The specimens may have come from prisoners of war in present-day Namibia.
The following text addresses issues of war, physical violence, human remains and racism, which some readers may find disturbing.
In recent years, the awareness around human remains that come from colonial contexts and which have been stored in public collections unnoticed or unquestioned for decades has grown. The pressure from civil society, politics and communities of origin on institutions to face up to the provenance of their collections has also been increasing for several years.
Again and again, we see human remains in places where we would not expect to see them – like in the Lautarchiv (Sound Archive). The collection includes around 7,500 shellac records, wax cylinders and audio tapes – including recordings of languages and dialects that were produced under forced conditions in prisoner-of-war camps during the First and Second World Wars. The collection also includes recordings of German dialects from the 1920s, voice portraits of famous figures, and sonic documents from the GDR, as well as musical recordings and animal sounds. When the collection was reviewed for the Humboldt Lab’s exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, some laryngeal specimens caught the eye.
Why are there human specimens in the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin’s ? Where do they come from? What was their purpose? The historian Holger Stoecker has investigated these questions as part of a provenance research project. The assertion cannot be proven, but, according to Stoecker's investigations, it seems quite possible that the larynxes come from present-day Namibia and were taken from the corpses of Herero and Nama people who were prisoners of war during the German genocide. The question now is how the university will deal with these human remains, whose gruesome fate can only be surmised and which will probably always remain nameless. Does the community of origin have an interest in taking them back? Ought they to be buried?
Museums and academic collections around the world ask themselves these questions. In an interview, provenance research expert Holger Stoecker talks about the approach he takes to his investigations and the results of his research.
Mr Stoecker, it was no secret that there were two human larynxes in the collection of the Lautarchiv. When did the existence of these human remains start being discussed as a problem?
In 2017, when the Lautarchive was supposed to be prepared for the move to the Humboldt Forum, the premises were inspected. It was on this occasion that the two specimens fell into the hands of the curators. I wasn't there, but that is what I was told. Since these kinds of items need to be treated with a particular level of sensitivity, it quickly became clear to those involved that something had to be done. I was therefore approached and asked to take a look. As a result of that initial consultation, a research project into their provenance came about.
Why is it important to find out where these items come from?
For one thing, it is remarkable that human specimens are found in an archive that deals with sound recordings. At first glance, that doesn't add up. On top of that, the collection contained numerous recordings from non-European origins and colonial contexts. Voices of prisoners of war from colonial armies who had been interned in Germany during not only the First but also the Second World Wars were recorded for various purposes. The obvious assumption was that there was a connection to the specimens. However, it quickly became clear that there was no direct link between the two specimens and any specific sound recordings. It is possible, though, that they came from a colonial context and existed within a setting of racialising research. At least, that is one possible explanation that has become prominent in the provenance report.
What exactly is provenance research and what is its ethical concern?
The general aim of provenance research into objects in collections is to reconstruct their origin, the circumstances of their acquisition, and their history within the collections. When it comes to human remains, we have two dimensions to deal with at once, because, here, we are talking about both the biography of an individual human being, a subject, and the history of objects that were made using that person’s mortal remains. For the past 200 years, ever since anthropological collections have existed, the individuality of human remains has in most cases been ignored or deliberately made invisible. The re-humanisation of human specimens is therefore a central concern of provenance research, especially when it comes to remains and specimens from members of formerly colonised societies. This is because the greatest possible level of re-humanisation is a prerequisite for entering into a dialogue with the society of origin or its state representatives about how the human remains should continue to be handled. This type of provenance research also makes it possible to address specific historical injustice and contributes to a critical reflection on the history of one's own discipline, collection and institution. Behind an anonymous collection object, a person once again becomes visible – a process that can lead to collaboration with descendants and, possibly, result in a dignified conclusion in the form of restitution and (re)burial. Provenance research can help give the deceased individual back a part of their personality by trying to reconstruct the identity and biography of the affected individual from historical sources and gather their individual fate from the remains or specimens themselves by making statements about age, gender, illnesses, injuries and cause of death. This is also roughly how it is framed by a guide for "Interdisciplinary provenance research on human remains from colonial contexts", which colleagues and I are currently completing.
How have you gone about your research?
First, you look at the remains themselves and try to find out what they are and how these specimens were stored. Is there any information or are there any numbers that can be assigned? Their immediate environment, that is, the context in which they were stored, is also examined. Perhaps neighbouring objects can provide clues as to how the specimens were used. In this case, there were fold-out models of an ear, which were apparently made for demonstration purposes in the mid-20th century. It can therefore be assumed that the laryngeal specimens were used for teaching and demonstration purposes.
You then feel your way through the collection, try to find notes, track down the actors involved and comb through their subject areas – to find out whether they have ever dealt with larynxes. That was also what we did in this case. Unfortunately, though, it was not possible to concretely identify the specimens. There was nobody who had written: I worked with preserved larynxes from the Lautarchiv. There were only clues about the contexts. One of these was that the larynx, as the organ of vocal production, was used to highlight "racial differences." Cultural activities such as speech, voice, and song were used to identify allegedly biological "races."
What were you able to find out about where the specimens come from?
It is relatively clear that they became associated in a collection context with the current audio collection in the Lautarchiv in the 1930s. At that time, it was still called the "Institut für Lautforschung" (Institute for Sound Research). There are no concrete traces of the two specimens for the time before that. However, it has been possible to reconstruct institutional structures, actors and contexts of acquisition and research that, when considered together, lead to a tentative subject/object biography. One can thus plausibly assume that the specimens come from Nama or Herero people who were interned in camps during the Herero and Nama War (1904–1908) against German colonial rule in what was then German South West Africa and died there. This assumption is supported by the fact that a large consignment of human larynxes – 38 from Nama individuals and 15 from Herero, including three from children – made its way from German South West Africa, modern-day Namibia, to the Berlin Anatomical Institute. In the concentration camps in which the Germans interned members of the Herero and Nama communities, the living conditions were catastrophic, leading to very high mortality. It is known that the corpses and body parts of deceased prisoners were already processed into specimens on site. A very large number of human skulls and other body parts originate from this colonial war, including whole corpses, which were sent to Germany and, most notably, here, to Berlin. In the report, I tried to reconstruct how the two specimens could have made it from the Anatomical Institute via various stops to the Institut für Lautforschung. I cannot prove this route in concrete terms, but only shine a tentative light on it. I mainly do this on the basis of personnel-related connections between individual research contexts, which, indeed, suggest the specimens ended up in the Institut für Lautforschung by being taken along from one stop-off to another. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the research in the institute focused on the connection between voice, language and “race”, especially with regard to languages in Southern Africa and the people there who spoke them. There was therefore undoubtedly considerable interest in using the two larynx specimens for corresponding research, especially if their origins in modern-day Namibia were still known at that time.
What happened to them there?
The specimens were last used there for demonstration purposes in teaching. Ultimately, they were left as "collection remnants" of no use, fell out of sight and survived several reorganisations, but were not disposed of either. The latter is not infrequently the case, particularly in medical and scientific teaching collections, where specimens get "used up" for teaching and are then replaced by new specimens. Such items are therefore often not inventoried. The two larynx specimens were likewise never documented let alone inventoried. It wasn't until they resurfaced in 2017 that these two specimens attracted strong interest. This time, however, it was not as objects for research or teaching, but as sensitive human remains. They turn out to be "stowaways" of a history of collections, institutions and knowledge that leads us to unimagined abysses.
How is it possible that human remains can be found in so many collections around the world – including at the Humboldt-Universität – but, for a long time, nobody has been interested in them?
It is simply not true that – outside of the collections – nobody was interested in these human remains. The history of collecting human remains in colonial contexts has always also been a history of rejection of European "collecting mania", of resistance to it, and of demands from the affected communities or societies of origin for restitution. There is evidence of this from as early as the beginning of the German colonial era. It is just that these voices were not heard in the German institutions, or were deliberately ignored. My theory is that it was only as a result of the eruption of the East–West confrontation in around 1989/90 that a global situation emerged in which these voices became louder, gained more weight and could no longer be ignored. At the same time, post-colonial NGOs have brought the issue into the public eye. Initially, there was little willingness in the institutions that held the collections to leave practices behind that had been carried out for decades and to deal transparently with the objects in their collections as items from colonial contexts. But soon there were simply no arguments left for this kind of old-school thinking. The fact that there is now more openness and willingness to reappraise items is due, on the one hand, to a generational shift among those responsible for the collections as well as other parties involved. On the other hand, politicians have recognised that there is a need for action, not least due to expectations of civil society, and are making resources available for the reappraisal of the items, which, in turn, benefits the collections and institutions for their part, if nothing else.
How might things move forward following the publication of your report?
The responsible actors should first discuss how the specimens can be handled in a dignified manner that is also practicable. In the end, this approach will certainly lead to the two specimens being removed from the collection, because they do not belong there, for various reasons. The Lautarchiv is primarily an audio collection and not a collection of human specimens. The latter require different conservation conditions in order to be stored appropriately. There are several options: since there is a possible context of origin, I think the obvious thing to do is to first ask the Namibian parties whether they would be interested in taking their possible ancestors back. To do this, those responsible for the Lautarchiv, i.e., the curator of the collection and the institute and university management, would have to seek dialogue with the Namibian embassy, which already has some experience with the restitution of human remains from German collections. If the specimens are not restituted, one option would be, for example, to transfer them to an anatomical collection, where more appropriate storage conditions exist. A third option would be to give the specimens a dignified burial. This is a path that has been trodden several times already. Here, again, the decision lies with those responsible for the Lautarchiv.
Alongside this provenance research, the Lautarchiv is currently addressing the ethical implications of the various courses of action outlined. On this basis, the management of the Hermann von Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Techniques and the President’s Executive Council of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin will make a decision as to how to handle the larynx specimens going forward.
Report of Research
Research into the provenance of two human laryngeal specimens in the Lautarchiv (Sound Archive)
of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
|Date:||01. Februar 2022|