Suspicions of the ‘Sacred’ - Objects from Australia in the Ethnographic Collection of the University of Göttingen

Funding area:
Colonial contexts
Funding recipient:
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Ethnologische Sammlung
Federal state:
Lower Saxony
Type of project:
short-term project

The Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August University Göttingen is one of the most important teaching and research collections in the German-speaking world. Its beginnings trace back to the Academic Museum of the University, founded in 1773. Since 1928, Social and Cultural Anthropology (initially “Völkerkunde”) has been taught as an independent discipline in Göttingen. A department has existed since 1934.

The Ethnographic Collection Göttingen carried out research on Tjurunga from Australia last year within the framework of a grant from the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverlust (KK_KU01_2020). This was prompted by a request from Australia (AIATSIS) in 2019. Both our own research and discussions with external experts (including Olaf Geerken, PAESE project) revealed that a reappraisal of the objects that are identified as “secret/sacred” objects according to the current (= traditional) internal classification of the collection is not sufficient. The existing classifications themselves must be critically reviewed.

Seven objects were noticed that were classified in the collection as “bull roarer” or whose attribution changed over time. In the case of the existing “bull roarers”, both the form and the original use seem to be consistent with the tjurunga studied. The problem of ambiguous or even erroneous old categorizations in the collection became apparent elsewhere, which is why other objects from Australia, that are suspected of being ‘sacred’ – and might therefore in part be tabood – should also be examined. These include two “messenger sticks”, one of which was later also categorized as “bull roarer”, as well as a wood carving, that might have served as a temporary abode for a spirit of the dead.

The aim of the project was now to verify existing attributions and to achieve a more precise classification by means of collector’s biographies and trace routes. Thus the gathered provenance information is intended to help incorporate well-founded information into the dialogue with Australian partner institutions.

(c) Ethnographic Collection