Tricky search for the origin of objects

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A wet preparation jar labelled ’Herero Weichtheile v. Kopf’ (Herero
A wet preparation jar labelled ’Herero Weichtheile v. Kopf’ (Herero soft parts of head). Image: Bernhard Bock
  • Event
  • Knowledge Transfer and Innovation


On Wednesday, 10 April 2024, the Day of Provenance Research will once again be celebrated nationwide. This year, Friedrich Schiller University Jena is taking part for the first time. From Wednesday, an exhibition will be on display in the foyer of the Thuringian University and State Library (ThULB), providing insights into provenance research at three Jena institutions: The ThULB itself, the Anatomical Collection and the University’s Phyletic Museum.

"Our aim is to give visitors a brief insight into provenance research," says Dr Friederike Schwalbe. The art historian heads a three-person task force at the ThULB, which deals with the provenance - the origin - of thousands of books. As Friederike Schwalbe explains, for the past two years they have been analysing the acquisitions made between 1933 and 1945. A Sisyphean task, as it involves around 30,000 books, of which around 40 per cent are suspected of having been acquired unlawfully. If this is the case, the search is on for the owners or their descendants in order to return the books. Sometimes the books are allowed to remain in Jena as gifts or loans.

Numerous artefacts from the colonial past

At the Anatomical Collection of the University of Jena, provenance research focuses primarily on objects from the colonial context, as Dr Ulrike Lötzsch explains. There are around 100 human remains, i.e. human bones or parts thereof, in the collection, which was founded in 1804. "In our display case, we primarily illustrate the work process involved in provenance research," says Dr Lötzsch, who is in charge of the collection. Sources include invoices, inventory lists and even age-old labelling of exhibits.

Bernd Bock of the Phyletic Museum calls provenance research an everyday task at the museum: "A collection without knowledge of the origin of the objects remains a hodgepodge." Sources of research can travel reports, for example, as many of the exhibits came into the collection through explorers. For the exhibition in the ThULB, the museum is contributing a so-called hair chart, an instrument that was used to determine human races, as well as a "hair colour scale according to Fischer and Saller", which served the same purpose. Also on display are measuring tools that were used to measure skulls in order to differentiate between races. These are artefacts that point to a truly dark past. The exhibition at the ThULB sheds some light on this.

The exhibition on provenance research can be seen from 10 April to 22 May 2024 in the main building of the Thuringian University and State Library Jena (Bibliotheksplatz 2). Visitors can view the exhibition during the library’s opening hours, admission is free.