The history of things

How do objects get into the museum? Have they been bought, collected, inherited or even stolen? Provenance research has been dealing with these fundamental questions not only since the sensational picture discovery in Munich in 2013, but they also serve four Frankfurt museums as a connecting element of their cooperative project Purchased. Collected. Stolen. From the path of things to the museum.

Back in 2002, Hessischer Rundfunk, the State of Hesse and the Sparkassen-Kulturstiftung Hessen-Thüringen together with the Fritz Bauer Institute initiated a travelling exhibition entitled Legalized Robbery – The Treasury and the Plundering of Jews in Hesse 1933-1945. After 16 years of touring Hesse, the exhibition returns to Frankfurt and can now be seen in the Historisches Museum. It focuses on the inhuman living conditions of the robbed Jewish population and at the same time reveals the bureaucratic processes behind the organized and then legalized robbery.

Last Memories

In the Frankfurt cooperation project, the Historisches Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum Angewandte Kunst and the Weltkulturen Museum have joined forces to present five solo exhibitions on legalized robbery in the context of their house.

The first are the Jewish Museum (in the Museum Judengasse) and the Historical Museum, whose exhibitions were opened last week. The Museum of Applied Arts and the World Cultures Museum follow in June and August.

The Historical Museum presents the travelling exhibition Legalized Robbery

Robbed? Everyday Things and Their NS Past. The exhibits and the documents enclosed in the display cases tell the biographies of the objects and their former owners. The fate of the journalist Arthur Lauinger is used as an example to illustrate the systematic exploitation of the Jewish population during the Nazi regime. His forced emigrations were preceded by “plundering by the National Socialist constitutional state”, in which Lauinger not only lost “pieces of metal and jewellery “1 but also his remaining possessions. Thus the journalist writes after his departure from Germany in 1939: “I went with my wife naked like a sparrow on the ship that was to carry me to England. ”

Tilly Cahn, the wife of the Frankfurt lawyer Max Cahn, was also a victim of the legalized raids of the National Socialists. In her diary, the studied historian describes numerous everyday situations during the war; in 1943, for example, she reports on “organized robbery murders ” Tilly Cahn’s fate and that of many other victims are the focus of the presentations.

It was a long way to the systematic investigation of state plundering. It was not until 45 years after the end of the war that the concrete scientific debate began about possessions that might have been acquired illegally. A few years later the necessary legal prerequisites were created “to make part of the files still subject to tax secrecy accessible to scholars”. 4 Subsequently, in 1999 the State of Hesse made funds available for a research project, which was carried out by the Fritz Bauer Institute in cooperation with the Hessian Main State Archives. This research project is the starting point for the exhibitions that will follow almost 20 years later.

The Frankfurt presentations that have now been opened encourage visitors to reflect and sensitize them to the fact that such unlawfully acquired possessions could also be found in their own family heritage.

The four participating museums have examined their collections for corresponding objects and found them. According to Mirjam Wenzel, Director of the Jewish Museum, the initial aim of her house was to “show the rest that has remained”. A large part of the collection of the first German Jewish museum was “stolen, destroyed or scattered” by the National Socialists during the Second World War. For this reason, only a few objects from the original collection remain in the Frankfurt Museum today.

Among other things, the Museum Angewandte Kunst exhibits objects of robbery that were declared lost in the Second World War according to the inventory sheets, but were found in the museum’s collection in 2017. Whether this is an intended cover-up must remain open. The theme of the cover-up is also explored by the World Cultures Museum, which examines the acquisition of objects in the colonial context of the 19th century.