Colonial loot Controversial collections

Scientist Ndzodo Awono shows a pipe from Cameroon in the foam magazine of the Überseemuseum Bremen
Scientist Ndzodo Awono shows a pipe from Cameroon in the foam magazine of the Überseemuseum Bremen | Photo (Detail): Carmen Jaspersen © picture alliance

How are German museums supposed to cope with the large volume of artefacts from the colonial era? The debate is focused on giving them back. But actually there’s something else that’s far more important.

By Ulrike Prinz

“The sciences gathered force and the museums of ethnography swelled up like pregnant hippos,” said German Africa researcher Leo Frobenius (1873–1938) in one of his books. “But no one realised the extent of unusual items that had been stashed – and we still don’t know this at the moment.”
Colonialism flushed large volumes of artefacts into the vaults of European museums. Here’s one example: of the 25 300 artefacts from Namibia, Cameroon and Oceania owned by the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, as many as 91 per cent of them were acquired between 1884 and 1920. At the top of the list with regard to sourcing are military personnel, laypersons in this respect, who took away whatever they fancied. Frobenius goes on to say that when Europeans were dividing up Africa, their sole motivation was economic and political power anyway. “They had just about as little sense of African culture as could possibly be.”
The bloated collections from the colonial era have become a problem. Today we are faced with the discomfiting question: Who holds the right to objects that are viewed by one person as artworks, and by another as cultural products? Who has the right of ownership to these? But first and foremost it’s also about a right to speak out in the context of scientific interpretation.
This debate was recently lent some momentum thanks to a report written by art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, an economist and author from Senegal: “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics”. Their essay, which was published in November 2018, really stirred up a storm on the museum scene. Since then, scarcely a week has passed without the press carrying an article or comment on looted art and its return. France’s President Emmanuel Macron declared that African cultural heritage should no longer remain in the custody of European museums, and ought to be returned.
On the other hand the Germans have been keeping a low profile for a long time. However, in view of the imminent opening of the Humboldt Forum in Autumn 2019, an official response was urgently called for. The thing is, how are they supposed to exhibit artefacts from all corners of the globe – “stashed”, swapped, acquired or stolen – in Berlin city centre? And, of all places, in the reconstructed City Palace – the very building intended to showcase the pomp of the Prussian kings and German emperors, the residence of a certain Wilhelm II, under whose regency the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples took place? A “birth defect” on the part of the Humboldt Forum, whose directors are now finding it hard to deal with symbolism of this nature. On 13th March 2019 Ministers of State Monika Grütters (CDU) and Michelle Müntefering (SPD) teamed up with the Ministers for Culture at regional government level as well as the municipal bodies to take a stance on the subject in their document ”Ersten Eckpunkten zum Umgang mit Sammlungsgut aus kolonialen Kontexten” (guidelines for handling collections from a colonial context).
The Treasures of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin-Dahlem Move to the New Humboldt ForumPhoto (Detail): Thilo Rückeis © picture alliance

In the text they promise to handle the artefacts in a “sincere, credible and sensitive way”, supported by “fair dialogue, communication and reconciliation with those communities affected by colonialism”.   A reappraisal of German colonial history should be “part of our shared social commemorative culture”, it stated.
The question of what actually is stored in the museum vaults also requires closer examination. The guideline paper stipulates that institutions must log their collections in as much detail as possible, creating full inventories and digitising everything. By the same token it should not just be left to members of the societies of origin to set out on a quest for collectable items that might be eligible for restitution. Quite the opposite. The cultural politicians expect the museums to search for such artefacts “independently and proactively”. The knowledge and expertise of people from the countries of origin should be considered a key resource.

The biography of the artefacts

But whilst the German arts and culture pages are still carrying debates about the ethical and legal aspects of restitution for a public audience, the ethnological museums had already started working on provenance research and exchanging artefacts with the societies from which the objects originated long ago.
The work of ethnological museums has always involved an element of provenance research, however it is true to say that questions of the origin of artefacts and the circumstances in which they were acquired have thus far seldom been an exhibition theme or even a basis for restitution. Now the aim is to throw more light on the dark chapter of German colonial history. And nothing could be as suitable for the purpose as the objects themselves. They are symbols, packed full of such diverse stories, perspectives and shades of meaning.
Scientists at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart teamed up with the University of Tübingen in an interdisciplinary project entitled »Schwieriges Erbe« (difficult legacy) to find out how things might pan out. One of their goals was to develop a systematic approach for ethnological museums, in the form of a model. They spent the period from April 2016 to March 2018 going through their collections. The first step was to use three collection profiles (Namibia, Cameroon and Oceania) to find out what proportion of artefacts originate from the colonial era.
The outcome was the figures quoted at the start. Not even ten per cent of the collection artefacts – in excess of 25 000 in total – found their way to Germany before 1884 or after 1920. Or put another way: 91 per cent of the artefacts have a background in colonial history. A shattering number, which is confirmed by statements in the Sarr-Savoy report – according to which the proportion of colonial era artefacts in museum collections stands at between 60 and 90 per cent.
However the project team were particularly focused on trying to appreciate the route taken by collections or individual artefacts. This research brought to light that the colonial “security forces” – the military squads who were supposed to uphold law and order in the colonies – contributed more than one-third of the cultural artefacts. Almost 21 per cent came from people who were working in the colonies for economic reasons. And a further 18 per cent came from local administration employees.
But generally speaking it’s difficult to contextualise the historical origins of the collections or clarify the circumstances of ownership. There are gaps in the information passed down and the volume is too large to deal with in a short time.

Where is Africa?

A glance at the early inventory lists made by the Linden Museum in Stuttgart does indeed show systematic information about collectors, dates, places and “ethnic” attribution. But you can’t find out any information about the originators – in other words all the people who manufactured, used and handled these objects. These contexts need to be reconstructed laboriously. As the exhibition demonstrates, inventorisation published as a neutral, objective documentation process is in reality a process that selects, deletes and constructs, and uses its ethnic classifications to generate the illusion that Africa is a space devoid of politics or history.
They didn’t want to continue the one-sided colonial perspective on Africa at the Linden Museum, so they set up a new committee consisting of Stuttgart residents of African origin. They come from Cameroon, Congo, Mozambique and Nigeria – countries that form the regional focus of the Stuttgart collection. The new permanent exhibition “Wo ist Afrika?” (Where is Africa?) has an emphasis on diversity and involvement. The artefacts and their histories are expressed through a selection of parallel stories. They ask some important questions – relevant not just to the past, but also to the way we live as a society nowadays.
Three postgraduates from the University of Hamburg are also investigating the colonial trail left by collection artefacts at Bremen’s “Übersee-Museum” (Overseas Museum). In this project, museum artefact research and historical provenance research are complemented by ethnology methods they have developed themselves, involving field research. With this approach, rather than focusing attention exclusively on collectors as is the case with classic provenance research, special attention is given to the originator.

Shared artefact histories?

Bénédicte Savoy compares the process of provenance research with uncovering a family secret, for which as many family members as possible need to gather around the table. An appropriate image, because there will indeed be plenty to reveal – for both sides – but equally there will be plenty to discover. If resolving provenance and restitution of artefacts is to be successful, then exchange of experience and knowledge needs to be a central tool.
A cooperative interdisciplinary pilot project has also been running at the Ethnological Museum, one of the National Museums in Berlin, from 2012 to 2015, which has taken on a difficult legacy: researching especially sensitive artefacts that ended up in the museum as “spoils of war” from what was then known as German East Africa. Around 10 000 objects were looted during the Maji Maji War, which was fought from 1905 to 1907 between the German army and the population of the country now known as Tanzania, and during the course of which it’s estimated that German troops killed up to 300 000 natives using a scorched-earth strategy.
For their project, the Berlin team invited the Director of the National Museum & House of Culture in Dar es Salaam, Achilles Bufure, and his colleague Balthazar Nyamusya, curator of the Maji Maji Memorial Museum in Songea, to the vaults of the Ethnology Museum.

Provenance research is like uncovering a family secret: as many family members as possible need to gather around the table.

Bénédicte Savoy

First of all they concentrated on the looted objects. It soon became obvious that the histories of the artefacts are highly complex. They weren’t all looted during wartime. “For instance some of them were official gifts from visitors. Yet other objects came from the Congo. They entered the country by way of Tanzanian caravans and were passed on to the Germans via local agents,” explains project leader Paola Ivanov. Also there were trading connections. “Hassan bin Omari’s bowl is a good example of that,” Achilles Bufure adds in his interview with the “Tagesspiegel”. “It’s made of German Silver, that’s the name of the material. But it’s likely that it comes from India. And the bowl is decorated with protective Quran verses in Arabic. Tanzania was a global player.” This demand has fuelled the development of quite a market, explains provenance researcher Kirstin Weber-Sinn, “so that they can satisfy the demand of consumers such as the European museums.” Not everything was manufactured for ritual practices, some things were produced for transnational markets as well.

How should the artefacts be handled?

So then, provenance research makes it clear that not everything that was collected during the dubious timeslot is necessarily stolen, and this alone doesn’t automatically trigger the questions of restitution. On closer inspection, the history turns out to be interconnected and heterogeneous. That’s precisely why this debate should not be limited to regulating restitution, historians Rebeka Habermas and Ulrike Lindner concede in “Die Zeit”. For one thing “because there aren’t any restitution requirements for the majority of the objects people have in their homes here, of which there are over two million.” But above all because returning these items as a reflex reaction would encourage the idea of “forgetting the colonial era”. That would mean missing out on a huge chance to reappraise this period of history.
There’s now a general consensus that the restitution of looted artefacts is an important step towards addressing the traumatic past. “It’s often political symbolism,” says Michael Kraus, curator and researcher at Göttingen University. “This should be welcomed if it helps to heal wounds.” But political symbolism could also be used to distract attention from more important matters. “The emergence of scientific collections was part of what happened in the colonial era, and we must not absolve the collections of their role in processing this history. But perspectives on confiscation of land, forced labour and other forms of terror must not be hidden away. The debate on the right place to keep artefacts can only be one aspect within the context of a more comprehensive reappraisal of colonial events and their consequences.”

A risky undertaking: involving the origin societies means relinquishing the power of interpretation.

In their Heidelberg Statement the directors of the ethnological collections in German-speaking countries made it clear that any unlawfully acquired collection items, and also artefacts that represented high value for the origin societies, would obviously have to be given back. Furthermore they pledged to share any accumulated knowledge with the original owners and their descendants wherever possible, and to make public the results of any ongoing research on the collections.
However provenance research needs to entail more than just listing each stage of acquisition and ownership of items by Europeans, as Savoy prescribes and as has been accepted without much variation by the ministers of culture, argues provenance researcher Larissa Förster. The basis of her criticism is that this is a Eurocentric approach. What’s really needed, she says, is ethnologically informed research in cooperation with experts from the regions in which the collections originated: “A new paradigm is key: it’s all about shared production of knowledge relating to these collections – by agreement, but possibly even controversially.”
Incidentally, it’s equally Eurocentric to assume that ethnographic artefacts are always produced by the authorial societies with the intention of keeping them for the future. Or even categorising them into either desirable “objets d’art” that need to be given straight back, or useless “junk”, which to cap it all bears witness to a complete lack of knowledge in the field. For ethnologists at least, an unspectacular-looking fire fan can provide more information about the culture of origin than an elaborately decorated mask.

Shared knowledge – mutual enrichment

Away from the highly sensitive field of Germany’s colonial past, funds are also increasingly being invested in collaborative research. The truth is, more and more authorial societies are dependent on this exchange and the knowledge resources of the collections because their own knowledge had been lost, or because they developed a new interest in their own history.
“In principle we endeavour to incorporate perspectives and opinions from the origin communities, even though it isn’t always easy,” says Claudia Augustat, curator of the Weltmuseum (Museum of Ethnology) in Vienna. “You see, we don’t have either the staffing or a dedicated budget available for cooperation projects like this. For that reason I’m dependent on collaborative arrangements with colleagues who have been working together with a particular group for a while.” For the Sateré-Mawé tribe from the Amazon lowlands that’s Wolfgang Kapfhammer, an ethnologist from Munich. He has been working with the Weltmuseum in Vienna on a collaborative project continuously since 2012. Representatives of the authorial society, Obadias Batista Garcia and Ranulfo de Oliveira, acted as guest curators at the exhibition “Jenseits von Brasilien” (Beyond Brazil) in 2013, and were also involved in the development of the display collection. This is an important experience for both parties.

What do you think about the power of interpretation?

“We really are talking about a paradigm shift,” says Kapfhammer. “The metropolitan museums are relinquishing the rights of authorship to the peripheral origin societies. That’s a fundamental shift of power, a risky business. You see, the Western curators have to put up with it if the origin society sees things differently.” And that’s by no means trivial. “There’s a special ritual object associated with the Sateré, which according to museological research findings is a ceremonial club from Guyana. However this categorisation is completely irrelevant in terms of the Sateré cosmovision. Their own history of the artefact concerns political ethnology and spirituality,” explains Kapfhammer.
In that sense, postcolonial and collaborative provenance research should also be viewed as a process that gradually leads to the relinquishment of a Eurocentric power of interpretation, as stipulated in the “Erste Eckpunkte” guidelines published by the Ministry of Culture. But it’s a different matter to give it up fully if the authorial society comes to a different conclusion. At the moment the trend is to opt for tandem arrangements, or collaborative curatorships.

An unsatisfactory situation

In January 2019 a new funding directive came into force at the Deutsches Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation) for evaluation of “colonial contexts”. As well as that, the new department for “Culture and collections from colonial contexts” is being created under the leadership of Larissa Förster.
That’s an important start, but the current situation is still more than unsatisfactory. For documentation, digitisation and partnerships with the origin societies, repatriation, restitution and other forms of consensual and respectful union, money and jobs are needed. But until now, highly specialised provenance researchers have been struggling their way from one project to the next. Museums have to submit a complex application each time afresh, and in the allotted period of two to three years it’s virtually impossible to deal with the vast amounts of collection portfolios. An ongoing research and exchange process is urgently needed.
Admittedly it’s still largely unclear whether the good advice provided in the “Erste Eckpunkte” guidelines really is being followed up with action that actually facilitates provenance research on a large scale with a systematised and collaborative approach. It would be the first step – which would need to be backed up with a broader-based political and social exploration of the colonial past.

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