Father Franz J. Kirschbaum
Father Franz J. Kirschbaum
SVD Missionary and Ethnographic Collector in New Guinea
By Rainer F. Buschmann
Franz Kirschbaum (1882-1939) was a missionary of the Catholic Order from the Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini, SVD) who arrived in German New Guinea in 1907. He would stay in the region until his death due to a plane crash in 1939. Trained in anthropology and linguistics, Kirschbaum was an avid collector of ethnographic objects. For instance, the Vatican Ethnographic Museum (Anima Mundi) holds approximately 1000 artifacts collected by the missionary.
Father Kirschbaum and three local boys on the island of Tumleo. From Valentin Boissonnas, “Feather Mosaics from the Keram River: Exceptional Sepik Assemblage Art” Tribal Arts 90 (2018): 108.
Born in the German city of Bottrop, Kirschbaum was one of 14 siblings and decided to dedicate his life to religion early on. In 1895, he joined the SVD order in Steyl in the Netherlands. By 1900 he transferred for his higher education to St. Gabriel near Vienna. In 1907, Kirschbaum was fully ordained and boarded a ship destined for German New Guinea; a colonial territory deemed ripe for religious conversion. On the SVD station located on the island of Tumleo near Aitape, he started to immerse himself in studying local languages. In 1909, Kirschbaum founded the Malol (St. Gabriel) station and, a few years later, Marienberg on the lower Sepik River. Following the First World War outbreak, Australian authorities initially questioned his loyalty and support to the German cause, but Kirschbaum ultimately was allowed to remain at Marienberg. He traveled to Germany in the 1930s due to his silver missionary anniversary. Upon returning to New Guinea, he settled at the SVD headquarters in Alexishafen. In early August of 1939, Kirschbaum died in a plane crash. Although conflicting accounts of this accident exist, pilot W. Schaffhausen, by confusing pounds with kilograms, had overloaded the twin-engine Fokker aircraft with supplies for distant mission outposts. Following takeoff, the plane failed to clear some trees. It fell to the ground, killing the pilot and all passengers, including Kirschbaum, near Alexishafen.
There were certain cultural practices were Kirschbaum, who was after all more missionary than ethnographer, drew a hard line. The most important of these was headhunting, which he considered a most aberrant of custom and he made it his specific assignment to exorcise. He reported to a fellow missionary: “They simply have to do it according to their belief, which would [otherwise] be exercised in the ruin of their own village. Poor people! Their lord, Satan, keeps a tight hold on them—a very tight hold indeed.”
From roughly 1909 to 1933, Kirschbaum collected linguistic and cultural information and artifacts on populations residing along the coastal areas of the Northwestern corner of New Guinea. He focused on the people living along the Sepik River and its many tributaries. The missionary utilized SVD steamers, first theGabriel and later theStella Maris,to visit local people to spread the Gospel and collect artifacts. He also trained local catechists who would assist in collecting ethnographic and linguistic data. Some sources have Kirschbaum acquiring a pilot license in the 1930s to survey the area and access out-of-way places. Like many missionaries before and after him, the SVD father showed a clear preference for collecting ceremonial and religious art, which he acquired not as mere trophies of conversion but also as a sense of salvaging cultural heritage that his mission agenda was eroding. Two examples illustrate his double-edged mission of salvage. First, towards the end of the German colonial period, Kirschbaum established a museum highlighting and preserving the territory's art in the then colonial capital Rabaul. The exhibits and associated artifacts remained in Rabaul until World War II when they fell victim to an American bombing raid in 1943. Similarly, when in 1932, as a consequence of a widespread Christian awakening along the lower and middle Sepik, the inhabitants intended to destroy their artifacts associated with the old religion. Kirschbaum steamed up the river on the vesselStella Maristo convince the residents to turn the valuable artifacts over to him to save them from destruction.
Sambung Suspension Hook depicting the maritime deity Kamboragoa. Object donated by Franz Kirschbaum in 1925 for the Missionary Exhibit at the Vatican. Inventory Number MV 100441.0.0. Photo Copyright @ Governorate of the Vatican City State-Directorate of the Vatican Museum.
Kirschbaum's most extensive collection of artifacts, roughly 850, is currently housed in the ethnographic institution (Anima Mundi) associated with the Vatican Museums. In the mid-1920s, Pope Pius XI commissioned an exhibit of all peoples' spiritual traditions. A universal letter went out to all Catholic missionaries to assemble wide-ranging collections and forward them to Rome. The exhibition proved a great success and brought together almost 100,000 artifacts. Father Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD, a renowned ethnographer and founder of the Catholic anthropological journal Anthropos, had to pair down this collection to a more manageable 40,000 objects. This trove became the foundation of a new ethnographic museum that would open its doors in 1927 with Schmidt as its founding director. Kirschbaum intended to have his extensive collection leave Rome for the prominent SVD mission houses in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. However, Schmidt retained much of this assembly, and they still constitute the most significant Oceanic artifacts numbering roughly 7,000 at the Anima Mundi. Despite departing from Kirschbaum's original purpose of his objects, the missionary continued to support the Vatican ethnographic collections until the mid-1930s.
Ritual Mask donated by Franz Kirschbaum in 1932 to the Vatican museum. Inventory Number MV. 109711.0.0. Photo Copyright @ Governorate of the Vatican City State-Directorate of the Vatican Museum.
Besides ethnographic objects, Kirschbaum also donated extensive photographic collections. The Raustenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM), which is close to the missionary’s hometown of Bottrop, holds the largest one of these. While Kirschbaum presented a lecture at the RJM in 1936, museum officials persuaded him to make copies of his crucial photographic cache, the originals of which vanished following his accident. When looking at his pictures today, they appear not static and involve a minimal degree of posing. The images illustrate the close rapport with the people he met and capture even the most sacred scenes and artifacts. Although Kirschbaum never published extensive monographs about his ethnographic observations, he was a periodic contributor to the SVD-sponsored Anthropos. The same journal would also support the publication of his Instructions for Ethnographic and Linguistic Research in 1935.
Besides providing essential artifacts and photographs for prominent ethnographic collections in Europe, Kirschbaum also supported many critical ethnographers during his residence in New Guinea. Even before moving to his long-term residency at the Sepik Marienberg station, the missionary helped A. B. Lewis (Chicago), Richard Neuhaus (Berlin), and Otto Schlaginhaufen (Dresden, see provenance biography, Otto Schlaginhaufen) by providing carries, translation, and ethnographic knowledge. Once based at the Marienberg, Kirschbaum lend his expertise to the Berlin-based Sepik Expedition and most importantly to the Austrian ethnographer Richard Thurnwald (see Provenance biography). Especially after Thurnwald was captured by Australian forces and placed under house arrest at the Marienberg station, the ethnographer and the missionary developed an almost symbiotic relationship. Kirschbaum would assist the Austrian in translation, while Thurnwald would provide the SVD agent with important ethnographic advice. Following Thurwald’s departure in late 1915, Kirschbaum would be instrumental in assisting the Crane Expedition (Chicago, 1929) and Gregory Batson (Cambridge, 1927-28, 1932-33), who would later pen his influential Naven about the Iatmul. The missionary also participated in the Crane-Peabody expedition (1937), but this venture fell apart in the early stages.
Kirschbaum, the European on the far left on the Crane Expedition in 1929 from Virginia-Lee Webb’s “Two Days in May 1929 on the Keram River” in Oceanic Art Provenance and History, Hamson, 2021, p. 82.
Kirschbaum has not received a lot of biographic treatments over the last decades, partially because of the proximity of his death to the cataclysm of World War II that would destroy many of his records. Yet his linguistic and ethnographic efforts and support remained influential during the first half of the twentieth century. Especially in terms of Sepik ethnography, Kirschbaum is frequently considered a pioneer of ethnographic collection and research.
Ancestor Figure Malita Kandimbwag/ Malup, Murik Lagoon. Donated in 1932 by Franz Kirschbaum to the Vatican Museum. Inventory Number MV. 109647.0.0. Photo Copyright @ Governorate of the Vatican City State-Directorate of the Vatican Museum.