RJM Collections

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne is one of the most important ethnological museums in Germany and the only one of its kind in North Rhine-Westphalia. The collection contains about 60,000 objects, complemented by ca. 100,000 historical photographs from the early days of photography to the 1980s. Unlike the collections of many other ethnological museums, the RJM holdings do not mainly originate from expeditions or collection journeys. Rather, they came to the museum mainly as donations or bequests from private individuals, as acquisitions financed by patrons, through the commitment of the RJM Support Association (Förderverein Museumsgesellschaft RJM), founded in 1904, as well as through duplicate exchange with other European museums. In many cases, it remains unclear how, when and by whom the objects were acquired at their places of origin. The indexing and disclosure of provenances is a major concern of the RJM, as illustrated by several current research projects.

First digital access to the collections

The collections of the RJM have been successively recorded electronically in an access-based database since the late 1990s. The relocation of the museum and the collections made the reorganisation of the depots possible and during that in 2010-2017 all objects were photographed and below the photo collection was digitized. Since the migration of the data sets to the MuseumPlus database of the City of Cologne in autumn 2020, they are being cleaned up, thesauri are being developed and missing data - if available - added. Currently, the museum is able to answer incoming enquiries about specific collections. The museum is increasingly taking part in international collection surveys and, to a certain extent, in provenance research projects, such as Africa Accessioned (Botswana and Namibia), Digital Benin, Invisible International Programme Kenya, Philippine Material Culture in Europe, Japanese Buddhist Art Collections in Europe or Return of Cultural Heritage (AIATSIS). 

The first project-related digital collection overviews are available in the research area and will be continuously updated. If you have any questions, please contact: rjm-doku@stadt-koeln.de.

Around 2010, about 450 objects were entered into the image database "Cultural Heritage Cologne" hosted by the Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln (RBA). However, it should be noted that the information status of the corresponding image files may be outdated and that the RJM is not the originator of these data sets. The RBA will answer any questions you may have: rba@rbakoeln.de

The RJM is participating in the pilot project of the Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts in Germany, which is financed by the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States.

Preliminary remarks on the digitized inventory books:

It is important to us to point out that the historical documentation of museum objects contains racist and other discriminatory terms as well as false regional, ethnic and linguistic attributions. These are historical views that we do not want to reproduce – we do, however, consider it crucial to make these sources accessible to interested parties and researchers. Distancing itself from this language use and tendentious attributions, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum is committed to their critical examination.

In this context, you are welcome to consult The Guidelines for the Care of Collections from Colonial Contexts

Here, we are providing you with the digitised inventory books up to about 1960. Further archival records will be added successively, enabling further research.


The collections from the African continent comprise around 15,365 items (as of June.2023). In addition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the geographical focus is on the areas of the former German colonies - especially the present-day states of Cameroon, Tanzania, Togo and Namibia. In accordance with the interests of collectors during the colonial period, weapons are a focal point of the collection, along with masks and sculptures. Julius Lips, director of the RJM from 1928-1934, acquired numerous so-called "Europeans", especially from African countries. In 1966, the museum acquired the collection of the Düsseldorf artist Klaus Clausmeyer, which includes around 550 items from Africa. A new focus of the collection is formed by around 2,000 objects made of brass from the Kapsiki and neighbouring groups (North Cameroon/Northeast Nigeria).

Recently completed research projects:

Research project Benin

Research project Invisible Inventories Programme

Final Report on the Origin of a Skull from East Africa (Estate of Lothar von Trotha)


The Americas collection comprises around 8,000 objects with a focus on South America. North and Mesoamerica each make up about a quarter of the holdings. Several well-known collectors of South American artefacts have contributed to the RJM: for instance, Wilhelm Gretzer, Peter and Irene Ludwig (all of them specializing in ancient Peruvian objects) as well as Alberto Vojtech Fric (Gran Chaco). The exposition also features some outstanding pre-Columbian textiles. In regard to Mesoamerica, the collections of Irene and Peter Ludwig (Old America) and Gerd and Renate Dörner (Mexican arts and crafts) are of particular interest. Highlights of the North America holdings include the Umlauff Northwest Coast Collection and the Plains Collection financed by Carl Joest (both dating from the early 20th century).


The Asia collections comprise around 8,000 items with a regional focus on South and Southeast Asia. The focus is primarily on the Indian subcontinent and the Thai, Mon and Khmer cultures. Among the everyday objects and those of religious significance are a large number of stone and bronze figures, as well as textiles. Of the almost 2,000 items in the East Asia collections, a quarter come from the founding collection of Wilhelm Joest and date from the 19th century. Later, the collections were expanded through donations and systematic purchases in the trade, including the collections on the cultures of the Ainu from northern Japan and on Sinhalese masks. From the 2010s onwards, donations of items from Buddhist contexts have supplemented the Myanmar and Thailand collection areas. A new focus was established with Indian miniature painting and Jain manuscript leaves.

Current research project Vishnu Head

Current research project Khmer Collection

The Photographic collection

In today's globalized and networked society, images have an outstanding significance. We communicate and remember with photographs. They shape our image of the world. In the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, the history of the medium can be experienced from its early days to the present. Many of the photographs originate from colonial contexts.

The photographic collection of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum comprises around 100,000 objects from almost all regions of the world. The images from a wide variety of acquisition contexts - made by missionaries, colonial officials or travelers, or purchased from one of the numerous photo studios worldwide - are closely linked to the colonial expansion of the German Empire in terms of time, geography and content. Consequently, images from Africa and Oceania form a focal point of the collection. However, the collection also contains numerous photographs from Asia and the Americas. Represented are different photographic techniques since the second half of the 19th century. The collection is continuously being processed and expanded to include new perspectives up to the present day.
As part of a conservation project in 2017, the entire collection was cleaned, digitized, and repackaged for archival use. A modern depot for the photographic objects is currently being planned and realized.

An archive lives from the use and discussion of its inventories.The scientific and artistic processing of the collection is one of the main tasks of the museum.


Insular Southeast Asia

The collections from Insular Southeast Asia comprise about 9,000 objects from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Malaysia, East Timor, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan – and, above all, Indonesia (almost 7,000 objects). Particularly noteworthy are the exhibits from the east of the archipelago and the textiles. The largest artefact is an elaborately carved rice granary of the Sa'dan Toraja people from the island of Sulawesi. In 2006, Balinese specialists created a bull coffin with a lotus throne as well as Barong and Rangda masks for a topical trail. A Javanese gamelan ensemble can be played at the exhibition under guidance.


The approximately 18,500 objects in the Oceania collection come from numerous Pacific island states and Australia. The regional focus is on Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The holdings include everyday objects and ritual artefacts such as highly artistic masks and sculptures. Almost 70% of the current collection had been acquired before the First World War, during the heyday of ethnographica hunting. Some of the collectors had lived in Oceania for a long time, such as an area manager of the German New Guinea Company, Paul Lückers, and its doctor, Curt Danneil. Some had travelled there, for example, Wilhelm Joest and Georg Küppers-Loosen; others still acquired their collections indirectly, via the global art trade.

On 11 June 2021, the scholar and journalist Götz Aly presented his new book at the RJM: Das Prachtboot. Wie Deutsche die Kunstschätze der Südsee raubten (“The Magnificent Boat: How Germans Stole the Art Treasures of the South Seas”; Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 2021). To accompany the event, we have published an overview of our collection from the Hermit Islands as well as a corresponding excerpt from the 1987 inventory catalogue “Art and Culture from the South Seas. Clausmeyer Collection. Melanesia” by Waldemar Stöhr (curator of the RJM Indonesia and Oceania collection from 1951 to 1987). In 1966, the museum acquired the holdings of the artist Klaus Clausmeyer (1887-1968), which comprised over 1,000 artefacts. It includes a wooden figure (RJM 48567): according to the attached label, it had been sold by Henning von Holtzendorff in 1884. Von Holtzendorff had participated in the punitive action against the inhabitants of one of Hermit islands, the Luf Island, from 26 December 1882 to New Year’s Day 1883. Stöhr refers specifically to the “perverse punitive action” (1987:195).

Current Rapa Nui research project

Current research project Hermit Islands