Black Lives Matter meets Blumenbach
It is the summer of 2020, and people around the world are protesting in the wake of the death of the African American George Floyd, who had been killed by police violence. Black Lives Matter is moving the USA, Europe, and also Göttingen, shocked by this violent death. It is the starting point for many activists to search for traces of racism and colonial continuities in their places of residence and study. One of these traces is monuments in public spaces, which for a long time have been an unquestioned part of its appearance but remain unbroken reminders of the colonial era or racist personalities upon closer inspection. In Göttingen, students laid the busts of Blumenbach and Haeckel and their pedestals horizontally on the ground as a symbolic act in July 2020. The figure of Blumenbach, after which the institute in front of which you now stand is named, was the subject of a controversial debate. In the meantime, Blumenbach’s bust is back in the foyer (feel free to look at it), but the debate lives on.
But who was Blumenbach and what is it that makes him so controversial?
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was born in Gotha in the mid-18th century and moved to Göttingen in the course of his medical studies. He wrote his dissertation and spent the rest of his life as a professor in this then still young, but already very well-known university town. After he died in 1840, he was buried in the Albani Cemetery, where his grave can still be seen today.
Blumenbach’s research focused on the field of comparative anatomy. He is considered a pioneer in the scientific disciplines of anthropology and zoology. Today, both disciplines are located under one roof at the Blumenbach Institute in Göttingen. The main object of his research was human skulls, which he measured and examined for “natural differences in the human sex,” as the title of his dissertation paper states. Unlike some of his academic contemporaries and following generations of researchers (which for example included Ernst Haeckel) he did not want to prove different origins of humankind, but on the contrary, assumed a common origin of all human beings. Many still hold this to his credit today and argue that Blumenbach used to be a representative of scientific anti-racism.
Problematic with this positive evaluation of Blumenbach is that Blumenbach nevertheless subjected the skulls to an examination. Because in his order of the different human groups the skull of a Georgian woman was placed centrally and therefore at the most important point of his order. He assigned it the category Caucasian. This means white people from Europe and Central Asia. Until today, especially in the USA, Caucasian is still used as a synonym for white people, and in some (right-wing) circles the term is often associated with superiority.
A further complication in the judgement of Blumenbach is his scientific practice: In the course of his life, he collected almost 250 skulls for his research and thereby founded the oldest preserved collection of skulls in the world to this day. He had skulls sent to him from all over the world via his extensive scientific network, which included such important contemporaries as Alexander von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Research has since shown that these skulls were in many cases stolen. The scientist Nell Painter, therefore, positions Blumenbach and his anthropological research in the context of European colonialism of the 18th century, in which world imperialism and science often went hand in hand. Conquerors, traders, and explorers had brought Blumenbach’s skulls to Europe and in doing so provided the empirical material for his research. By now, Blumenbach’s skull collection, which is still part of the scientific collections of the University of Göttingen, has been classified as sensitive. A research project is examining the exact origin stories of the skulls because this too is a part of the imperial and racist order of knowledge: We know many names of the collectors and sende of the skulls, but the people who died and their life stories have only rarely been preserved.
Further, the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th – precisely Blumenbach’s lifetime – are generally not an easy time for the evaluation and assessment of racism. It is precisely this period in which scientific racial theory was significantly developed. The creation of skull collections for creating and examining these racial ideologies gained momentum. Characteristic of this time is that terms like “race” only gradually became dominant and that first off many parallel terms still existed. In this terminological haze is also the “variety” used by Blumenbach, for he did not use the word “race” in his major writings.
What image of Blumenbach arises here? What seems essential to you in the evaluation of his person? What can be credited to him, but what might not? Does it make sense to bring down his busts?
The figure of Blumenbach, this much is certain, is not a person to be evaluated without ambiguity. Some supporters of his person want to make that out of him by labeling him as an immaculate “anti-racist”. In doing so, they overlook his research practices that were entangled in colonial orders. This seems to us a symptomatic way of dealing with racism to this day. According to a common opinion in our society, racists are always only the others and never ourselves, but rather Nazis and the right wing in general. That our society has been profoundly shaped by racism at least since Blumenbach’s lifetime and that we still live in a structurally racist* society is unfortunately often overlooked. At the same time, this insight also makes clear that the debate about Blumenbach can only be a starting point and must ultimately go beyond the person of Blumenbach, pointing to the larger question of structural racism in Göttingen and its university. And if we then go one step further, the discussion about Blumenbach also encourages us to reflect on our own racist imprints. The students have openly invited us to do so with their careful overthrow of Blumenbach’s statue!
What are your wishes for such a debate and reflection? What should be discussed there? Please contact us if you are interested in organizing such debates! We are looking forward to it!
- Student page: https://bioantira.blackblogs.org/ (German)
- A panel discussion organized by the students, in which proponents and opponents of a possible renaming of the Blumenbach Institute were invited: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJTIYOa8b1s (German)
- Prof. Nell Painter spoke in 2015 about Blumenbach’s scientific practice at the University of Göttingen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwDwnD1iQGI (English)
- About the research project “Sensitive Provenances”, which among other things examines Blumenbach’s skull collection in more detail: https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/629688.html (English)
*At this station we used the phrase structural racism: By this, we mean that racism is not just the wrongdoing of individuals, but is embedded in the foundations of our society: in the access to our educational institutions, in the knowledge that is taught there, in the labor market and, for example, in health care. Read more: https://mediendienst-integration.de/artikel/was-ist-struktureller-rassismus.html (German)