Working Through Colonial Collections

An Ethnography of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin

Margareta von Oswald

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Reckoning with colonial legacies in Western museum collections

What are the possibilities and limits of engaging with colonialism in ethnological museums? This book addresses this question from within the Africa department of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. It captures the Museum at a moment of substantial transformation, as it prepared the move of its exhibition to the Humboldt Forum, a newly built and contested cultural centre on Berlin’s Museum Island. The book discusses almost a decade of debate in which German colonialism was negotiated, and further recognised, through conflicts over colonial museum collections.

Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork examining the Museum’s various work practices, this book highlights the Museum’s embeddedness in colonial logics and shows how these unfold in the Museum’s everyday activity. It addresses the diverse areas of expertise in the Ethnological Museum – the preservation, storage, curation, and research of collections – and also draws on archival research and oral history interviews with current and former employees. Working through Colonial Collections unravels the ongoing and laborious processes of reckoning with colonialism in the Ethnological Museum’s present – processes from which other ethnological museums, as well as Western museums more generally, can learn.

With a preface by Sharon Macdonald. 

Ebook available in Open Access.
This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).

A visual introduction


Chapter One
Learning about German colonialism: On memory, activism, and the Humboldt Forum

Chapter Two
Being affected: A methodological approach to working through colonial collections

Chapter Three
Expanding collection histories: The museum as peopled organisation

Chapter Four
Troubling epistemologies: On the endurance of colonial discrimination

Chapter Five
Managing plethora:Caring for colonial collections

Chapter Six
Researching provenance: The politics of writing history

Chapter Seven
Probing materiality: Collections as amalgams of their histories

Chapter Eight
Repairing representations: Curatorial cultures and change in the Ethnological Museum


References cited

Format: Monograph - paperback

Size: 234 × 156 × 17 mm

320 pages

Illustrated with a colour section of 32 pp.

ISBN: 9789462703100

Publication: November 08, 2022

Languages: English

Stock item number: 151077

Margareta von Oswald is an anthropologist and curator. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She co-edited 'Across Anthropology. Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial' (2020, Leuven University Press).

The book will be a great source of information for museum researchers; decolonial scholars, and scholars interested in German colonial history, cultural politics in Berlin and Germany, the nature of institutions and public political debate; as well as anthropologists who deal with material culture and the history of anthropology as a discipline. - Isabel Bredenbröker, The February Journal, 03: 161–166,


Impressive. This research spans a crucial decade of critique, debate, and change in Europe’s ethnological museums. The fieldwork offers a rich 'inside' view of the choices facing museum professionals working under unprecedented pressures and constraints. Von Oswald’s attitude of 'observant participation' dissolves the binaries that can orient understandings of a controversial project like the Humboldt Forum. The book’s detailed ethnographic accounts are effectively articulated with analyses pitched at wider institutional, national and international levels. The organizing concept of 'working through' denotes acting within-and-against institutional structures, working toward a transformation without guarantees. Von Oswald argues for more open, responsive, decolonizing developments, without ever grasping for easy alternatives or final solutions.
James Clifford, University of California