The content on this page was translated automatically.

03/01/2022 | Portraits and stories

Crocodiles in the basement

What hunting trophies tell us about the colonial era - and how researchers at the university are investigating it

Tropical dwellers in a cellar in northern Hesse: for decades, horns and animal specimens from faraway countries were stored in wooden crates and blue plastic bags in the basement of the Ethnological Museum in Witzenhausen. But now researchers at the university are examining the holdings - and in doing so are also fathoming a piece of colonial history.

"In the meantime, we've moved everything to the attic," says student Maximilian Preuss, looking into the eyes of a wild animal, a green-and-yellow-scaled crocodile with a pointed mouth. Around its upper jaw, someone has tied a thin string with a small slip of paper for the inventory number. Next to it is a hippo skull weighing about 25 kilograms. "Be careful, the teeth are sharp," Preuss warns. He is studying history and public affairs at the University of Kassel and writing his master's thesis on colonial hunting. When he's not writing, he's dusting, measuring, weighing and taking inventory of horns, skulls, hides and skins in the attic of the Ethnological Museum. Animal remains lie around his desk. Preuss carefully retrieves one of them from a moving box: the skin of a four-meter-long anaconda. While he puts down the remains of the tropical dweller, a small fan heater works behind him against the winter cold.

More than 100 animal remains from regions of the Global South came to Witzenhausen. "Many were sent here by graduates of the colonial school as illustrative objects for teaching purposes," knows medical and scientific historian Dr. Marion Hulverscheidt. The German Colonial School of Agriculture, Trade and Commerce trained farmers to open up tropical regions of the world for the empire. With a team of researchers from different disciplines, Hulverscheidt is tackling the collection. "Our goal is to record what is there, determine its origin and process it," she explains. Dr. Christian Hülsebusch adds: "The plan is to integrate the objects into our permanent exhibition. In particular, the relationship between humans and animals in different cultures will be addressed. This ranges from the protection of nature and species to various - in some cases aberrant - varieties of trophy hunting." Hülsebusch is director of the German Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture (DITSL) and, in annual rotation with Witzenhausen's mayor, chairs the foundation that supports and operates the museum. It is not yet clear when the objects will be open to the public.

The hunting trophies are relics of Germany's imperial past. Many of the graduates of the colonial school, the so-called "cultural pioneers," went big-game hunting. They were encouraged to send objects from the colonies to Witzenhausen for teaching purposes, and so hunting trophies also came to Germany. Horns and taxidermy were among them. The DITSL, as the legal successor to the colonial school, inherited all the holdings. "Because at that time everything that had to do with foreign cultures was classified as ethnology, the foundation also bears the name Stiftung Völkerkundliches Museum Witzenhausen. On display here, however, is the DITSL collection, which goes back to the teaching collections of the former colonial school," Hülsebusch explains. "We show spears, jewelry, statues, instruments and everyday objects from different areas of the world. Hunting trophies or parts of animals tended to be assigned to natural history at the time and were therefore put into storage. But actually, the exhibits merely illustrate how the emigrants who were educated here viewed individual aspects of the other culture - so I don't see the museum's task as ethnology, but rather as illustrating the local colonial past and its effects to this day."

Even today, the museum receives exhibits as donations from descendants of former colonial students, development workers or expatriate employees of companies, including hunting trophies. "Often the descendants can do nothing with them. Invaluable to the hunter, they become a burden to the heirs. Horns in the living room they do not want, a master room they no longer have and so they gave and give the pieces to Witzenhausen. Here they were stored in the cellar for years," Hulverscheidt describes the process.

For research, however, the items have value. "For us, these are not just dead things. They are stores of knowledge that give us access to the past," affirms Linda Knop, an art scholar in the university's Department of Modern and Contemporary History. "They tell us about practices of hunting, techniques of taxidermy of animals, and society of the time." Thus, they are a sign of the ideal of masculinity at the time and were also a self-affirmation for the hunter. The trophies made it into the living rooms at home and were meant to bring a piece of nature and originality into the city. Knop: "Today we know the savannah from movies and television. Even though it's usually highly simplified, we still have an image in our heads that we can recall. In the early 20th century, it was different."  Trophies, he said, were also mementos: "But they were by no means natural. Because of the way they were taxidermied, they show a romanticized image of the wild that has little to do with their real origins." For the majority of the Witzenhausen collection, this lies in eastern and southern Africa, more specifically in the area of the present-day states of Tanzania and Namibia. This is how the remains of antelopes, elephants, rhinos and crocodiles, among others, made their way to Germany.

Cultural treasures from former colonies have been the subject of sometimes heated discussions for decades. Questions are asked about the origin and demands are made for restitution, sometimes with success. One example is the so-called Benin bronzes, which the British captured during the conquest of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria and brought to Europe; some pieces are also in German museums. In the meantime, it has been decided to return some Benin bronzes to Nigeria. 

The Witzenhausen Museum has also had experience with the repatriation of objects from former colonies. In 2013, a student mentioned a human skull in the museum's attic in her master's thesis. Its entry in the old inventory pointed to a colonial context of injustice. "Instead of just letting the find disappear back into the collection, we wanted to clean it up," Hulverscheidt says. The researchers discovered that it was the skull of a young Nama woman, which came to Germany in 1907 and was incorporated into the teaching collection. Provenance research and installation of a commemorative object in the museum followed. Subsequently, the skull was transferred to Namibia in August 2018.

In the case of hunting trophies, there has been no such discourse so far. "Hardly anyone wants these objects back," Hülsebusch knows. "They are stored in large numbers in many German museums and gather dust there," adds Hulverscheidt. "Their history is still hardly researched. Yet they too are undoubtedly part of the cultural heritage of the former colonies and of our interwoven history."

The Museum Witzenhausen is open from April to October always on Wednesdays and Sundays from 3 to 5 pm. Individual guided tours for groups at other times can also be arranged by appointment.

This article appeared in the university magazine publik 2022/1. Text: Dennis Müller | Photos: Lukas Jank