The German Lost Art Foundation
Provenance Research on Collections from Colonial Contexts

Restitution – The wooden handle of a whip by Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi
The wooden handle of a whip by Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi (1830–1905), which had been in the Linden Museum Stuttgart since 1902, one of the largest ethnological museums in Europe, was returned to Namibia in 2019. The museum owns around 160,000 pieces of art, ritual and everyday objects from Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. | Photo (detail): Marijan Murat © picture alliance/dpa

The German Lost Art Foundation helps to determine the origin and whereabouts of illegally taken artworks. The focus lies on objects stolen during National Socialism from Jewish property, but increasingly collections from the colonial era gain attention, explains the head of the new department, Dr Larissa Förster.

By Larissa Förster

The department of “Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts” at the German Lost Art Foundation commenced its work in January 2019. At that point it was the country’s first “new establishment” or permanent addition to an institution focusing on the reappraisal of colonial heritage in German museums and collections. The establishment of this department was a response by the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg and its board to the long-running debate concerning collections dating from the colonial era, which reached a wider audience as a result of its initial climax in 2017 – when art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the International Team of Experts of the Humboldt Forum. The German Lost Art Foundation came into being in 2015 as a merger between earlier institutions in the field of Nazi provenance research; other areas of activity include confiscation contexts in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR, as well as cultural assets removed during war.

The new department has a clear substantive remit: to promote, improve and develop provenance research in relation to cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts. This is done firstly by providing funding to institutions that hold collections, such as museums and universities, and secondly by advising and networking the actors in those areas of interest, and communicating the goals of provenance research to politicians and the public, likewise to students and (post)graduates.

There is a particular emphasis on development of transnational cooperation – especially within the funded projects. Right from the start they are encouraged to collaborate as closely as possible with researchers, artists, activists and representatives of cultural institutions, as well as with former owners – or in the case of human remains with the descendants of the deceased – from the origin countries of the objects and human remains.

Creating Transparency and a Basis for Restitution

Ultimately the foundation records the results of projects it has funded – and in the longer term other projects too – in its research database, Proveana. As a result this database, which was developed for provenance research involving cultural assets confiscated in the context of Nazi persecution, is becoming another crucial tool for postcolonial provenance research.

In addition to creating transparency, systematic provenance research aims to investigate which objects were acquired by European actors through force, in order to define the basis for restitution proposals and negotiations. At the same time provenance research examines the numerous ambiguous transaction contexts, which whilst they might have originated in power asymmetries subsequently became a matter of local actors securing their own scope for action or putting up resistance. But beyond a biography of individual objects and a bundle  of objects, provenance research also looks at the involvement of German institutions and actors in the colonial project and highlights the influence of colonial knowledge systems on our epistemic and institutional landscapes  today. In this respect it also forms a link with the debate on racist structures and perspectives.

The Definition of “Colonial Contexts”

There are many objects for which origins from a context of injustice or from a specific community or family can be identified even without in-depth provenance research - and which as a consequence can immediately become the subject of restitution negotiations. In the case of other objects their often convolute paths into the museum need to be investigated first, along with their precise origin or former owner, and the way in which they were appropriated. The thing is, if you start what we refer to as the “colonial contexts” as far back as the 15th century – which was the point at which European actors began exploring and exploiting overseas territories and not just from when they were using military power to conquer in subsequent centuries – then the appropriation contexts look extremely diverse. In the 15th century Europeans were not (yet) omnipotent colonists, they were encountering sovereign trading partners and sometimes even allies – it was only later that they were overpowered by the technical equipment and military force of the Europeans. Therefore, the degree of sovereignty, self-assertion and resistance that can and must be seen and described, or documented, on the part of local actors depends very much on the definition of the “colonial contexts”. The foundation follows the broad definition of “colonial contexts” from the 15th century as explained above, the same formulation used by the German Museums Association in its “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts”.

“But beyond a biography of individual objects and a bundle of objects, provenance research also looks at the involvement of German institutions and actors in the colonial project and highlights the influence of colonial knowledge systems on our epistemic and institutional landscapes today. In this respect it also forms a link with the debate on racist structures and perspectives.”

Bringing attention to protest and resistance against colonial force, confiscation and disenfranchisement, and putting names to local actors – which were frequently withheld in the “colonial archive” – has been a central concern of postcolonial historical studies for decades. It is also vital to reflect this in activities organised by the German Lost Art Foundation that fall outside the specific project funding, in other words events like the monthly Provenance Research Colloquium, or the Autumn Conference 2021.

The Autumn Conference that the Foundation is organising in cooperation with the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz and the Research Centre for Material Culture at the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden bears the title The Long History of Claims for the Return of Cultural Heritage from Colonial Contexts and is dedicated to the long history of both successful and unsuccessful return claims. The restitution debate might not have reached the international community of states l until the 1970s – notably due to Mobutu Sese Seko’s speech at the UNO General Meeting – but on several occasions before that there had been bilateral negotiations between former colonial powers and newly independent states. Some return requests had already been articulated in the immediate aftermath of colonial plundering and confiscation – and in a handful of cases that even resulted in prompt restitution, for instance after the looting of the Egyptian stronghold of Magdala in 1868. A highly instructive overview of the return claims and actual returns that occurred before 1970 was drawn up in preparation for the conference by historian Lars Müller in the form of a working paper. Activities like these are of interest not only to the scientific community but also to a wider audience wanting to explore the history of German and European colonialism.