On the colonial legacy of fossil collections

Museum workers are no strangers to the colonial legacies of their collections. This issue comes up most frequently regarding anthropological artifacts, but it is relevant to natural history specimens as well. During the 1800s, when colonialism was at its height and western Europe controlled 85% of the world, colonial domination was achieved not only with military power, but through academia. When colonial powers took over another nation, they brought their naturalists, archaeologists and social scientists along to take control of the world’s understanding of that place, its people and its environment. Museums were used as repositories for the man-made and natural relics of conquered lands (which were rarely acquired ethically), and were used to communicate the westerners’ interpretation of those exotic foreign places (or even defend the colonial agenda). In the case of natural history specimens, dioramas incorporating taxidermy mounts portrayed the countries where the skins were obtained as idealized edens unspoiled by human activity.

By the 1960s, however, the backlash against colonially-associated museum collections was in full force. Anthropologists in particular largely disassociated themselves from ethnographic collections, moving their field deep into the theoretical realm. Legislation like NAGPRA codified the idea that western academics do not have sole ownership over the description or interpretation of world cultures. But while NAGPRA and similar legislation renegotiate the ownership of artifacts that are universally agreed to be valuable, colonial-era biological specimens have often been destroyed outright. For instance, in 1960 the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex burned over 200 taxidermy pieces that were considered not in keeping with the museum’s revised mission.

Still, there is one part of museum collections that seems to have slipped past the postcolonial watchdogs unnoticed. I have never seen any consideration of the colonial legacy of fossil collections, and I’m not sure why that should be. Many of our most celebrated paleontological specimens were uncovered during the colonial era, or under other unfortunate historical circumstances (Marsh dinosaurs, disputed American Indian territory, and western expansion…perhaps I will try to cover this in depth later).

Should the Giraffatitan at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde be displayed in Germany? Image from Wikipedia.

One obvious example to pick on is the Giraffatitan (Brachiosaurus brancai for purists) on display at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde. The skeleton was assembled from the fossils of at least three Giraffatitan individuals uncovered by a team led by German paleontologist Werner Janensch between 1909 and 1912 in the Tendaguru formation of German East Africa. German East Africa was, of course, a German colony between 1885 and 1919, when it was broken up among Britain and Belgium under the Treaty of Versailles. The bulk of the former German colony became mainland Tanzania in 1961, although it also included parts of modern Burundi and Rwanda. In short, the Giraffatitan was acquired during the German occupation of Tanzania and, following the logic applied to other colonial period artifacts, the museum’s retention of the fossils makes it complacent with the colonial agenda.

The question then becomes, why should a German museum have the right to hold and display these fossils? The Giraffatitan skeleton is part of the natural history of Tanzania, so shouldn’t the Tanzanian people be able to enjoy and learn from their natural heritage without traveling to another continent? If the Museum fur Naturkunde no longer approves of Germany’s past imperial occupation of east Africa (and it assuredly does not), then why should it retain specimens collected in Tanzania without local consent or fair exchange (this is an assumption on my part, anyone who knows better please let me know)?

Excavation of Giraffatitan fossils in German East Africa (now Tanzania), 1909. Image from Wikipedia.

A counterpoint might be that the German museum is better equipped to preserve and maintain these one-of-a-kind fossils than any comparative facility in Tanzania. Having visited most of the major museums in Tanzania, I can say this is probably true. Vertebrate fossils are, after all, extremely rare and priceless specimens that we only get one chance at preserving. It is sensible to want them to get the very best treatment possible (even if limited resources in sub-Saharan Africa can also be attributed to colonial history). Additionally, the Giraffatitan fossils differ from anthropological artifacts in that they are 150 million years old and have no local cultural significance that I am aware of. I hate to bring it up because I am truly sick of the endless debate over the Elgin Marbles, but this is essentially the same situation: local right to one’s own heritage versus the best possible safekeeping.

Should fossils be considered a part of local heritage? Based on the effectively universal support from paleontologists for the Mongolian government when an poached Tarbosaurus skeleton turned up for auction earlier this year, I would assume that relevant experts would think so, and do their part to ensure that nations worldwide have ownership over their fossil treasures. However, a claim can also be made that fossils are far too old to be linked to any particular culture, and instead belong to the world equally. And the best way to share them with the world? Put the fossils where the researchers are, so that knowledge about them can be shared.

Personally, I don’t have a well-formed opinion on what to do with fossils with colonial legacies. What is more interesting to me is why fossil collections have been largely immune to the infighting and legislation that has plagued other collections with problematic histories. Are they less clearly associated with particular nations or cultures than human artifacts or even modern animals? Are there too few vertebrate fossil specimens to matter? Do too few people care about paleontology?


Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Dias, N. 2001. “Does Anthropology Need Museums? Teaching Ethnographic Museology in Portugal Thirty Years Later.” In Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.

Poliquin, R.  2008. “The Matter and Meaning of Museum Taxidermy.” Museum and Society 6(2) 123-134.


Filed under anthropology, dinosaurs, history of science, museums

11 responses to “On the colonial legacy of fossil collections

  1. You make two of the important points in support of Giraffatitan remaining where it is: that the Berlin museum is better able to care for it, and that it is in no sense a cultural artifact. As well as this, the Berlin venue makes it possible for many more people to see the specimen then would be able to in Tanzania. In terms of history, the existence of the specimen in its current is very much due to German effort — one might that say that while the rocks were Tanzanian, the bones, and certainly the mounted skeleton, are German. What’s clear is that had the Germans not mounted the Tendaguru expeditions of the early 20th century, the outcome would not have been that the bones were excavated and placed in Tanzanian museums; instead, they would simply have eroded away and no-one would ever have known anything of them.

    • Ben

      Thanks for the comment, Mike.

      To play some serious devil’s advocate, couldn’t a similar argument be made about the stolen Mongolian Tarbosaurus? If poachers had not excavated and prepared the fossils, than their existence may well have never been known. Should fossils always belong to the people who put in the time to collect them?

  2. Ben, Mike and you make most of the important points already. Another is that even if the transport of the bone out of Deutsch-Ostafrika were a ‘past wrong’ we can’t ‘right’ every ‘past wrong’.

    The difference to the Tarbosaur issue is a major one: Mongolia has long had laws in place making the excavation, the transport out of the country and the sale illegal. The Naturkundemuseum in Berlin had all the necessary paperwork in place, by the laws of the countries involved everything was completely legal. You can argue now that the colonial masters exploited the colonies, but that’s an entirely different thing than an blatantly illegal excavation and removal.

    By the way, IF we complain about colonial master, then the British were much worse at Tendaguru. Just read up on what the Germans though of their native workers, and how they treated them – the tasks they trusted them to perform – and what the British expedition leaders wrote and did. I’m not saying that anyone in Tanzania should be happy about the place having been a colony – quite the contrary: Germany committed incredible atrocities there, especially during and after the “Herero war” (check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_and_Namaqua_Genocide). But for the Tendaguru expedition I must say that from all I read I find it to be much better behaviour than average.

    • Ben

      Thanks Heinrich, a viewpoint from inside the Museum is very helpful.

      The degree to which different colonial powers treated indigenous communities is important and certainly related, but I’m not sure it’s the same issue. In the spirit of not attempting to right all past wrongs but to learn from them (I hope I’m interpreting your first point correctly), the present-day concern is that by continuing to hold and exhibit fossils collected during the colonial period without comment (in a prominent, trophy-like setting, no less), the Museum risks the interpretation that it is complacent with or otherwise supportive of the colonial agenda.

      This is, of course, a universal concern and I don’t mean to call out the Naturkundemuseum specifically. In the United States, museums with problematically acquired collections (usually anthropological) typically either attempt to repatriate them or hide them away out of embarrassment. I’d be the first to say that neither solution would be ideal for the Berlin Giraffatitan. My interest is really in sharing the provenance around natural history specimens and considering historical value in addition to scientific value when appropriate.

      For all I know the Naturkundemuseum already does this. What does the signage around the Giraffatitan say about the specimen’s history?

      • Ben, do I sense a certain agenda here? First of all, the Tendaguru collection is much less “problematically acquired” than most other material from colonies: it is, as has been pointed out, not a cultural treasure, it was legally collected, and the relations between the Naturkundemuseum and Tanzanian officials have always been cordial – it seems the Tanzanian government sees things the same way.

        The next issue is your comment regarding the “trophy-like” character of the exhibit. Well, guess what – that’s how nearly ALL sauropod mounts are set up, irrelevant where they come from.

        Lastly, as any Google search for MfN dinosaur hall photos shows, there is quite a lot of info around on where the fossils are from and how they were dug out. In fact, there is a recreated dig scene, and there are plenty of original old photos. Considering the austerity of the exhibit in general, this amounts to lavish treatment. The audio guide also contains a lot of info.

        Last point: obviously, my view is mine alone and not necessarily that of the Naturkundemuseum.

      • “In the spirit of not attempting to right all past wrongs but to learn from them […] the present-day concern is that by continuing to hold and exhibit fossils collected during the colonial period […] the Museum risks the interpretation that it is complacent with or otherwise supportive of the colonial agenda.”

        And here’s where it gets tricky. Because, speaking only for myself, I *am* supportive of the museum having those fossils. Without question, they have been greatly more valuable to science for being in Berlin than they would ever have been had they remained in Tanzania. We may not like it, but that’s the truth of the matter.

      • ” the present-day concern is that by continuing to hold and exhibit fossils collected during the colonial period […] the Museum risks the interpretation that it is complacent with or otherwise supportive of the colonial agenda.”
        is a strawman – I’ve only heard that from the ‘professionally insulted and oppressed’. it is like the outrage over Mohammed cartoons: if you WANT tog et pissed at someone, you’ll find a reason.

        but hey, let’s send the fossils back to Tanzania – which happens not to be the country they come from, but a country that exists in the geographical location they were found in – and get them to pay back the costs for excavation and preparation. Several MILLION marks were spent between 1909 and 1913 on the excavation alone, plus the money for prep, plus interest, and figuring in inflation….. let’s bill Tanzania for an even Euros, OK?


  3. Ben

    Absolutely no agenda is intended. I have never been to the Naturkundemuseum, nor do I have anything against it, but I would love to visit someday. In fact, I had tried to be very careful in this post and my replies to make my neutrality clear: note my very deliberate phrasing “the Museum risks the interpretation that it is…supportive of the colonial agenda” rather than “the Museum is supportive of the colonial agenda.” Any museum that possesses objects obtained under colonial circumstances could be seen this way through a post-colonial lens, but that doesn’t mean that they should be in all circumstances. And as I said (and as you and Mike kindly contributed to), there are many good reasons why the Giraffatitan is not problematic and should stay in Berlin. If I failed to make any of this clear earlier, then I apologize.

    I chose to discuss the Berlin Giraffatitan because it is prominently exhibited and its history is well known (to people in relevant fields). Perhaps this was unwise and I should have picked a specimen I am more familiar with/have seen in person. In that regard, let me pick another example to clarify my admittedly vague “trophy” aside.

    The iconic elephant mount in the NMNH rotunda was donated by hunter Josef Fenykovi in the 1950s. At the time, it was the largest land animal on display anywhere in the world, and it was exhibited to celebrate its impressive size by placing it on a circular, unadorned pedestal (seen here: http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html). Unfortunately, from a modern perspective this looked very much like a trophy, celebrating man’s triumph over nature, and possibly a western man’s triumph over an exotic foreign land.The exhibit’s creators did not deliberately encode this, but modern audiences were still decoding it in a way that did not match the Museum’s mission. The solution was to re-contextualize the elephant. About 10 years ago the pedestal was replaced by a diorama of the Angolan savanna, incorporating examples of how the elephant related to each department at the museum (Elephas recki fossils, local ethnographic objects, grasses, dung beetles, etc). In the revised exhibit, the elephant a gateway to the many avenues of natural history research, rather than a big, cool thing.

    Am I saying the Giraffatitan needs such a reinterpretation? By no means. I haven’t seen the exhibit signage, and I don’t know anything about typical audience reactions to it, for starters. I hope my point about encoding versus decoding is clear, though. I don’t mean to imply that the Museum ever intended to exhibit the fossils as a trophy from a former colony. But a hypothetical post-colonial watchdog could still interpret it as such. Whether or not that interpretation is useful or should amount to anything is beyond my intended scope.

    • as I just wrote in reply to Mike: if you wanna be insulted, you’ll find an insult. Bending over backwards because someone might construct something nonsensical so he can cry foul is not a sound policy. ‘Nuff of the what-if games.

      • Ben

        Has nobody in a position to request the fossils be repatriated voiced any interest? Apparently not. Would doing so be immensely impractical logistically, economically, and to science and education? Certainly. But does either fact make the historical perspective nonsensical, or more to the point, irrelevant?

  4. Interesting thoughts.
    You talk about the Tarbosaur belonging to the Mongolian culture, but it belongs to the Mongolian government no? This makes it quite different from purely cultural artefacts, including ones produced by a culture in the past who’s members are still around today.
    The people and government of Mongolia passed a law the forbids the removal of fossils from their borders (a law that you have to agree with in order to enter the country). For German East Africa, there was no such law. More importantly, does modern Tanzania have a law requiring repatriation?

    “But a hypothetical post-colonial watchdog could still interpret it as such.”
    I think this makes some amount of sense. I recall reading that south american paleontologists looked at their fossils as nationalistic issues. In fact, IIRC, there was a case where a Cuban paleontologist discovered primate remains there, and made the case that they were fossil hominid remains, a separate/parallel evolution of some sort for the western hemisphere. This is an example of (supposed) human remains, but these ideas could also apply to non-human remains. For a colonial culture, the removal of local fossils could be as insulting to their culture/nation as, say, if the Russians kidnapped all our Bald Eagles (which is surely part of their dastardly plans).

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