Colonial contexts of the collections

Organisation, contact persons

Project management:  Dr. Thomas Tabery
Phone:  +49 89 28638-2656

Research of possible colonial collection contexts at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

As a measure complementing its long-standing endeavours in the field of searching for Nazi loot, in the autumn of 2021 the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek started to expand its collection-historical exploration work to the Oriental and Asian Department in the form of a self-funded project. It is the first time in German librarianship that, outside of the domain of the research of NS loot, defined parts of the collection are submitted to extensive scrutiny with respect to their history of ownership and origin, in order to identify and document possible colonial collection contexts. The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has thus opened itself consciously to the examination of Germany’s colonial heritage which has been going on in German museums for years, transferring it from museum artefacts of material culture to the written cultural heritage and thus facing its special responsibility as an institution safeguarding literature from outside Europe.

Subject of examination

The project focuses on the provenances of various Oriental and Asian collection parts, which came to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek since the start of the 20th century, on the one hand in the course of expeditions or acquisition journeys, on the other hand in the form of donations or of acquisitions from antiquarian book traders. The Tibetan collection of the zoologist Ernst Schäfer (1910 – 1992), which was brought from central Asia to Munich by the German Tibet expedition of 1938/39 and was transferred to the library’s holdings in the 1970s in the form of property of the Free State of Bavaria, is subject to examination, as is the fund of Oriental manuscripts which were collected by the long-term head of the acquisition department of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Emil Gratzl (1877 – 1957), during his journey to the Orient undertaken in 1913/14 for the purpose of studies, and which were bequeathed to the library in 1957.

These two collection bodies under examination already show the great diversity of the project with respect to origins and processes of acquisition: Schäfer’s five-person expedition team, which was politically supported by the Reichsführer SS Himmler, was characterized by scientific and ethnological skilled knowledge, which translated into extensive collections of over 3,000 bird skins (Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin) and around 2,000 ethnographic objects (Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich). However, due to a lack of philological expertise, the expedition members collected a comparatively small number of printed works and manuscripts, which were acquired mostly randomly, partly in the form of presents. In contrast, Gratzl, who, as a skilled Orientalist, had the required linguistic knowledge, acquired Arabic manuscripts following careful consideration and selection during his stays in Aleppo and Cairo, if as a private person and in small numbers.

A further focus of the examinations is on the acquisition journey of Georg Reismüller (1882 – 1936) to China, Japan and Korea in 1928/29. He was appointed Director General of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek still in the year of his return. Due to his fateful involvement in the immediate effects of the Nazi seizure of power on the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, which finally led to Reismüller’s ousting in 1935 – fuelled by fierce attacks conducted by the circle of colleagues and personal intrigues –, Reismüller himself has been the subject of various examinations, but so far his nine-month acquisition journey, as a result of which the collection of Chinese books (L.sin. = Libri sinici) at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek abruptly grew by 150%, being extended from around 18,500 specimens to 30,000 volumes, has not been examined more closely with respect to its origination, course and results.

The time frame of the collections under scrutiny comprises the 20th century and extends from the convolute of Yemeni manuscripts from the collection of the Italian voyager Giuseppe Caprotti (1862 – 1919) purchased in 1902 through the agency of the Orientalist Eduard Glaser (1855 – 1908) to the acquisitions of extensive text bodies of around 2,800 manuscripts of the south Chinese Yao ethnicity, which were included in the library’s holdings only starting in the 1980s, and on to several hundred Old South Arabian minuscule inscriptions on wood sticks in the Sabaean language from the time up to the sixth century AD. By including the two latter collections, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek expresses its unreserved willingness to also subject more recent antiquarian purchases to close scrutiny and to find out in this manner whether the immediate acquisition contexts can withstand critical examination also under today’s criteria.

Project results