time in the
German context.

Sensitive Provenances

The Research Project

Colonial Heritage

The Collections​

Collaborative Perspectives

The Fellowship Program​

Making Visible

The Films ​

A human stays a human stays a human remain / The Films

Sensitive Provenances –
The Research Project​

To this day, little research has been done on how the approximately 1,300 human remains from colonial contexts came to Göttingen. Only in the course of coming to terms with German colonialism in recent years have the university collections and their problematic acquisition contexts come into focus.

The question of where these mortal remains came from and how they got to Göttingen has been occupying a team of researchers at the University of Göttingen since 2020. In the research project „Sensitive Provenances“, historians, anatomists, biological anthropologists and cultural anthropologists are investigating the origin of the human remains, the context of their acquisition and their appropriation as scientific ‚objects‘.

In addition to provenance research, the project is looking for ways to return the remains together with colleagues from the countries concerned. Are there descendants waiting for the return of their ancestors? Is there a way to return them to where they came from?

Colonial Heritage – The Collections

In Göttingen, there are specifically two collections with human remains: the “Blumenbach Skull Collection” and the collection of the Anthropological Institute. For a long time, many of these human remains were used in research and teaching. Since 2020, the remains from colonial contexts have no longer been used in research and teaching.

After his death in 1840, the skull collection founded by the Göttingen anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach comprised around 245 skulls, which he had received through a global network of colleagues, former students and correspondence partners. Blumenbach’s successors endeavored to continue the collection until the 1940s. Today it comprises 845 skulls, around 100 of which are presumed to come from colonial contexts.

The remains from the Anthropology Collection go back to the holdings of the Hamburg Ethnological Museum. Between 1890 and 1920, the museum amassed a large collection of human remains: through its own expeditions such as the Hamburg South Sea Expedition (1908-1910) and through purchases and donations. The collection, which today contains around 1,200 human remains from colonial contexts, was handed over to the University of Göttingen in the 1950s and 1960s.

Callaborative Perspectives – The Fellowship Program

With the gradual coming to terms with German colonialism, the close entanglement of science and colonial rule also came under critical scrutiny. In particular, the collections of human remains systematically established in many European universities since the 18th century profited from the unequal power relations in the colonies.

In addition to a critical reappraisal of historical collecting and research practices, the main concern is an attempt to share the power of interpretation over the collections. By integrating perspectives of representatives from the communities of origin, common conceptualizations, categorizations and work routines are to be problematized and new ways of dealing with the human remains are to be found.

To enable a variety of perspectives on the collections, five visiting scholars from affected countries were invited to Göttingen in autumn 2022. McMichael Mutok from Palau, Maximilian Felix Chami and Alma Simba from Tanzania, Mikael Assilkinga from Cameroon and Te Herekiekie Herewini from Aotearoa/New Zealand worked directly in the collections to gain as much information as possible about the human remains and to find ways for a possible restitution.

Making visible – The Films

The cultural anthropologist and filmmaker Sofia Leikam closely accompanied the visiting scientists during their stay in Göttingen. The filmproject A human stays a human stays a human remain is based on their experiences and the impressions they gained while working with the human remains.

Normally, the human remains are „hidden from the public“, noted Mikael Assilkinga from Cameroon. These films want to counteract this. They show the places where the human remains are stored and make the collection spaces accessible to a broad public.

In doing so, they succeed in giving the human remains a visibility without showing them themselves. At the same time, the films take a differentiated look at the topic of restitution. Among other things, they make it clear that the political and cultural situation in the countries of origin – where civil war sometimes reigns – cannot be disregarded when it comes to the question of the return of human remains.