For decades, African states have been demanding the return of cultural treasures from the colonial era. While the political course has been set in countries like France or Germany, which were formerly colonial powers, the debate is now also getting underway in Austria. Kerstin Klenke, head of the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), talks about why it took so long and what responsibility science bears. In the interview she also explains to what extent the discussion about restitution is different for an audiovisual research archive than for a museum.
The creation of the Austrian Phonogrammarchiv at the end of the 19th century coincided with the heyday of colonialism. What traces has that left in the development of the archive?
Kerstin Klenke: The aim of the archive was to collect, among other things, languages, dialects, and music from all over the world. On the one hand, people wanted to use the fascinating new recording technology for science. On the other hand, this broad aim of research at that time reflected the idea that one could capture and conserve the entire world. This shows a great willingness to interpret, as we can see in many recording projects, not just from colonial contexts.
In the colonial era Austria was interdependent in terms of world politics and took an active part in expeditions and research trips.
The Habsburg Monarchy was not a colonial power, but it did participate in colonialism. To what extent are colonial ideas reflected in the research of the time?
Klenke: In the colonial era Austria was interdependent in terms of world politics and took an active part in expeditions and research trips. For example, we have sound recordings from Rudolf Pöch, who travelled as a researcher in Papua New Guinea and southern Africa, among other places. From there he took skulls, bones and other human remains to Austria. The discussion about human remains is about finding a way of dealing with human remains from the colonial era in academic and museum collections, creating awareness of the problem of provenance and enabling returns. Some academics also count the voices preserved in recordings as "human remains". At the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna – where Rudolf Pöch held the chair for "Anthropology and Ethnography" – there is currently a virtual exhibition entitled "Skeletons in the Closet".
Speaking of exhibitions: at Schallaburg Castle, the voice of the African Mori Duise can currently be heard as part of the exhibition "Sehnsucht Ferne" ("Longing for afar") – he warns of the intrusion of Europeans into his homeland. The recording is kept in the Phonogrammarchiv. How did it come about?
Klenke: I would like to refer to the research of my OeAW colleague Clemens Gütl: there was a major research excursion from Austria to Uganda in 1911. Mori Duise was a carrier and tent boy, as it was called at the time, and he became the object of racial research. The physician Robert Stigler carried out experiments, some of them inhuman, on test subjects. He was interested in body functions such as blood pressure, breathing, body temperature and sensitivity to pain. At the end of the Uganda expedition, Robert Stigler took Duise to Vienna for such experiments. In the course of this, Duise's voice recordings were made on a wax disc in the Phonogrammarchiv.
It is our political and scientific responsibility to face this legacy.
How does the Phonogrammarchiv deal with this legacy?
Klenke: Dealing with the history of one's own institution is part of historical research. It is our political and scientific responsibility to face this legacy, because it is clearly our academic heritage and part of our political history. We are thus permanently linked with people in other parts of the world, because what is archived here with us is of course also their legacy. You have to be aware of this interface.
How does this interface look in practice?
Klenke: We do re-contextualizing research, not just provenance research. In addition to long-term preservation, we dedicate ourselves to the development of the holdings and try to reconstruct the recording conditions as well as to locate the descendants of those recorded. This is difficult, but necessary. Often the descendants do not even know that these recordings exist. The point is to clarify together what should happen with these audio tracks. Whether it is ethically and legally justifiable to make the recordings public – and if so, for whom and how.
In the Phonogrammarchiv we try to reconstruct the recording conditions as well as to locate the descendants of those recorded.
Debates on restitution are not new. For over 60 years, African states have been demanding back works of art and other objects that were stolen during the colonial era. Is the discussion for an audiovisual research archive different from that for a museum?
Klenke: The long hesitation in dealing with this legacy can be observed in both archives and museums. One difference: we have unique research recordings, but we do not have any unique objects like the museums that are the focus of this debate. While we can share sound recordings, returning objects is significantly more charged, especially when they are ritual objects. So, the discussion is more about tangible cultural heritage and less about intangible cultural assets. And unlike sound recordings, there is also a market for objects from museum collections.
The art historian Bénédicte Savoy has researched in her book "Afrikas Kampf um seine Kunst" ("Africa's Struggle for its Art") how European countries sit out and postpone the debate again and again. Why is it taking so long?
Klenke: It is about power, also about right and wrong, about property and access. When it comes to human remains, it is sometimes shocking, as is discussed here. Representatives of indigenous groups report that they have been trying for decades to get the remains of their ancestors back so they can bury them. In many places there is simply a lack of political will for restitution. In Germany and France, however, the political course for returns has now been set – and I think that with Jonathan Fine as the new director of the Weltmuseum (Museum of Ethnology) from July, the topic will also have a more prominent place in Austria.
Representatives of indigenous groups report that they have been trying for decades to get the remains of their ancestors back so they can bury them.
So, you see an awakening here?
Klenke: Yes and no. The pressure to position oneself is growing, but the geopolitical power imbalance continues to have an effect. It is therefore important that we not only look at this in a historical context, but also examine the current practice of research and research funding in detail. So the question: how can we research non-colonially and generate recordings? Because the research that I am doing in Uzbekistan or Abkhazia could not simply be done reciprocally by my colleagues from there. Is there another way? And if so, how? These questions are central, and we must also deal with them in the archive.