In 1904 the Leipzig-based pharmaceutical and dye merchant Erwin Olbrecht sold this gorilla hand to the Zoologisches Institut of the Königliche Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (since 1949 the Humboldt-Universität) zu Berlin.
It is possible to discern the bones protruding from the stump of the hand, the exposed muscles on the back of the hand, the numerous hairs and the dark fingernails. The hand has been excellently conserved in alcohol, housed in a rectangular glass container. We do not know what happened to the remaining body parts of the dead animal, or anything about when and under what circumstances the gorilla was killed.
Some people are repulsed by this object, while others are fascinated. It generates mental images – we think of apes as we know them from films, visits to the zoo and travel abroad – and raises questions: why a hand? Where is the rest of the body? Under what conditions did the animal whose hand this was die? How did the hand get here? Maybe the mere sight of it makes us think of pain, particularly because it reminds us of a human hand.
The people of West Africa, where these animals have their habitat, were naturally aware of their existence. However, the first scientific description of the species was made in the USA in 1847 on the basis of a skull. Since then it has been known as the gorilla. Publications on the animal, which was frequently depicted as a “monster” yet unmistakably resembled a human, subsequently attracted great public attention in European and North American society. Western researchers, adventurers and collectors travelled to the gorilla’s habitats in order to hunt it. Specimens of individual body parts or even whole animals became sought-after and expensive collectors’ items.
Charles Darwin’s study On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, fuelled a discussion on the possible kinship between humans and apes. The gorilla hand may have played a key role in teaching and researching comparative anatomy in zoological studies.
Science should always be seen in the light of its period in history. It reflects everything from political, ideological and technical currents through to personal interests. All this influences what is researched and collected for research purposes. Thus the hand as an object takes on a paradigmatic role in relating the history of science. In the Humboldt Forum it stands for a collection and research practice which took place under colonial conditions, contributing to the exploitation of nature and societies. Viewed in its historical context, this hand can also be used to address the theme of colonial power relations.
From the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, in future in the exhibition on the first floor of the Humboldt Forum.
The exact provenance of this object is currently the focus of intense research. To date, only the specimen’s previous owner is known. According to purchase records, the gorilla hand was acquired in 1904 by Erwin Olbricht for the collection of the Zoological Institute of the then Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (today the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). Olbricht was a dealer in pharmaceuticals and paint from Leipzig, Zeitzer Straße 21.
According to the collection’s purchase records, the hand was part of a group of objects that also included the right foot of a gorilla and a snake from the Boa family. At a later date, Olbricht sold the right hand of a Simia satyrus (a primate of the Orang-Utan family) to the Zoological Institute. Our knowledge of Olbricht is currently limited to a contemporary entry in the Leipzig address book.
This exhibit is currently the subject of additional research in the course of the exhibition preparations. Since it was acquired in 1904, during the German colonial era, and originates from West Africa, thorough research is indicated. The Humboldt-Universität is committed to learning as much as possible about the object’s origins and to finding appropriate ways to deal with objects of sensitive provenance.
Why are elephants, gorillas and bees also moving into the Humboldt Forum? This question and many more were being addressed by international experts, eye witnesses and representatives from the Humboldt Forum in the conversation "Elepahnt, Bee & Gorilla" on October 15, 2018.
Elephant, Bee & Gorilla
November 15, 2018, 7.30pm
The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights were being presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin.