This blog documents the efforts of a research project that systematically reconstructs the Australian natural history archive in Berlin, in order to examine the role of colonial collections in the production, circulation and use of knowledge about the world. It focuses on the objects (from rock samples to preserved plants and animals) as well as the written material (e.g. journals and letters) sent by German-speaking explorers to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin, whose anatomical, mineralogical, and zoological collections merged into the Museum für Naturkunde in 1889. Because of these naturalists’ activities, the museum (today the Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research Berlin, MfN) holds one of the world’s largest historical collections of Australian flora and fauna, including important specimens of species that are now considered endangered or extinct. Commencing in October 2020, the project will systematically reconstruct the museum’s Australian archive and its role in the production of knowledge of the natural world, starting with the Blandowski papers in the MfN’s archives. The project thereby examines the role of colonial collections in the production, circulation and use of knowledge about the world. It sees the current debates on the restitution of artefacts acquired by European institutions in colonial contexts as an opportunity to inquire into the processes of knowledge production about nature and the coloniality of knowledge of the environment. In this sense, the project aims to trace an entangled, global natural history. It asks how historical collections – and the Indigenous and European knowledges stored in them – can be be analysed, made accessible to communities, cared for as shared heritage, and presented in a respectful and collaborative manner.
The first phase of the project was funded by the Digital Cultural Heritage Studies (CHeST) initiative of Trier University and the Research Funding Unit of the University of Potsdam. Prof. Dr. Anja Schwarz (Potsdam) and PD Dr. Eva Bischoff (Trier) will act as the blog’s curators, publishing regular updates on the project’s work, short commentaries on archival finds, as well as contributions from invited guest authors.