The Museum of Ethnology

present: city library, Wilhelm-Leuschner-Platz 10

To many inhabitants of Leipzig the large building on the southern side of the Wilhelm Leuschner square is known as the location of the city library. What is probably less known is that this building (finished in 1895) was explicitly built to house the Museum of Ethnology which existed since 1869. This purpose is reflected in the design of the facade: one can distinguish the portrait of an »Amazona« from the army of the Dahomey Empire(1) which was defeated by the French during that period. The Museum of Ethnology had a semi-private background and extended its collection especially between 1896 and 1918. The acquisition of German colonies propelled the German explorers to bring back a range of objects. But also from expeditions in other African regions and the rest of the world many of the collections items were donated to the museum.

Concerning the methods and behaviour of the expedition participants and »Africa explorers« in Africa, an exemplary insight is given by the case of Hermann von Wissmann, who brought back a range of objects from Central Africa. When he was researching the area of the what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1883-1885, on behalf of the Belgian king Leopold II, he acted in accordance with his motto »if I do not find a way, I pave my own«, shooting several indigenous in the process. While amassing his collection of objects, he might equally not have spend too much time with discussions.

The director of the museum of ethnology, the geographer Prof. Dr. Karl Weule, was charged in 1905 by the colonial department of the foreign ministry with the coordinations of the research activities in the German colonies. He took off in 1906 for an expedition to German East Africa yet once arrived had to change his travelling plans due to the outbreak of the Maji-Maji war.(2) Nevertheless he succeeded, with the support of the colonial administration, in bringing back to Germany plenty of ethnographical objects, pictures, films and sound recordings. 1908 he published with the Leipzig Brockhaus Publisher the book »N* life in East-Africa – Results of an ethnological research journey«.

Even when in this book he criticises to a certain extent the horrendous consequences of the Maji-Maji war, his fundamental presumptions are without a doubt racist. For example, he assumes three »racial prototypes«, namely White, Yellow and Black, describing the East-Africans repeatedly as »big children« and formulating a certain degree of understanding for the brutal course of action of the German »Schutztruppe«.

The Museum for Ethnology moved in 1927 into the new Grassi Museum at Johannisplatz, where it still located today.

  • (1) Dahomey was a West-African kingdom on the coast of the bay of Benin, that existed since about 1720 and played an important role in long-distance trade and the transatlantic slavet rade. 1894 Dahomay was conquered by France and colonised as part of French West Africa.
  • (2) During the Maji-Maji-War (1905-1908) the indigenous population in the south of German East Africa rose up against the German colonial domination. The war and the following famine claimed almost 300.000 lives. It is regarded as one of the largest colonial wars in the history of the African continent.
Images on this page:

above right: Jochen Lingelbach

Fassadenfigur an der heutigen Stadtbibliothek

One of the sculptures on the facade of the present-day city library depicts an »Amazon«, reflecting exotic stereotypes of the warriors of the Dahomey kingdom.