Colonial contexts

Provenance research on audio documents

Berlin sound archive investigates recordings of African prisoners of war from the First World War.

The German Lost Art Foundation is funding the research project Towards Sonic Resocialisation, to be carried out by the Lautarchiv (sound archive) at Humboldt University in Berlin from March 2024 to February 2026. For the first time, research will focus on sound recordings rather than objects. The Lautarchiv is investigating its collection of recordings of POWs from the First World War who were recruited in the colonies for the armies of European powers. It includes 456 audio documents of African prisoners in German camps.

The digitised recordings and the associated historical written documentation are to be shared with the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, Senegal, and eventually also with other African archives. In this context, the existing metadata of the sound archive will also be subjected to critical decolonising onomastics, i.e. the origin, structure and development of proper names that arose as a result of colonisation will be scrutinised and reappraised.

Dialogue and cooperation with the relevant source communities is of vital importance to the project right from the outset, with translations of texts and documentation being carried out by people from the countries of origin. Provenance research is also being done into where the colonial soldiers came from, and the existence of descendants is being investigated.

The project seeks to establish a model for dealing with colonial heritage in sound archives. The aim in future will be to carry out such work not only on recordings of speakers from the African continent but on all colonial recordings in the sound archive.

For more information about the sound archive at Humboldt University in Berlin, see: