“When you work with objects that were globally translocated, mobility is crucial” – 5in10 with Anna-Carolin Augustin

Anna-Carolin Augustin
(c) Nora Hilgert

Anna-Carolin Augustin joined the German Historical Institute Washington as a research fellow in April 2019. Her main fields of interest are modern German-Jewish history and culture with an emphasis on women’s and gender history, as well as Jewish material culture. From 2011-2014, she was a fellow at the Walther Rathenau Graduiertenkolleg at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies (MMZ). She received her PhD in modern history from the Universität Potsdam in 2016. Since 2017 she has devoted herself to provenance research in the field of Judaica. Her first monograph, Berliner Kunstmatronage. Sammlerinnen und Förderinnen bildender Kunst um 1900 was published in 2018 (Wallstein Publishing House). In her current research project, she examines the entangled object biographies and migration paths of Jewish ceremonial objects (Judaica), as well as their changing attributions of meaning and functions after 1945 in a transnational, cultural-historical study.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

In short, I am interested in the post-war “afterlife” of European Jewish ceremonial objects and what their “biographies” can tell us about the history of relations between Jews and gentiles which, in turn, illuminates many facets of post-Holocaust Jewish life. My research is based on the premise that objects store knowledge and create social relationships. They are invested with functions, traditions, symbolic meanings, and memories that are preserved, transformed, or lost when objects “migrate” – when they are removed from the cultural contexts and geographic settings in which they were created, and change ownership.

The material culture of European Jewry I am dealing with was deeply affected by processes of scattering during the twentieth century – especially by the National Socialist regime’s war upon European Jewry. The objects that survived had either been sent into “exile” for safety before the war or circulated into new contexts after 1945 as a result of plunder, sale, or restitution. These remnants of European-Jewish material culture became the focus of interest for very different actors after the war – ranging from former owners and their legal successors to diplomats and restitution officials, from Judaica experts and local museum curators to antiques dealers and private collectors.

I want to know why and how these different actors were interested in the material remains of a largely destroyed European-Jewish culture. Which different meanings and functions were assigned to the objects in different contexts? And what conclusions can be drawn from the “object biographies” about the Jewish and non-Jewish history of relations after 1945? 

What academic or personal inspirations led you to your current research?

Before I started my current research project at the GHI Washington DC, I worked for several years at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Through my time at the museum I learned to work with objects as historical sources, which was an important experience for me. Among other things, I worked as a research fellow for provenance research on a project dedicated to the systematic provenance research of Jewish ceremonial objects in the museum’s collection. It was my job to deal with the previous-owner history of each individual object. It was not always possible to reconstruct an entire “object biography.” But the cases in which it was possible showed that certain patterns, migratory routes, hubs, etc. existed. I quickly realized that there are still serious gaps in the field of research on Jewish material culture after 1945 – to which I would like to devote myself by writing a cultural history of Jewish ceremonial objects.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

Methodologically, my project will draw, amongst other things, upon provenance research, which treats objects as primary sources and explores the biographies of individual objects and entire collections alike. A focus on the post-war art and antiques trade with Jewish ceremonial objects, for example, in the form of the systematic evaluation of auction catalogues, is also borrowed from provenance research and will be used in my project. Likewise, the examination of “classical” historical sources, for example the archival collections/papers of central actors like experts of Jewish ceremonial objects or the analysis of “Wiedergutmachungsakten,” is part of the project. In the few cases where persons that are still alive were involved in the translocation of Jewish ceremonial objects after 1945, I will also conduct interviews.

Which publication, academic events or exhibition (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) inspired you recently?

In May, I took part in the conference “In Global Transit: Forced Migration of Jews and Other Refugees (1940s-1960s)” at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, which showed me interesting new aspects of Jewish migration after 1945, enabled me to network with colleagues, and – thanks to the perfect venue – also gave me the opportunity to take a look at interesting Jewish ceremonial objects from the Magnes Collection. Not only did I get an interesting guided tour through the exhibition “Memory Objects: Judaica Collections and Global Migrations,” but I was also shown interesting Jewish ceremonial objects stored in the depot.

With regard to books, I recently re-read Lisa Leff’s The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, which tells the interesting microhistory of Zosa Szajkowski. He was a Jewish historian who was condemned repeatedly after World War II for stealing archival materials from European libraries, which he then sold to American institutions – thus also a facet of translocating Jewish material culture after 1945.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Yes. Especially when you work with objects that were globally translocated, mobility is crucial. Fortunately, many historical sources have now been digitized and this process is progressing. But working with three-dimensional material culture requires, in most cases, a thorough examination of the objects. Because I don’t just want to see what the front of an object shows, I also want to be able to turn the object around, look at the bottom and maybe even smell it to see if it was exposed to fire, for example.

As a participant of the German/American Provenance Research Exchange Program 2018 at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, I was able to personally experience the importance of international and interdisciplinary exchange with colleagues, and of archival and object work on site. This experience definitely affected the conceptualization of my research project.


Citation: “When you work with objects that were globally translocated, mobility is crucial” – 5in10 with Anna-Carolin Augustin, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19394.


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