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Words by Loana Oyeniran

Who has touched you?

... I posed this question to various objects: two wooden spoons and the black keys of a piano. In doing so, I realized there are two ways to understand this question. One interpretation leads to considering which person made or owned the object and, therefore, touched it. But there is also the emotional definition of the word "touch." Here, it is more of a question about who had an emotional attachment to the object or what personal feelings and stories are associated with it. How can one seek and find answers to this question?

If one knows the object well, access is easier. So it was natural for me to think about the piano keys currently in the display case in the exhibition "Extinctions!?" at the Weltmuseum Wien. It is only the black keys that are there. All 36 keys come from one piano and are made of ebony. The white keys of the same piano, covered with a veneer of ivory, are not on display. The use of these materials is common on older pianos. Ebony in particular was - and still is - used in instrument making.

The ebony material was the starting point for my considerations. I could also have chosen the ivory part of the piano since ivory is even more associated with the topic of "extinction" for most people. However, it is precisely for this reason that I wanted to devote myself to the material whose history receives less attention in the public as well as scientific spheres.[1] This is surprising since ebony is under so many fingertips (especially also in Europe): as part of clarinet, oboe, guitar, violin, and piano.[2]

The ebony keys on display are from my grandfather's piano. For me, they are a reminder of my grandfather. Not only of how he played the piano but also of his stories. Of what he knew, told, wrote - who he was. My grandfather died over three years ago. No one has played the piano since. It's not a special piano - it's an old instrument and not particularly beautiful or unique in its sound, perhaps because it hasn't been tuned for 30-40 years. So, the piano as such has no greater significance. But it embodies a part of my family history. Before my grandfather, my great-grandmother played the piano. My mother and uncle received piano lessons on this instrument. My brother and I played on it when we visited. These four generations that played the piano are evident in the four rows in which the keys are placed in the display case.

Other family members and friends also played or strummed on it. Therefore, the piano was played and touched. I never heard my great-grandmother play. Of the people I heard play, I always liked my grandfather's way of playing the best. Because he played without sheet music. He improvised and new melodies flowed from the keys. Much like his stories could flow. "Extinction" to me also means that my grandfather's stories, life experience, knowledge, and music no longer flow.

What does one do with a piano that is at the same time without material value and full of memories? I decided to keep a part of it: the ebony keys. These keys now stand as a symbol for the piano. They keep the stories and memories alive. And unlike the complete piano they are movable and can be in different places. They have already traveled from Wiesbaden to Vienna. Where they will travel afterward, I do not know.

The thought of "Where will they go?" has its opposing consideration in the question "Where did they come from?" Where did the ebony keys come from? The piano stood in Wiesbaden for many decades. It came from a Stuttgart piano house founded in 1875. But the ebony keys could not have come from Germany. Not a single species of ebony, which has the precious black wood, is native to the European region. The dark ebony used in musical instruments or furniture in Germany and Europe had to be imported from Africa or Southeast Asia.

Because of its uniform (or sometimes striped) black wood, its high density, and the possibility of polishing it to a shiny finish, ebony offered various uses as a high-quality decorative wood. Thus, in Europe, North America, and Asia, it was used not only in the construction of musical instruments and furniture but also in manufacturing handles, billiard cues, and other decorative elements.[3] In furniture, ebony was mostly used as a veneer. Such valuable pieces of furniture were produced in Europe as early as the 17th century. The costly procurement of the wood and the long transport routes made ebony an expensive material, even in earlier times, reserved for the wealthy of European society.[4]

Dutch traders dominated the early ebony trade into Europe, initially with imports from India and later, due to declining occurrence, from Sri Lanka and African countries.[5] Within the globally expanding trade network and the demand for imported luxury goods, the massive harvesting of ebony resources and the accompanying impacts on nature continued.[6] Today, several species classified as ebony are among the endangered species.[7]

The majority of tree species that produce the coveted black ebony are classified under the genus Diospyros and include tropical, slow-growing tree species.[8] The genus Diospyros includes over 700 species, but only about 30 produce ebony. Even fewer species from Asia, Africa, and especially Madagascar produce the much sought-after, uniformly deep black heartwood.[9] Madagascar alone has about 250 species of Diospyros. Only three of these species are not endemic.[10] Despite the scientific study of the populations, many species have not yet been named and described, information on exact population numbers and growth rates is not available, and the specific numbers of existing endangered (it is assumed that at least half of the species are endangered)[11] and near-extinct species are missing.[12] Similarly, data on the international trade in ebony today, as well as historically, is inadequate.[13] Trade in Malagasy ebony flows primarily to China, Europe, and the United States.[14] While 90 percent of the ebony logged is for export, only 10 percent is left for the local market.[15]

Industrial logging and trade in Malagasy ebony have been documented since the early 20th century. Deforestation continued in Madagascar during French colonial rule and after gaining independence in 1961.[16] Excessive and illegal logging is still a problem today, and for this reason, the Malagasy government has issued regulations on the use of forest areas several times in recent decades.[17]

Despite these regulations and the government's official restrictions on trade in Malagasy Diospyros species, several of these species are now on the Red List of Threatened Species and illegal trade of these species continues.[18] Internationally, the trade restrictions are supported by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Since 2013, all Malagasy occurrences of the Diospyros genus have been listed in Appendix II of the treaty.[19] Parallel to the listing in Appendix II, an "Action Plan" was drawn up: among other things, scientific research on the ebony occurrences in Madagascar, an inventory of timber stockpiles, and an internationally valid embargo of Malagasy ebony by the government of Madagascar were to take place. However, these objectives were only partially implemented.[20]

Due to centuries of overexploitation of nature, Madagascar's landscape has changed fundamentally. Only a fraction of the historically documented forest areas that once covered almost the entire island have been preserved. The same is true for the local biodiversity.[21] And the loss of these habitats continues. For example, between 2005-2013, one million hectares of forest were lost in Madagascar.[22]

When a tree species goes extinct, it means more than the unavailability of its wood. It drastically affects the entire ecosystem of the region, other plant and animal species, and the people who share a habitat with these species. If this wood or these trees did not exist, many other things would not. If it weren't for this wood or these trees, many stories wouldn't exist. If it weren't for this wood and these trees, many objects wouldn't exist.

For it is not only in European musical instruments and furniture that we find ebony. In the collections of (ethnographic) museums, there are objects made of different types of ebony from different regions. Also in the collection of the Weltmuseum Wien. But rarely the material is indicated as "ebony" in the databases and archival records. Even in the case of the two spoons lying next to the ebony keys in the display case, I cannot identify the material with certainty as ebony. I can only speculate. 

According to the inventory book of the museum, the two spoons came into the museum's collection in 1887. An Austrian naval surgeon named Stefan Paulay collected them in Madagascar and sent them to the museum.[23] However, my question about who touched these spoons cannot be answered in this way. I would like to know how these spoons came to be. Who made them. Where exactly they were made. Whether they were used.

I asked the two wooden spoons these questions, but I did not receive an answer from them. Only a vague feeling reached me that, at some point, there was someone who knew the spoons. And I am certain that this person was not the collector Paulay. I feel that there is a story behind them that describes more than the time in the hands of European collectors, curators, and conservators. But I cannot find this story. Therefore, the emotional level of my question, "Who has touched you?" for the two spoons remains unanswered for the time being. Possibly even forever. Unless there is a person somewhere who has a connection to these spoons. Who knows a story that tells more. And who is willing to share this story with us.



[1] Cf. Schmerbeck, Joachim & Naudiyal, Niyati. 2018. „Diospyros ebenum“. DOI: 10.1002/9783527678518.ehg2015001, p. 2. 

[2] Cf. Jenkins, M., Oldfield, S. and Aylett, T. 2002. International Trade in African Blackwood. Cambridge: Fauna & Flora International, p. 6. - Cf. Deblauwe, V. 2021. „Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern, the ebony tree of the Central African forests: A state of knowledge“. Forest Ecology and Management, 2021 (481): 1-12, p. 6.


[3] Cf. Deblauwe. 2021. „Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern“, p. 6.

[4] Cf. Dalgård, Sune. 1956. „Danish enterprise and Mauritius Ebony, 1621–1624“, Scandinavian Economic History Review, 4(1): 3-16, DOI: 10.1080/03585522.1956.10411480, p. 4. – Cf. Stephenson, Delyn & Feldkamp, Katherine. 2022. „The Global Renaissance and the impact of the ebony trade”. Saint Louis Art Museum: (25.10.2022). Accessed 05.08.2023,

[5] Cf. Stephenson & Feldkamp. 2022. „The Global Renaissance and the impact of the ebony trade”. Saint Louis Art Museum: (25.10.2022).

[6] Cf. ibid.

[7] For example, the ebony species Diospyros crassiflora native to the forests of the Congo Basin, "[...] was one of the first products to be exported from the Gulf of Guinea in the 17th century and is today one of the main sources of ebony globally." (Deblauwe. 2021. "Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern," p. 1. - Cf. ibid. - Diospyros crassiflora is now on the Red List of Threatened Species and is classified as Endangered. (IUCN Red List. 2023. "Ebony. Diospyros crassiflora". Accessed 11.08.2023, - There are 465 species of the genus Diospyros listed on the IUCN Red List. Of these, 33 species are listed as threatened with extinction, 101 as critically endangered, and 90 as endangered. (IUCN Red List. 2023. "Diospyros". Accessed 11.08.2023,

[8] Cf. Deblauwe. 2021. „Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern“, p. 1. - Cf. Ratsimbazafy, Cynthia, Newton, David J. & Ringuet, Stéphane. 2016. Timber Island: The Rosewood and Ebony Trade of Madagascar (Traffic Report). Pretoria: Traffic, p. 19.

[9] Cf. Deblauwe. 2021. „Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern“, p. 2. - Cf. Alexander G. Linan, Porter P. Lowry II, and George E. Schatz. 2021. „Taxonomic Studies of Diospyros (Ebenaceae) from the Malagasy Region. VII. Revision of Diospyros Sect. Forbesia in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands“ Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 106(1), 72-110, DOI: 10.3417/2021644, p. 72.

[10] Cf. Ibid.

[11] Cf. Martin, Catherine. 2022. „Protecting Precious Woods in Madagascar.“ Missouri Botanical Garden: (10.02.2022). Accessed 11.08.2023,

[12] Cf. Waeber, Patrick O. et al. 2019. „Uplisting of Malagasy precious woods critical for their survival.” Biological Conservation, 235: 89-92, DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.04.007, p. 91-92.

[13] Cf. Mason, Jonathan et al. 2016. Malagasy Precious Hardwoods: Scientific and technical assessment to meet CITES objectives (Report for CITES CoP17), p. 9.

[14] Cf. Global Witness and the environmental Investigation Agency. 2010. Investigation Into the Global Trade in Malagasy Precious Woods: Rosewood, Ebony and Pallisander (Report), p.4.

[15] Cf. Ratsimbazafy, Newton & Ringuet. 2016. Timber Island: The Rosewood and Ebony Trade of Madagascar, p. 25.

[16] Cf. Mason et al. 2016. Malagasy Precious Hardwoods: Scientific and technical assessment to meet CITES objectives, p. 9-10.

[17] Cf. ibid., p. 10. 

[18] Cf. IUCN Red List of Diospyros species in Madagascar: of 153 species listed, 7 species are classified as Critically Endangered, 48 species as Critically Endangered, and 37 species as Endangered. IUCN Red List. 2023. "Diospyros". Accessed  11.08.2023, - Cf. Ratsimbazafy, Newton & Ringuet. 2016. Timber island: the rosewood and ebony trade of Madagascar, p. 1.

[19] Cf. CITES Appendix II. 2023. „Appendices.“ CITES: (21.05.2023).  Accessed 12.08.2023, 

[20] Cf. Waeber et al. 2019. „Uplisting of Malagasy precious woods critical for their survival.”, p. 89 – Cf. Traffic. 2019. „CITES CoP19 priority areas: Madagascar Rosewood and Ebonies.” Traffic: (2019). Accessed 12.08.2023. – Cf. Mason et al. 2016. Malagasy Precious Hardwoods: Scientific and technical assessment to meet CITES objectives, p. 13-16.

[21] Cf. BMZ. 2023. Madagaskar: Naturparadies in schwieriger Lage. BMZ: (2023). Accessed 02.08.2023, - Cf. Waeber et al. 2019. „Uplisting of Malagasy precious woods critical for their survival.”, p. 90. – Cf. Taylor, Frederick. 1896. “Madagascar.” The North American Review, 163(479): 479–87., p. 480. - Cf. MacLeod. 1895. „Madagascar.“ The Journal of Education 42(13): 225–26., p. 225.

[22] Cf. Ratsimbazafy, Newton & Ringuet. 2016. Timber Island: The Rosewood and Ebony Trade of Madagascar, p. 1-2. – Cf. ibid., p. 3.

[23] Dominik Spörker conducts provenance research on Austrian naval voyages at the Weltmuseum Wien and provides further information on the collector Paulay: "Due to the cooperation between the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine and the k.k. Natural History Court Museum, ship's surgeons had to collect objects (and individuals) for the museum during naval training voyages. Stefan Paulay was one of these ship's doctors, who was deployed on the 1886-1887 voyage of the ship 'Saida' to South America and Africa. The k.u.k. Consul Wilhelm O'Swald (1832-1923), who managed the branches of the Hamburg firm O'Swald & Co in this region, and his associate Anton Stumpff on Nosy Be, acted as important agents of ethnographic and natural history items for the ship's doctor. Because of the wars in Madagascar (1883-1896) between the French and Sakalava on one side and the Merina Empire on the other, there is a possibility that parts of the Madagascar collection acquired by the ship's doctor came on the market as spoils of war." (Email conversation of 21.07.2023)

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