The Provenance of Literature – Joint seminar session with the FU Berlin

The debate about provenance and restitution research is currently booming in museums – but the field is much broader, and some are already talking about a ‘provenancial turn’. While disciplines such as art history, ethnology, archaeology and book studies have developed methods of provenance research, questions of provenance in literary studies are still comparatively new. Andreas Schmid has therefore developed the seminar “The Provenance of Literature” at the Freie Universität Berlin.

In 2023, the project IN_CONTEXT: Colonial Histories and Digital Collections  researched the holdings related to colonial histories in the various departments of the Staatsbibliothek and identified, among other things, a number of papers belonging to civil servants, military personnel, researchers or people in general who travelled to or lived in European colonies. Among other things, the Stabi holds the papers of August Klingenheben (1886-1967), a linguist who focused his research on the Vai script/language and travelled to Liberia for this purpose. In addition to general research documents, his papers include collections of Vai proverbs and stories that have never been published in this form.

The Klingenheben papers in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, SPK


In a joint seminar session we discussed the handling of these archival materials. In the first part, we looked at the acquisition and collecting contexts of Klingenheben: To what extent can we speak of a colonial context? What was Klingenheben’s interest in collecting? What was his relationship to the informants? Etc. In a second part, we focused on the story “The Leopard’s Daughter” and compared different versions published later (1961, 1988, 2008). What are the features that remained the same in all the versions? What has changed? Is it still the “same” story? Etc. The final discussion was about how Klingenheben’s papers should be handled today. Is digitisation ethical? Should more data be added about Klingenheben as a person, the informants or the context of the collection? Should people in Liberia be consulted about the appropriate handling of the Vai stories? Etc.


Seminar: Die Provenienz der Literatur. Die Überlieferung von August Klingenheben, FU Berlin/Stabi Berlin, January 11th, 2024, Andreas Schmid, Lars Müller.


Further Reading

Irene Albers, Andreas Schmid: Literatur als koloniale Beute? Für eine philologische Provenienzforschung, in: Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geisteswissenschaft 97 (2023), 1003–1018.

Fatima Massaquoi: The Leopard‘s Daughter. A Folk Tale from Liberia translated from the VAI Language, Illustrations by Martha Burnham Humphrey, Boston 1961.

Ernst Dammann: August Klingenheben (1886–1967), in: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 117(1967)2, 211–214.


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