Mann vor Landschaft in Tanzania
Koloniale Kontexte

Unsettling Encounters

„Provenienzforschung und Fotografie" II: Feeling colonialism in collaborative research on photographs and ethnographic 'objects'
Maren Lina Wirth

We are a group of five, three men and two women, sitting in the shade of a Maasai hut in Oltukai, northern Tanzania. One of the men is pointing at me angrily and shouting in Maa (Maasai language). The intonation is demanding, but with my poor language skills, I am unable to understand what he wants me to do. "He says you should tell your father to give him back his things," my friend Leah translates. My heart is pounding. I still don't quite understand how we got to this point and what these men are so upset about.

I came here to conduct ethnographic research and talk to people about two albums containing 110 photographs. I discovered them in the online collection of the Weltmuseum Wien about nine months earlier. The photographs were taken by Max Schoeller, a German entrepreneur, supporter and profiteer of German colonialism, who led an expedition from the coast of German East Africa up to Kenya and Uganda between 1896 and 1897, a time of extensive violence perpetuated by the German military against the local population through interventions euphemistically called 'Strafexpeditionen' (‘punitive expeditions’). The purpose of Schoellers expedition was to hunt, take measurements, 'collect' ethnographic 'objects' and to shoot photographs of landscapes, peoples and animals.

By acquiring cultural belongings on his journeys Schoeller transformed these into ‘objects’ for European museum collections. Apart from his European travel companions Alfred Kaiser and Carl Georg Schillings, Schoeller was accompanied by more than 100 African porters, who carried his acquisitions and hunting trophies. Following his expedition Schoeller 'donated' his extensive collection of various things from a variety of ethnic communities (among them Maasai) to the Lindenmuseum in Stuttgart, the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde Berlin (today Ethnologisches Museum Berlin) and the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (today Weltmuseum Wien). While all three museums are still in possession of 'objects' collected by Schoeller, only the Weltmuseum Wien holds a complete collection of his photographs. In exchange for his 'donations' Schoeller demanded and received various awards (Orden). While the ethnographic 'objects' were at the centre of interest, the photographs served to illustrate and contextualise these collections.

On the day of our interview, November 2021, in the shade of the Maasai hut in Oltukai I am accompanied by Laibor Moko, my colleague from Berlin, who himself is a Maasai. Like me, he also brought a stack of photographs, we printed them together in DIN A4 in a copy-shop in Arusha and laminated them, to ease their handling in the dusty environment of the village. However, Laibors objects of study are not the photographs themselves. These images only serve as a vehicle to discuss the so-called 'ethnographic objects' that are depicted on them. The photographs were taken in the depot of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. They show things of everyday usage, as well as ritual 'objects' like copper ear pendants and bracelets, weapons, shields, clothes, the medicine horn of a Laibon (spiritual specialist), beaded belts and necklaces, a fly whisk and a tobacco container. The things depicted were mostly brought to Germany during the same historic period as my photographs, i.e. German colonial rule and were given to the museum by different 'collectors', among them, besides Max Schoeller, Kurt Johannes who served as captain of the military station in Moshi, Tanzania at the end of the 19th century.

The photograph in question at this very moment is the image of a blue beaded necklace against a black background. Until a few minutes ago, we talked about the Schoeller photographs. I asked our interviewees what they associate with the pictures and how they relate what they see to their lives and history. The answers were short and uninvolved. Some of the photographs provoked laughter, especially the fashion. Out of style ornaments, jewelries and clothes were standing in sharp contrast to still existing practices and ways of living visible in these almost 130 years old images. While some types of jewelry are handed down through generations, others are very much dependent on recent fashion trends and personal preferences. Women still walk long distances with donkeys to fetch water, but unlike in 1896 they carry plastic containers instead of calabashes. If it weren't for these and other small details, for my interlocutors, some of the pictures could have been taken yesterday.

I had finished my questions and put my photographs back into my small rucksack. This second part of the interview was not my responsibility. The sudden shift in atmosphere and the open hostility hit me unprepared. The men were looking at me questioning, bewilderment and rejection in their eyes. Before I got the chance to answer, the discussion had moved on. The fierce exchange between the three Maasai men slips through the translation delay. I don’t understand what is being said. Laibor is leading the conversation, asking questions and probing the affective responses of our interlocutors. While I sit there confused, at the mercy of my own feelings. What am I doing here? Although responsibility and moral obligations are a driving force behind my research and the main reason for choosing this topic in the first place, my own connection to it had been rather abstract until now. Photographs and 'objects' are in the hands of large European institutions against which I also feel powerless.

The conversation moves on and away from me. While I am still used as a point of reference, I am no longer directly addressed. The interview comes to an end and I ask Laibor to tell them again that it is not my personal fault, that their belongings are in the Ethnological Museum today and that I am an ally in their struggle. "It's okay Maren," he smiles, "they already know." I am still confused when we say our goodbyes. The respectful and reserved manners of the two men are back in place as they bid me farewell.

When we planned our research, it seemed natural to me to study photographs and 'objects' alongside each other. At the beginning of 2021, Laibor had already been working on a list of sensitive Maasai 'objects' and I wanted to differentiate my work from his. Understanding photographs as objects  (following the material turn in visual anthropology) seemed to give them a similar urgency and relevance as the ethnographic 'objects' themselves. As some of the things he was working on had been collected by Schoeller, their provenance overlapped. For me, they belonged to the same corpus of artifacts. But it turned out that to our interlocutors we had obviously brought two very different things to the table, and one was clearly a much more serious matter than the other.

We and I regularly conducted interviews together, not least for practical reasons. We often traveled long distances on foot or motorbikes to reach the Bomas of the people we wanted to talk to. What began as a practical matter soon became a fascinating aspect for both of our researches. We were able to discuss and compare differentiations and affective responses to our research subjects and gain a deeper understanding of the emotions and affects involved, as well as the underlying ontological parameters.

Other than photographs, Maasai personal things are not mere objects but imasaa, which can be translated as belongings. Rather than property, imasaa are considered parts of a person's body. Like an arm or a leg, they cannot be sold or given away. When our research partners were presented with the images of the things in Berlin, they immediately recognized that these must have been taken by force and were likely connected to the violent deaths of their ancestors. They were looking at the witnesses of a war.

When Laibor first began ethnographic research in the community, there was no knowledge of the 'Maasai objects' held in ethnological museums in Europe. In many of our interviews, such as the one described above, it was their first encounter with a part of their history that they were not aware of. The fact that these things had been taken came as a shock. The photographs, on the other hand, were closely linked to an ongoing practice of tourist visits to the nearby conservation areas and the Maasai villages. Foreigners coming to take photographs were part of the everyday life of our interlocutors. The shock of discovering that their imasaa are located in an Ethnological Museum, is only one part of the answer to why the men's reactions were so intense. The affective dynamics of the interviews also reveal the deep ruptures and wounds left by colonialism and the colonial practice of collecting things. They point us to the urgency and relevance of these issues to this day. The miss match between my own feelings and ideas and those of our interlocutors hints to the ways in which indigenous perspectives differ from the common conceptualizations and ontology of the museum in the Global North. Encounters that took place in the past continue to shape our relationships today, and while the individuals involved are long gone, the imprint of their encounters persists on a collective level, not only in Tanzania, but also in Germany.

Maren Lina Wirth, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, CRC 1171 „Affective Societies“, D1 „Affective Engagements“

This blogpost is part of a series accompanying the conference "Provenienzforschung und Fotografie" on April 18 and 19 in Leipzig, hosted by the German Lost Art Foundation. 


Ivanov, Paola, Laibor Kalanga Moko, and Jonas Bens. “Unhappy Objects: Colonial Violence, Maasai Materialities, and the Affective Publics of Ethnographic Museums.” Affective Formation of Publics. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Routledge, 2024. 33–49. Web.