The Southeast Asia Collection

Vanessa J. von Gliszczynski, Curator

In addition to the rather marginal inventories from mainland Southeast Asia and a small collection from the Philippines, the focus of the Southeast Asia collection is on Indonesia. In this context, one has to realize that the islands and cultures with which we are familiar –Java, Bali and Borneo, for instance – are sparsely represented. Extensive and, partly, unique throughout the world are, by contrast, the collections from East Indonesia. Towards the end of the Second World War, unfortunately, almost all of the large objects were destroyed; the index cards, however, with their sketches of objects and copies of old B/W photographs remained in tact.

Important Collections:
When the museum was founded in 1904, Bernhard Hagen (its first director) made available his private collection from Sumatra, initially as a loan. In 1905, he resumed collecting for the museum in Sumatra and, to a lesser extent, in Java. Hence, his collection contains primarily objects of the Kubu, Batak, Gayo and Alas.

A further important collection was acquired by Johannes Elbert, his wife and his assistant C. Gründler in 1910 during a geographic-botanical expedition on South East Sulawesi and the islands off the coast of Muna, Butung and Kabaena. The ethnographic collection mainly comprises objects used in everyday life.
In view of its quality and sheer size, with its 1000 objects, Ernst Vatter’s collection is of outstanding significance. Together with his wife Johanna, Vatter travelled widely in the Solor-Alor-Archipelago of East Indonesia, collected objects and produced detailed documentation primarily of textiles, basketry, jewellery and everyday objects of use.

Being on the staff of the museum and the Frobenius-Institute, Hermann Niggemeyer, Josef Röder and Adolf E. Jensen began collecting during the Ceram expedition, in 1937/38. In the Second World War, not only many of their pieces but also almost all the research notes got lost before they could be evaluated. In spite of this, it still remains an important collection complex which supplements the earlier Ceram collections in many aspects (coll. Denninger, 1913, coll. Stresemann/2nd Freiburg Molukken expedition, 1919).

In the mid 1980s, two collections of ancient Javanese terracotta work from the Javanese Majapahit Empire (12th- 15th century) were added to the stocks (coll. Refuge and coll. Karow) and presented for the first time in 1987. With over 500 objects, among which are to be included a large number of figures representing deities, servants and animals as well as utilitarian and architectural ceramics, these inventories are unique in Germany.

Furthermore, since the beginning of the 1990s parts of residential architecture and traditional jewellery from Central Flores were acquired by the department’s curator, Achim Sibeth, partly from private collections, partly through the art trade. These objects supplement that which, until then, had remained the limited inventory from this region, increasing thereby considerably the value of the Indonesian collection in the field of large objects and unusual gold and silver jewellery.

The collection of contemporary and modern Indonesian art is beginning to attract attention. The first pictures had already been acquired in the mid 1980s. Until now, the focus of the exhibition has been on the artworks of young, academically trained artists from Bali whose work has, thus far, been presented in exhibitions. The most recent acquisitions, from 1999-2002 and 2007, document the way in which these artists experience the effects of modernity (tourism, globalisation, cultural change, art market etc.) and react to them in their respective artistic media.

In total, the Southeast Asian collection comprises approx. 10.000 objects. To the department’s sphere of responsibility also belong, as “periphery regions” so to say, the collections from South Asia: approx. 2.000 objects from India, Pakistan and the Himalaya region. In the 1950s, the former curator Hermann Niggemeyer collected objects mainly from the Kuttia Kond in Orissa; during the 1980s, Ursula Sagaster, commissioned by the museum, acquired a comprehensive collection of everyday objects of the Balti (Pakistan).

*** Since November 2021, it has been possible to access almost the entire Philippines collection online.***