Life paths and knowledge

The epistemic lives of an ethnological collection between South Africa, Germany and Tanzania

Regina Sarreiter

The project investigates the role of epistemic interest in the practice of ethnographic collecting and the afterlife of the emerging collections. Based on the assumption that, beyond their materiality, collections always comprise a network of persons, localities and objects, the project approaches the ensuing questions from a perspective that puts those relations into focus. 

Point of departure is the ethnographic research conducted by the Benedictine missionary and anthropologist Pater Meinulf Küsters in South Africa and Tanzania during the 1920s. At times simultaneously working for the Catholic mission’s congregation and as an assistant at the ethnographic museum in Munich, Küsters put together a comprehensive collection of phonographic recordings, objects, photographs, films and ethnographic notes that served as ethnographic findings about the colonised societies as well as to legitimate the missionary efforts. His various occupations are reflected in the spatial dispersion of the collected objects and documents as well as in their respective careersand thus indicate a difference in their signification and value as artefacts. 

The project scrutinizes how these differences are implemented and what makes these materials become objects of knowledge or not. Therefore, it takes temporality, locality and the intention to collect and preserve into account and engages with the subjectivity of the actors involved in the process of collecting–colonizing as well as of the colonized, human as well as non-human. By following the trajectories and movements of this specific ethnographic endeavour and its actors, the project aims to draw a translocal network of persons, institutions, scientific networks and objects that shall add to a changed perspective on the practice of ethnographic collecting and the production of knowledge.