Where is the object from? Who did it belong to? How did it enter the collection? Nowadays, hardly any curator can avoid dealing with these questions before exhibiting or acquiring works of art or other cultural objects. Provenance has become an essential factor for public acceptance of the legitimacy of holdings in national museum collections worldwide as a consequence of two broad trends. On the one hand, a broad consensus on Nazi-confiscated art was reached in 1998 and expressed in the Washington Principles. On the other hand, there have been numerous heated public debates in recent years about the unlawful or unfair appropriation of cultural assets and the possible restitution of such items.1 Concern about the origins of objects is growing for libraries and archives too. Thus, provenance research has become a globally sought-after discipline.
We are publishing this article in conjunction with the conference Empire of Circulation: Habsburg Knowledge in Its Global Setting.
Empire of Circulation
The Habsburg Monarchy constituted a linguistic, religious, and legal patchwork that was conditioned both by its internal diversity and the region’s centuries-long imbrications and entanglements with the adjacent Ottoman, Spanish, and Holy Roman Empires. It was what Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone,” one that bred innovation.1 Moreover, Central European scholars and scientists creatively grasped and shaped the religious and linguistic plurality of the Habsburg imperial polity, and they did so by entangling their region with the wider world.2 They tweaked, deracinated, and readjusted practices across contexts. They compared, translated, and amalgamated bodies of knowledge, unfolding a set of activities and processes that recent historians of knowledge have termed “circulation.”
Writing in the age of Yelp from Dupont, the historic center of gay life in Washington, DC, I can have trouble fully imagining the difficulty that many gay men had in accessing gay spaces. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, when gay scenes were expanding in major metropolitan areas across North America and Western Europe and gay rights movements were attaining increased visibility, access to specific gay locales remained largely dependent on local knowledge. This presented a particular challenge for the novice gay traveler, who might have possessed a vague sense that Schöneberg was the “gayborhood” of Berlin or the Marais functioned similarly for Paris, but have no idea which were the best bars, saunas, and so-called darkrooms, let alone whom to call if they ran into trouble with the police.