Collecting Worldwide

Archaeology, Global Art,
Applied Arts

As the founder of Museum Folkwang, Karl Ernst Osthaus’s objective was to exhibit works of art and artefacts from various different cultures and historical eras – on the one hand, for general educational purposes and, on the other, to inspire and promote the shaping of contemporary art and design. He achieved this by making his collection of works accessible to the public in Hagen from 1902 onwards. The painter August Macke, a well-known visitor of the collector’s museum, summed up his impression: “He has the best modern works, also old things, a lot of Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Gothic and Italian art. We were mad about it all, jeck as people here call it.”

The combination of works of antiquity and non-European cultures with paintings and sculptural works of the European avant-garde was – and still is – a key feature of Museum Folkwang, which was initially located in Hagen and since 1922 in Essen. Over the decades, however, the collection comprising archaeology, global art and applied arts frequently underwent change and transformation: significant sales and purchases were made and war-related losses had an effect not only on the works themselves, but also on knowledge relating to them. The concept of showing European and non-European art side by side was maintained to a varying degree of intensity.
If we look at the collection today with its focus on several core areas – namely, works of antiquity, non-European pieces and objects of daily use – we can discern different concepts intrinsic to the collection which, on account of new acquisitions, were pursued and modified from 1902 to the 1980s. The selected works and objects exhibited under the title Collecting Worldwide reflect some of these concepts and developments.

Although perhaps not immediately apparent, the work Helm/Helmet/Yelmo by the artist duo Los Carpinteros contains an order prescribed by its place of origin and period of acquisition. Arranged on six levels, staggered honeycombs display the roughly outlined geographical regions of Africa, East Asia, Western Asia, Europe and the Americas. The works are arranged from left to right according to their date of acquisition (not always completely verified). With its vitrines, the installation Helm/Helmet/Yelmo creates unusual “kindred vicinities” by revealing a web of new references and comparisons. Works from Oceania are assembled beyond the helmet.
By arranging the collection in this manner, many questions relating to the objects arise: dates become unclear and geographical designations dubious – not to mention information regarding the historical function of the objects that is either completely missing or can barely be summed up adequately in a few words.


Much of what is known about these objects was only later discovered bit by bit and then reconstructed – an ongoing process that necessitates new ways of conducting research such as collaborations with academics from the respective countries of origin.Collectors and dealers appreciated the displayed objects for their beauty, exoticism and as a sign of a global mindset. Or as Karl Wirth put it in 1919: “Never before in the history of the world has there been such a complete geographical embrace of the earth as in the present time. […] All documents and values of the life of the earth’s past are open to modern man who is no longer bound to any tradition, guild or local community.” However, the new owners often only obtained information about their acquisitions after their purchase, and not all of it was always entirely correct. The story of how the objects were obtained was hardly a reason for concern.

Geographical origin is vital for the handling of the objects because it is on this basis that we can determine whether an object was typical of a particular artistic development or was used for other (ritual) purposes, or whether it represents a masterpiece in and of itself or bears a special status within a given development.
As a first step in this direction, the presentation Collecting Worldwide thus arranges the exhibits according to regions. However, directly linked to the question of origin is the question of their legitimate acquisition as well: under which circumstances did the objects change hands? Was the changeover legally justified? And how influential was colonial thinking and action in the process?
When Osthaus made his first purchases, numerous colonies existed under European rule, and it was common practice not only to exploit both resources and labour force, but also to export works in the areas of art, ritual practice and everyday use. It is not easy to ascertain whether such exported goods had been robbed or purchased at eye level, or whether the objects had a true ritual context or had been expressly made for trade with foreign customers. This problem also applies to the objects acquired for Museum Folkwang in the 1950s and 1960s, as they often reveal an acquisition history that is difficult to trace.
Each individual exhibit therefore poses questions that require in-depth research in order to be answered. First and foremost, the present exhibition seeks to provide insight into the collection and its focus areas. The information on Museum Folkwang’s website reflects the present state of Knowledge.