The wealth of the epochs and genres as well as the museum’s own eventful history offer multifaceted scholarly and educational possibilities. These include conservational work as well as art historical projects dedicated specifically to groups of works in the collection as well as research into the provenance of the museum’s holdings.
As part of an initial check by the German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property, the inventory of so-called ethnographic objects of non-European origin at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld could be researched. From October 2022 to March 2023, the ethnologist and historian Gesa Grimme examined the collection of around 115 objects from Africa, South and East Asia, and Oceania. She was able to clarify preliminary provenances as far as consignors and dealers. As far as possible, the cultural objects, which had previously been almost completely unexplored, were given an initial geographical and cultural classification of their origin. At the same time, a localization in German as well as European colonial history was undertaken. The suspicion of appropriation in colonial power relations was confirmed for most of the objects. Due to the insufficient archival situation, it was not possible to uncover stringent chains of provenance up to the societies of origin. Sensitive collection items were named. Finally, the objects were located in the history of the institute with regard to their colonial context.
The collections of the Kunstmuseen Krefeld comprise about 24,000 objects, including a small stock of so-called ethnographic objects of non-European origin, which found their way to Krefeld between 1891 and 1930 in the context of European colonialism and German colonial history. In total, there are about 115 objects, the majority of which come from Africa, South and East Asia, and Oceania.
At this time, the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum pursued a collection and exhibition program that ascribed special importance to folk art. "Folk art," which included cultural products of African, Asian, and Oceanic societies, was to serve as a source of inspiration and a model for local art and design production. Thus, a transformation of objects with colonial contexts into museum and art objects took place at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, which opened in 1897 as the Museum of Art and Applied Art.
For example, textiles were acquired on the occasion of the "Dutch-Indian Art Exhibition" in 1906 and ritual objects from the region of present-day Papua New Guinea for the exhibition "Color," which was shown in 1928. By far the largest part of the ethnographic object inventory is a bundle of 53 wickerwork objects. They entered the collection of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum through the acquisition of the core holdings of the "Deutsches Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe" in 1923 (from the estate of Karl Ernst Osthaus). In addition, the collection includes a number of 25 weapons, Japanese baskets and some individual objects.
The objects come from various European colonial territories. Their geographical and cultural origins can be located in the present-day territories of Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon, Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands and Samoa, among others. They were obtained through art and ethnographica dealers such as J.F.G. Umlauff, Bruno Antelmann (Deutsches Kolonialhaus), Rex & Co. or "Kunst- und Verlagshandlung R[udolph]. Wagner, Berlin." A provenance chain up to societies of origin could not be determined so far.
In 1923, an important collection of applied art was acquired for the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum: the „Deutsche Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe“ (German Museum for Art in Trade and Industry). The extensive holdings comprise a sample collection of exemplary design, which was intended to educate the general public to good taste and at the same time ensure, in the spirit of a Gesamtkunstwerk, that the proclaimed new aesthetic found its way into everyday life. The important Hagen-based patron and collector Karl Ernst Osthaus had assembled the collection between 1909 and 1919 with the financial and ideational support of the Deutscher Werkbund. Alongside his Folkwang Museum, founded in 1902, the new project reflected even more innovatively and radically the spirit of a new age. After the death of Osthaus, the collection was purchased by the Krefeld Museum Society in 1923 and handed over to the city as a donation in 1928. In the eyes of Max Creutz, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum at the time and a close friend of Osthaus, it perfectly complemented the innovative concept of the museum in Krefeld, which had been developed in the spirit of the reform movement.
The 100th anniversary of the acquisition is the occasion for a complete inventory of the collection of the German Museum for Art in Trade and Industry and a renewed scholarly examination of the collection from a contemporary perspective. With its holdings of several thousand works, the German Museum is perhaps the very first collection of contemporary design. To this day, it forms the core of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum’s collection in the field of applied art.
The collection, which fell into oblivion in the post-war period, was already partially catalogued and published in the 1980s and 1990s for the exhibition projects The West German Impulse and Beauty and Everyday Life. For the first time, the entire collection is now being inventoried, restored, photographed, and digitized. The previously uncatalogued works are primarily from the large holdings of so-called commercial prints, which—with advertisements, commercial letterheads, visiting cards and menus, typeface sample books, invitations, postcards, etc.—comprise a panorama of cultural history.
In the course of the cataloguing, the fragile stock of paper works will not only be restored and thus preserved for the future, but also archived in digitized form. The digitized copies will make it possible to sustainably preserve the findings for research and will be available for future study. They can also be used for modern knowledge transfer in the digital age.
The cataloguing also makes it possible to gain an overview of all the artistic personalities who Osthaus integrated into his German Museum of Art in Trade and Commerce. In addition to leading figures such as Peter Behrens, Henry van de Velde, Lucian Bernhard, Fritz H. Ehmcke, and Richard Riemerschmid, these also include almost forgotten artists who can be identified on the basis of the inventory as important protagonists of modernism: for example, Johannes Weidenmüller as the forefather of German advertising science, the Berlepsch student Maria La Roche, and Elisabeth Stephani-Hahn as a pioneer of shop window design, to name only a few. They and their colleagues created the foundations of the ideas of consumer culture, advertising, and marketing that are still valid to this day. The exhibition planned for November 2023 and the accompanying catalog will use the research results to shed light on the German Museum with its innovative impulses for contemporary collecting, museum, and mediation activities.
Dr. Katja Terlau
Dr. Vanessa-Maria Voigt
The City of Krefeld owns four paintings by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944): Tableau No. VII, Tableau No. X, Tableau No. XI (all 1925), and Composition IV (1926). They belong to the collection of the Kunstmuseen Krefeld. Descendants of the Mondrian heir Harry Holtzman have demanded the return of the artworks.
In order to clarify whether this claim is legally justified, the City of Krefeld commissioned the two provenance researchers Dr. Katja Terlau and Dr. Vanessa-Maria Voigt to examine the provenance of the paintings.
Between June 2018 and May 2019, the researchers traced the history of the paintings since the 1920s, evaluated archive material, and spoke with experts both in Germany and abroad. In the process, they did not come across any indications that the works could be unlawfully in the possession of the City of Krefeld.
The summary of the researchers' dossier explains the findings in detail.