Wilhelm Joest’s ARCHIVE and the Limits of Provenance Research

In historiographic accounts of the development of anthropology in 19th century Germany, Wilhelm Joest is completely absent. This may be explained by his early death – he died aged 45 during a collection trip in today’s Solomon Islands – and by his writing, which was never driven by theoretical considerations. And yet Joest still was an important figure in Berlin’s early anthropological circles. He was one of the first to receive a titular professorship [Titularprofessur] for anthropology, a close friend (and sometimes enemy) of Adolf Bastian, and his hybrid works between travel literature and ethnography reached a wide academic and popular reading audience. While most ethnographic museums in Germany hold at least some objects collected by Joest, his sister Adele Rautenstrauch transformed the bulk of his collection into a museum of its own right after his death, the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in his natal city of Cologne. Joest collected and published frantically throughout his life and left an immense body of books, collections, and correspondence with various museums. However, what makes Joest so interesting from today’s perspective is his collection of diaries, which he kept throughout his life and which allow an almost unique insight into how ethnographic collection functioned in the late 19th century, both in the field and the metropole. This collection of archival materials in varying shapes makes Joest’s case interesting beyond the personal history itself, because it allows to ask questions that go to the heart of what imperial ethnography was and how it expressed itself on the personal level. This wealth of information also makes Joest a prime target for provenance research, which is the attempt to reconstruct the origins of the many artefacts he collected and to identify potential instances of violence and injustice which may indicate the need for repatriation. Provenance research as a method is currently favored by many anthropologists and museum officials alike as the best way to redress imperial injustices in Germany’s ethnographic museums. Therefore, in this short essay, I want to take a closer look at the multifaceted archive of Wilhelm Joest and ask what it can tell us about the methodology of provenance research, including its potential limitations.

I begin by briefly depicting Joest’s academic trajectory to position his archive within the realm of 19th century German anthropology. Wilhelm Joest was born in 1852 in Cologne, back then part of Prussia. He came from a family of wealthy Protestant sugar merchants, who had moved to Catholic Cologne two generations earlier and were part of the city’s close-knit Protestant trading elite. His family’s wealth and global business contacts allowed Joest to travel and collect extensively without ever being burdened by financial constraints. And travel he did, first to North Africa from 1874 to 1876 and then around the Americas from 1876 to 1878. While Joest already collected during these early trips, he did so privately, without any attempt to publish his experiences. This changed during his next journey through Asia, presumably because of an encounter he had with Adolf Bastian before he left. Joest began writing travel reports for German newspapers and collected more systematically. In a letter to Bastian, he professed his desire “to travel completely scientifically and finally leave behind the “Globetrotter”.”1

After his return, Joest soon moved to Berlin and started work on his doctoral thesis on the Gorontalo language. Despite his admitted lack of expertise, he converted the experiences of his last journey into two lectures on Seram and Formosa and on the Ainu, both of which he held in front of the Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory, thus starting his career as a professional ethnographer. These lectures, which were later published in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, read like common ethnographic case studies of the time: straight-forward descriptions of a people, their way of life and the place they inhabit. Joest also used this period to sort his collection and donate parts of it to strategic museums, most importantly the Royal Museum for Ethnology in Berlin. These donations, together with his lectures and his thesis, which he finishes in June of 1883, quickly earned him a scientific reputation. From November 1883 to June 1884, he travelled around Africa and even though he had to skip his journey to the Pacific due to a malaria infection, when he returned to Berlin, he had firmly established himself as a member of the Berlin scientific community. Joest married Clara vom Rath, who was also part of Cologne’s sugar-trading Protestant elite, and together they moved into a new representative flat that Joest transformed into his private museum. From there, he steadily increased his influence both among Berlin’s academia and nobility, moved into the Ethnologisches Museum’s expert commission and received his professorship. He wrote his most scientifically acclaimed work Tattooing, Ornamental Scars and Bodypainting [Tätowiren, Narbenzeichnen und Körperbemalen] and further enlarged his collection with a journey to the Guyanas and Suriname. Finally, in 1896, he begun the expedition to the Pacific of which he had dreamed since he officially became an ethnographer. Already in bad health during his departure, however, Joest’s state deteriorated during his prolonged stay on Santa Cruz and he finally died in 1897 on the steamer returning to Sidney.

The wealth of archival information that Joest left behind allows to closely track most of his life. Joest also wrote extensively about the objects he collected and kept book on his expenses. It seems that given this background, establishing the provenance of the objects that remain in the ethnographic museums today should be a relatively easy and straight-forward task. This, however, is not the case. Instead, as I will argue, Joest’s archive and collection, because they are some complete, highlight the limits of provenance research when it comes to 19th century collections. The archive of Joest shows that provenance research may not always be the best approach to determining the imperial entanglement of ethnographic objects. Yet it simultaneously offers new avenues to engage with the imperial legacy of contemporary museums. Here, I will first give some arguments for the limitations of provenance research and then conclude by thinking about potential alternatives.

The first problem that arises is the sheer mass of objects in Joest’s collection. Today, there are 5237 objects with a single inventory number remaining that can be attributed to Joest, and some more that were collected by Joest but have vanished. Joest writes a lot about his collecting, but even he does not address each single artefact specifically unless it has special meaning for him. Often, his entries read more like this example from Istanbul, where he simply writes “Bought silver works”. There are various objects in his collection today that can be identified as Ottoman silver works, but there is no way to determine whether these are the ones he was referring to in this instance. Potentially, a close analysis of the objects themselves by an expert with regional experience could reveal the some of the connections between specific moments of purchase and present-day objects, but to use such an approach for most of the 5237 objects seems impossible. And even with such expertise, many of the artefacts could probably still not be identified, which leads me to my second point: the aim of the documentation.

Like his mentor Adolf Bastian, Wilhelm Joest believed in an empirical inductive approach when it came to artefacts: these objects in their material form held all the information required to understand their creators. Glenn Penny has described Bastian’s ethnographic museum essentially as a laboratory where these material truths should be compared and revealed.2

However, Penny also shows that this gargantuan project – comparing all material in the world – was doomed to fail from the beginning. However, while Joest was collecting, Bastian was still convinced of its feasibility and, accordingly, the agenda was to collect as much as possible before artefacts became “spoiled” by European influence. Under this salvage paradigm, careful documentation was simply not a priority. The skill of the ethnographic collector was to identify relevant specimen while in the field and bring them to the metropole, not to produce extensive documentation thought superfluous. Joest’s description of his collecting acts are never geared towards identifying or describing specific objects, as all relevant information was in the materiality of the object itself. There are inventories that Joest wrote for organisational purposes – the objects had to be registered after all – but these lists, while they can often be linked to contemporary inventories, do seldom include information that would allow connecting the descriptions of collecting experiences to specific objects. Joest’s collection is both vast and vaguely documented, and both characteristics make it almost impossible to clearly identify specific object provenances.

Yet even if this were possible, there is another barrier. Because while the diaries are often unclear when it comes to the description of specific artefacts, they are very clear about Joest’s collecting methods. They show that collecting often meant the acquisition of objects from intermediaries. This group included, on the one hand, vendors who had specialised in “curios” and were catering specifically to the growing number of travellers interested in collecting. On the other hand, there were colonial and other white local actors who collected for Joest. For example, in a letter to Bastian, Joest describes the following occurrence: “I deposited 100 $ each at the Korean border, then in Nikolawsk (Giljaken) + Xaborowka (Golden) + must wait for the result.”3 Again, as Joest’s goal was to collect as much as he could as fast as possible, he rarely stayed longer in one place than a few days. In-depth collecting was impossible within such a short time frame and hence the use of local dealers was the most convenient manner to quickly gain a substantial collection. If such a dealer was not available, the alternative was to work with other trusted locals by commissioning them to collect for Joest and send him the collections at a later point. Joest also used his many letters of recommendation to task colonial officials with collecting for him, which was often possible even though he travelled mostly outside German colonial space. This form of collecting, while convenient for Joest, makes it nearly impossible to identify the original provenance of objects so collected, as well as their mode of acquisition. Because while it is clear that Joest paid money for them in a relatively equal form of exchange, it remains unclear how Joest’s intermediaries gained access to them. And because Joest rarely mentions the names of these intermediaries, further research would be equally difficult and time intensive.

There is an exception tp this ambiguity: objects that Joest describes in his published articles come with much more information and can often be clearly linked to specific objects in contemporary collections. For example, there is a snuff box in Joest’s collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente about which he writes “It can be proved that this belonged to King Panda, the father of Ketchwayo. cf. my „All Around Africa“ p. 146. Panda gave this snuff box to a Mr Gardner in Verulam. Unicum.”4 In All Around Africa, Joest describes how he went to visit Zulu king Cetshwayo, how he arrived only after he had died, how he lied about his identity to be able to see the body, and how he received the snuff box as a gift from Cetshwayo’s family – a clearly established provenance.

However, there are some indicators that the truthfulness of Joest’s published account is questionable. For example, he includes the following story about the grave of Zulu king Shaka: “One dark night, because the Sulu are already quite independent here, I went digging for hidden treasures and really did find a skull and several bones, although I certainly don’t want to claim that they came from the old Tchaka.”5 Joest already hedges his anecdote a bit by dismissing the possibility that these could indeed by Shaka’s bones. But he still paints himself as a daring collector willing to risk his life to acquire rare skulls for the anthropological collection of Rudolf Virchow. However, there is no mention of this incident at all in the diary, where normally all of Joest’s published description have at least a short equivalent. And under closer scrutiny, the story seems increasingly unlikely – the desire of white collectors for skulls was widely known in South Africa in 1883 and it should have been impossible for Joest to clandestinely open the grave of the most revered Zulu leader and rob it without any repercussions by the “quite independent” Zulu. In this light, anecdotes like Joest’s visit to Cetshwayo have to be regarded, at least, with caution. There was much competition among collectors in the late 19th century and exaggerating the origin of one’s objects (or human remains) by linking it to famous figures effectively increased their value. And while this example only refers to Joest, the fact that his strategy was successful indicates that it might have been more than a personal predilection. Especially in published sources, the goal of ethnographic collectors might not always have been to provide truthful description of provenance.

Joest’s lacking trustworthiness indicates a more thorough problem that goes beyond the cases in which he was actively distorting his experiences. One could of course go over every one of Joest’s provenance description and ask in how far he can be trusted. With a critical eye, context clues can be identified that indicate whether or not a description is credible. Yet even in those cases where Joest can be trusted, a more fundamental problem remains: it is still only Joest’s perspective we take into account, the perspective of the white imperial actor, and even if he thought that his description was truthful, his perception might have been completely mistaken. Kurt Ebeling, referring to the work of Ann Stoler, has pointed towards this theoretical problem: provenance research is based on imperial archives that are marred by gaps and occlusions, and by the selective memory of an exploitative ideology. And, he continues,


there is not only the archive, its content and its gaps, what is said and what is kept silent – the colonial situation confronts us with a much more radical situation that needs to be thought of today: and that is the absence of archives; with the situation that in one place, the place of the event even, there is no record and no archive at all – which does not mean that nothing happened here, but which only means that it was not recorded in this way, archived, institutionalised.6


This theoretical uneasiness with too simple an understanding of what an archive is and does extends to my work with Joest’s personal archive. Often, all I would want is for one of the persons Joest describes to raise their own voice, to speak their own truth, but this is impossible. And what about all those people that Joest collected from and who never made it into his documentation? Joest has produced thousands of pages of diary, yet all are written from his own perspective, an imperial perspective at that. Thus, identifying the provenance of his collections raises a hard question: How much worth has this one perspective when it comes to reconstructing the necessarily multi-perspectival encounters that led to the acquisition of ethnographic objects?

I have tried to outline the problems I encountered in determining the provenance of the relatively well-document collection of Wilhelm Joest. I think that these problems apply not only to this one collection but are problems of archive-based provenance research in general, especially because by far not all collections have been documented as thoroughly as Joest’s. What are the consequences? First, I think we have to be more realistic in our expectations regarding provenance research. While the origin of some objects will become clearer, the majority will probably remain shrouded in ambiguity. This means that we should refrain from painting provenance research as the panacea to the imperial entanglements of museum collections. Right now, German ethnographic museums, which have been chronically underfunded for decades, suddenly can access extensive sums of money for provenance research, which creates a strong incentive for a kind of research that might eventually remain without the results it promises and distracts from the many interesting questions that could be explored with these sources and collections instead. Politically, there is also the danger that provenance research becomes or is perceived to become a smoke screen that delays or thwarts efforts for restitution, as Kwame Opoku has recently highlighted.7

Provenance research alone will not decolonise the ethnographic museum, and potentially it will drain energy from research projects that might be more expedient towards this goal.

What would be alternatives to the provenance research approach? The first could be to write a more general history of ethnographic collecting that investigates structures rather than the origins of individual objects. Because while the archive of Wilhelm Joest does not provide too many answers regarding where his artefacts precisely originated, it does allow for a pretty good understanding of how ethnographic collecting functioned, both in the field and the metropole. It shows that while Joest mostly bought his objects legally, he was always willing to steal them if he could. It shows how he utilised the discourse of science to legitimise his actions and how he framed his expropriation of indigenous peoples as an act of preservation. And it shows the complex system of renumeration through prestige, decorations and positions that was in place in Germany to fuel the global collecting frenzy.8 These insights provide a good historiographic foundation for moving the discussion on restitution away from a legalistic object-by-object approach towards questions of ethics and cultural politics. There is no necessity to determine the provenance of every single object to ask where it should be displayed today, given that it was acquired under the general injustice of colonial occupation. Secondly, it might be interesting to move the focus from how objects were collected to why this was done. In their extensive materiality, ethnographic collections sometimes seem self-explanatory, but they actually pose a series of questions regarding the motivations behind the amassing of hundreds of thousands of objects belonging to supposedly uncivilised peoples. The reference to the salvage paradigm in 19th century ethnography certainly provides one answer, but only relying on this one explanation makes for a rather superficial reading of the motives of collectors. A new approach might highlight agendas and desires that are not so different from current European identities as might be expected from the often seemingly strange obsessions of 19th century collectors. Such reflections might highlight imperial continuities that still define contemporary museum practise, such as the absence of discussions of white identities in a space that was arguably created to define and stabilise these very identities. This may be a provocative question, but this makes it worth asking, highlighting the need for the more far-reaching debates that could be had beyond the scope of provenance research.


1 Letter from Joest to Bastian, 3 September 1881, Archiv Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

2 Glenn Penny, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), chap. 5.

3 Letter from Joest to Bastian, 1881-09-03.

4 Historical Inventory, Museum Fünf Kontinente.

5 Wilhelm Joest, “Reise in Afrika Im Jahre 1883,” Zeitschrift Für Anthropologie, Ethnologie Und Urgeschichte, 1885, chap. 11.

6 Kurt Ebeling, “Mal d’archives Revisited, Oder Archivübel Aus Postkolonialer Perspektive. Eine Sichtbehinderung,” Decolonising Collections – Networking towards Relationality, 2019,

7 Kwame Opoku, “Will Provenance Research Delay Restitution of Looted African Artefacts?,” Decolonising Collections – Networking towards Relationality, 2021,

8 Carl Deußen, “‘To Give Away My Collection for Free Would Be Nonsense’ – Using Decorations to Engage with Collecting Practices in Imperial Germany,” Retour. Freier Blog für Provenienzforschende, 2020,



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Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum
Das Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum setzt sich für eine interdisziplinäre, postkoloniale Erforschung seiner Sammlungen ein. Wir unterstützen den Dialog, den Wissensaustausch und die Kooperation mit Wissenschaftler*innen, Kurator*innen, Aktivist*innen, Künstler*innen und Akteur*innen der postmigrantischen Gesellschaft sowie mit den Nachkommen der Gesellschaften, aus denen die Sammlungen stammen.