Short Portrait: Gerd Koch

Gerd Koch
Gerd Koch

Gerd Koch was born on 11th July 1922 in Hanover. While still a schoolboy he was fascinated by the voyages of James Cook and other explorers, who had discovered previously unknown areas of the world. Since his family could not afford for him to take a degree course, after he had taken his secondary school leaving examination he became an apprentice salesman at the Pelikan works located in Hanover. In 1941 he joined the German Navy, where he was trained as a radio operator. From then until his secondment shortly before the end of the war he spent the following years on an impounded Dutch fishing boat charged with monitoring the air and sea of the English Channel. During this period he was already writing short articles for papers and he enrolled at Göttingen University. He was in Copenhagen when the war ended, which he had reached shortly before from the front line at Stralsund. He was surprised to discover that cream cakes were still on sale. Together with others he provided pilotage instructions by radio for refugee ships crossing the Baltic until on 7th May they were instructed by the English to stop doing this. Gerd Koch was among the first students allowed to attend Göttingen University for the winter term of 1945. Here he took a wide range of subjects including, apart from his main subject Ethnology, a “Studium Generale”, during which, amongst others, he met Max Planck. Neither cold nor hunger succeeded in deterring him from achieving his goal. While at university in the years up until 1948 he chose to concentrate on the Pacific, always being aware of the presence of Göttingen’s Cook Collection. Following the currency reform 1948 he even lived intermittently in a hen house since accommodation was scarce and barely affordable. He wrote his dissertation in 1949 on Die frühen europäischen Einflüsse auf die Kultur der Bewohner der Tonga-Inseln (The early European influences on the culture of the inhabitants of the Tonga Islands) between 1616 and 1852.

In these days acculturation was not a popular topic. After a short period as an assistant in a stationery store – he had meanwhile become a father – he got the opportunity to list the collections from the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which were among the works of art being held by the British authorities in the castle at Celle. This meant opening the crates, which had of necessity been packed by museum staff and prisoners-of-war, sometimes during bombing raids, treating the objects with paradichlorobenzene to protect them against moth damage, which had already set in, and the scientific and at least regional attribution of the pieces. Naturally everything was documented by him as accurately as possible. At the same time he submitted a request to the Emergency Association of German Science for an expedition to the Tongan archipelago. Gerd Koch was able to start his journey in October 1951, being the first German scientist to do so after the 2nd World War. Having considerable sympathy for the somehow independent Tongan bureaucracy, he liked to remark that 50 years later he was still waiting for permission to undertake research in Tonga. Since, however, the Crown Prince (later King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV., 1918-2006) personally supported him and arranged for him to stay with relatives on Nomuka in the Ha’apai Group, he was able to undertake his work on cultural change in the Kingdom of Tonga without official authorisation. During this research he developed his “key to the recording of culture”, which was to be of great use to him later on. This made it considerably easier for him systematically to record and evaluate the results. At that time travelling there and back was still by ship and on the way back he included a four-week break in order to carry out similar research work and produce film and audio documentaries in Fiji (in the Sigatoka region) and in Samoa (in Falealupo on the western tip of Savai’i). In spite of a shortage of film material, because of the Korean War, he was able to shoot five films in Tonga about everyday life there and which were published in 1954 by the “Encyclopaedia Cinematographica” in Göttingen, which form 1956 was named “Institute for Scientific Film”/Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film”. He made two films in Fiji about pottery, during which the camera broke down a few meters from the end of the second one. Once it had been carefully repaired by watch makers, during the course of his journey he succeeded in making a further film on irrigated taro cultivation on the terraces of New Caledonia, but which, however, was not accepted by the Göttingen Film institute and was discarded. All his efforts to penetrate this difficult to access area and to find an expert willing and able to demonstrate the work were therefore in vain. He always greatly regretted that this film was lost at Göttingen, as do colleagues and people in New Caledonia nowadays. He presented his ethnographic collection, which he put together during this research expedition, to his university, which paid for the freight costs involved. In the year 2000, in an exhibition prepared by students being taught by Gundolf Krüger, Göttingen University, to which both museum and collection belong, displayed objects collected on Cook’s Voyages and by Gerd Koch in the same display cases. He was deeply touched by this. A photograph which he took in 1999 adorns the small exhibition catalogue.

During the time when his findings were being evaluated, once again funded by the German Research Foundation, he renewed his efforts to find a new post. In Hanover, however, the ethnological collection of the state museum was housed beneath a broken glass dome and, as a result of a submission to the state legislative assembly; Gerd Koch received an honorarium, renewable monthly, to execute all necessary work on this collection of around 10,000 items. In the spring of 1957 this uncertain situation changed suddenly when the position at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, held by Hans Nevermann, became vacant. Gerd Koch went to Berlin as custodian. The normal working day involved the first exhibitions of artefacts which had been returned to Berlin, and rebuilding the “Südsee”/Pacific Department, which had been severely suffered severely during the war, such as creating temporary cards aided by contingency assistants, since the originals were lost and only came to light in 1991. In addition he undertook lecturing assignments at the Free University of Berlin/Freie Universität Berlin, which, like the Museum of Ethnology/Museum für Völkerkunde (nowadays known as the Ethnological Museum) is situated in Dahlem. Another research expedition followed in 1960/61, this time to the Ellice Islands. Until then few ethnologists had ventured to these remote tropical islands, which were also considered to be very traditional. This, however, was Koch’s specific goal: to learn more about the old Polynesian traditions, with which he was already acquainted from reading Cook’s log books and from personal experiences in Tonga. Here, too, it was not only once again possible for him to live among the inhabitants and to participate in their everyday life and festivities but also to record old songs, of which only fragments were still remembered by the very oldest islanders. As previously he once again published the results of his research in numerous individual articles, gave lectures on the subject and still in the same year, 1961, published Die Materielle Kultur der Ellice-Inseln, in spite of delays caused by the building of the Berlin wall. The English translation of this, by Guy Slatter, was published in 1981 by the University of the South Pacific in Suva as The Material Culture of Tuvalu. And then in 1964 he published jointly with music-ethnologist D. Christensen Die Musik der Ellice-Inseln, which included a 45 rpm disc. In 1963, however, Koch had also travelled north of the equator to visit that part of what was then still administered jointly by Great Britain as the “Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony”. After a short stay in the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) where further film documentaries were made and he showed the films shot previously, presenting the copies to the government, research continued on the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati. In 1965 the results were also published as: Materielle Kultur der Gilbert-Inseln, issued by the University of the South Pacific as “The Material Culture of Kiribati”, again translated by Guy Slatter in 1986. A special exhibition was also devoted to the newly-acquired material, just as had been done following his expedition to the Ellice Islands.

70 films, a large quantity of audio tapes (so far not analysed from a music-ethnological point of view), thousands of photos (including shots of the coastal and inland backgrounds) and an additional ethnological collection for the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, as well as plants and soil samples – these are all the results of his research on these barren, arid reef islands right on the equator. “Where then, for goodness sake, is culture to be found here?” is the question he asked himself on his arrival. Then, however, everything fell into place of its own accord and afterwards he was hardly able to keep up with his cameras and recording equipment. Gerd Koch’s very comprehensive cultural documentation was subsequently used as the basis of a cultural project in 2010/2011, initiated by colleagues from Göttingen and finally carried out by the I-Kiribati people themselves. Its aim was once again to capture on film life on the islands before they are possibly submerged as a result of a rise in sea level. Koch’s photographs of the landscape are also attracting increasing attention, enabling deductions to be made about possible alterations – or not - due to climate change.

In 1966 participation at the 11th Pacific Science Congress in Tokyo enabled Gerd Koch to undertake a further research expedition, during which he first made a detour to the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain in order possibly to find out more about the Iniet figures in the Berlin collection, obtained in 1907 by Richard Thurnwald. Iniet – Geister in Stein, the inventory catalogue, appeared in 1982. On the way to Santa Cruz he worked for some weeks with the Abelam in the Maprik district of north-eastern New Guinea and was able to obtain artefacts for the Berlin Museum. As a result the gable roof of a large meeting house on display in the Ethnological Museum made its way with considerable effort first to the coast and then by ship to Germany. Ultimately, however, he wanted to round off his coverage of the traditional material cultural goods of the inhabitants of the South Pacific, which, as he described it, “illustrate” the final “distinct” stage of development before the “Europeanization”. To this end he chose the Santa Cruz Islands, where he worked for the next four months, from November 1966 to the end of February 1967 primarily on Pileni, Fenualoa and at Graciosa Bay on Ndende. Once again he returned to Berlin with a wealth of film-, photographic- and audio-material apart from the collections. Objects, which were of importance to the inhabitants, he left in situ and did not attempt to persuade them to sell them. He succeeded both in shooting the last documentary on weaving in the archipelago and also the only filmed record of the manufacturing of feather money. He was also able to acquire for the Berlin Collection the last still complete ocean-going outrigger canoe. It would subsequently be admired in the permanent Pacific Exhibition, opened in 1970, which he had planned and designed and also forms part of the current exhibition. An unusual feature of the Berlin Pacific Exhibition, which occupies 3000 sq. meters, is that its ceiling is 17 m. high, making it possible to exhibit even the large canoes from the Pacific. Once the display cabinets were mounted, the descriptions were printed offset on their own plates and informative and descriptive leaflets were compiled for the exhibition by him and his colleagues. These still serve as reference texts and could be purchased for a small sum by interested visitors. The plans for the new building to house the Pacific collections and the exhibition were followed by further furbishing of the study collection – each object was displayed in a visible and tangible manner, well-lit working desks were available for specialists and interested lay people. At his instigation a small lecture room was built in the basement and next to it a room was set up providing information about the latest developments in the Pacific. The insular seating and selected literature made it possible for each visitor to form his/her own picture of life in the Pacific and also of what threatens this by studying reprints of earlier researchers and by means of current publications. This room was directly accessible by the stairs from the exhibition. Gerd Koch’s exhibition, which came about through a tenacious struggle against the ideas of architect Bornemann, who was later honoured for it, remained almost unaltered for over 30 years and was certainly numbered among the most successful Pacific exhibitions ever. Of course the quality of the Berlin artefacts played an important part, but by letting the display cases be decorated by students of art from the Berlin Hochschule der Künste (HdK) from all over the world he understood how to let the power of the objects be effective so that they could speak for themselves. Materielle Kultur der Santa Cruz-Inseln appeared in 1971 – once again as part of the series of publications by the Museum for Ethnology in Berlin. He later always remarked that the main reason the volume sold well was because of its cover. It shows the Nifiloli outrigger canoe on the beach.

Gerd Koch would not have been who he was if he had been satisfied with what he had achieved. As far back as the beginning of the Seventies he embarked on a new project, but this time not on his own but it was to become an inter-discipline project between several different scientific disciplines. He had learnt that a certain area in the eastern part of New Guinea belonging to Indonesia, not far from the border with Papua New Guinea, which had so far not been visited by Europeans, was to be evangelised. So he planned the comprehensive recording of the culture and living conditions of a whole group, hoping to do so before the arrival of the missionaries. Together with his colleague Klaus Helfrich, who was later to become Director of the Berlin Museum, they presented a project submission to the German Research Foundation/Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG): humans, culture and environment in the central hills of Irian Jaya, as this part of Indonesia is called politically, were to be investigated. According to the first draft of the project, which was turned down by the DFG, over a course of several years 32 scientists were to be involved, representatives of almost all the disciplines concerned with human beings and nature including ethnologists, doctors, dentists, anthropologists, linguists, behavioural specialists, botanists, climatologists, and agricultural specialists. Recently a French colleague described this project, of which the international scientific world today is scarcely aware – probably because the main publications about the results were only printed in German – as the last great research expedition in the Pacific into the unknown regions of this world. This project among the Eipo gave rise to further research but once again not all the material was published, something which Gerd Koch always regretted. His article Malingdam, Ethnographische Notizen über ein Siedlungsbereich im oberen Eipomek-Tal, zentrales Bergland von Irian Jaya (West-Neuguinea), Indonesien (Malingdam, Ethnographic Notes on a Settlement in the Higher Eipomek Valley, central Highlands of Irian Jaya [West New Guinea]) appeared in 1984 as Volume 15 of the series “Mensch, Kultur und Umwelt im Zentralen Bergland von West-Neuguinea” (Humans, Culture and Environment in the Central Highlands of West-New Guinea) In 1979 the whole project was presented in a special exhibition in Dahlem entitled “Steinzeit Heute” (Stone age Today), which at times had to be closed because of the excessive numbers of visitors. The exhibition was opened with a seminar and accompanied by guided tours and by lectures given by the specialists who had been involved.

Apart from his activities as senior custodian of the Berlin Pacific collections and his research work he was also co-publisher of the Baessler Archive’s Neue Folge series and as such ensured that contributions from the Pacific were always published on an equal footing. Academic colleagues from all over the world provided texts on current research topics. At the same time he was for more than two decades Deputy Director of the Berlin Ethnological Museum and together with Kurt Krieger and Gerd Höpfner he determined the museum’s fortunes. During these years he continually undertook lecturing assignments at the Free University and with films, audio recordings and objects, which he sometimes specifically had brought from the exhibition he filled us students with enthusiasm for the living environment of the Pacific. In 1984 he was awarded an honorary professorship, however no financial recompense was associated with this. His final exhibition Boote aus aller Welt (Boats from all over the World), which he organised together with his museum colleagues, ended his work at the Berlin Museum, which he had to give up prematurely for health reasons. He retired in the summer of 1985, but continued to lecture at the university until 1990 and was still able to inspire many people for the study of Oceania. During this period two of colleagues obtained their doctorates under him and he also supervised those studying for a Master’s degree.

Contrary to earlier convictions, he enjoyed travelling as he grew older and it was his dream to be able to go to all the places, which James Cook had visited on his expeditions to the Pacific and elsewhere. He still travelled to the Pacific with prints of his photos and copies of his films in his luggage, which always aroused considerable attention. Thus in 1996 he again visited Tuvalu, where he was welcomed most warmly and in Tonga, which he revisited after 47 years, he was overwhelmed by the friendly reception he received from people, whose walls were still adorned with photos he had taken all those years ago of themselves and their parents. Following his journey in 1999 he condensed his experiences and reflections on the cultural changes in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in a small, self-published volume ein besseres leben – eine suche im südpazifik (a better live – a search in the south pacific), published by Failima, which means “hand made” in the year 2000. During the last years of his life he worked on material, which he had not yet published, the result being a small book on the use of plants in Kiribati and Tuvalu pflanzen für menschen auf riffinseln im pazifik: niutao + nonouti (plants for humans on reef islands in the pacific: niutao + nonouti). In fact cultural differences may be observed from the same starting point. Indeed the English translation of this work was made some years ago, but is still awaiting publication. A smaller, much-esteemed book appeared about forgeries of objects from the Pacific falsch und fälscher - verdächtige werke aus der südsee (false and falsifier – suspicious objects from the pacific), as well as an account of his activities as an ethnologist probleme und erfahrungen - expeditionen in der südsee (problems and experiences – expeditions in the pacific), 2005. Or the product of numerous small little notes, full of memories, which he began to recall during his final years and suddenly remembered man wusste nicht viel voneinandeer - ein ethnologe unterwegs im pazifik (one knew little about each other – an ethnologist on his way in the pacific), 2003. His last book was about his time as curator, he wrote it when he believed he no longer had anything to do, thought enough is enough and hardly seemed to be still interested in his specialist area, after nearly seventy (!) years of involvement with the Pacific: sein und schein - die eindeichung der südsee in berlin-dahlem (the real and the seeming – the embankment of the pacific in berlin-dahlem), also 2005. He enjoyed having the opportunity to publish these books himself and to have a free hand in the design. The archives of “his” Berlin Museum contain more than 12000 photographs of his research expeditions, catalogued and provided with an index by himself. His audio recordings are there, too, in the music ethnology department, his 121 film documentaries were available on loan from the Institute for the Scientific Film Göttingen until the winding-up of the Institute in 2010. Copies are to be found in various scientific institutions. Many of the objects he collected can be admired in the permanent exhibition on the Pacific in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Thus all the results of his life’s work are available to the public. As a young man he regarded museums as “mouldy repositories” and he was able to make them something different and also infuse the visitors with fascination for the peoples of the Pacific.

While still a young man on the fishing boat, which then sank in a storm in the English Channel, Gerd Koch had decided to end his life in the sea and like Tevake from the Santa Cruz Islands, in his opinion the last great Pacific navigator, who at the end of his life had set sail on the ocean in an old canoe, he, too wanted to become one with the sea. On 19th April 2005 things had reached that stage and on the crossing to New York off the coast of Newfoundland Gerd Koch brought his life to a self-determined end. Among the things he left behind were his lecture notes (including those from his own student days), a collection of material relating to magic together with an unpublished (though ready for publication) travelogue relating to his first research expedition in 1951/52, together with a so far unpublished 800 page illustrated autobiography. The latter is, of course, another document about the fascinating life of a scientist in the 20th century.

(Completed by Marion Melk-Koch on 20th December 2012, translated by Guy Slatter January 2012.;
photo shows Koch in 1980. Source: Marion Melk-Koch) 

further informationfurther information