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Reciprocal, interdisciplinary and transparent: Provenance research with a restitutional perspective in a colonial context - on the appropriate handling of a collection of human remains, using the Alexander Ecker Collection in Freiburg as an example


The joint project of the Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute Freiburg e.V. and the University of Freiburg aims at working on questions of provenance and the care/handling of human remains in collaboration with probable societies/communities of origin.

The project focuses on the Alexander-Ecker collection of human skulls, named after the anatomist from Freiburg who founded it in c. 1860. The discovery of thus far unknown archival material from this collection enables an innovative, more intensive and more detailed research on provenance to be conducted. The project focuses on approximately 120 skulls believed to originate from the African continent.

The aim of the project is threefold. A detailed documentation will be achieved based on the application of historical and biological non-invasive methods of provenance analysis. Concurrently and in close collaboration with anthropologists, political scientists, and museum representatives from the regions of origin, a concept of reciprocal research and practical care/handling of human remains from colonial contexts will be developed.

An advisory board inaugurated/assembled accordingly will regularly convene to secure maximum transparency and participation.

As there is little experience thus far in such an interdisciplinary as well as intercultural approach, besides the clarification of provenance a major objective will be the documentation of experiences during the course of the project. This will result in best practice recommendations for the rapprochement between societies/communities of origin and the location of collections using the Freiburg collection as a concrete example. 

Acceptance as well as sensitivities of different approaches aimed to clarify provenance will be worked out in a dialogue. Based on the achieved/obtained results, the foundation for a discussion about the application of advanced methods, including invasive methods, and their gain in knowledge will be provided.