Controversial collections “Your own consciousness is the actual judge”

Karin Guggeis (right), Project Manager of the Museum Five Continents Munich and Albert Gouaffo, Project Coordinator of the University of Dschang (Cameroon), next to the “Blue Rider Post”
Karin Guggeis (right), Project Manager of the Museum Five Continents Munich and Albert Gouaffo, Project Coordinator of the University of Dschang (Cameroon), next to the “Blue Rider Post” | Photo (detail): Lino Mirgeler © dpa

Several ethnology museums in Germany are currently researching their collections from the colonial era in cooperation with the societies of origin. In an interview with “Latitude”, Albert Gouaffo, a professor of German literature and culture from Cameroon, talks about his involvement in the provenance research project at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich and the challenges of dealing with controversial collections. 

What does the provenance research project at the Museum Fünf Kontinente entail?

The focus of the project is the “Blue Rider Post” and the Max von Stetten collection, which dates from 1893 to 1896. Max von Stetten was commander of the protection troop of the Deutsches Kaiserreich. The aim of the project is to research the acquisition of the collection – which originates from the early phase of occupation by the Deutsches Kaiserreich of Cameroon and has been housed by the Museum Fünf Kontinente since the 1890s – in as much detail as possible. The priority is establishing the circumstances and locations of acquisition of more than 200 items that make up the collection. They are also looking at the shared history between Germany and Cameroon, using Max von Stetten himself and the artefacts he collected as an example. At the end of the project, they intend to discuss options for the restitution and circulation of looted objects on an equal footing with members of the communities of origin.

You are a proponent of transregional provenance research. What does it mean, and how does this approach differ from the usual approaches?

In Germany, every museum is working on the provenance of its own collection. However the history of collections shows that the demand for ethnological material at the end of the 19th century was so great that collectors separated some objects that belonged together in order to meet the huge need. For instance, in some cases masks became separated from costumes and landed up in different museums. Standard methods of provenance research start in Germany and aim to clarify the acquisition and ownership status. The issue of restitution is not necessarily the central focus, and the research results are not always transferrable to other contexts. Transregional provenance research – a reversal of this approach – is not solely oriented to the context of reception, instead it prioritises the context of production and questions the routes taken by objects and cultural goods during translocation between “colony and homeland”.

Ethnological museums in the Global North handle controversial collections in different ways: provenance research as a condition of restitution, cooperation with museums in the Global South in terms of training for specialist museum staff, co-curation and also circulation. What do you think of these approaches?

I welcome these initiatives, but they are happening too slowly for my liking, and the financial backing for research purposes is nowhere near adequate due to the delay in raising awareness. Until we have a systematic database of the cultural goods that came to Germany from the colonies, we won’t be able to hold any proper debates about restitution, circulation and cooperation – or anything else. Fundamental research, with the former colonies as a starting point, is imperative.
  • Joint viewing of the Max von Stetten Collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Professor Albert Gouaffo, Project Manager Cameroon, with Yrine Matchinda (right), staff member for the francophone part of the collection and Karin Guggeis, General Project Manager Photo (detail): Stefan Eisenhofer © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Joint viewing of the Max von Stetten Collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Professor Albert Gouaffo, Project Manager Cameroon, with Yrine Matchinda (right), staff member for the francophone part of the collection and Karin Guggeis, General Project Manager
  • The “Blue Rider Post”, a block of wood from Cameroon carved on two sides, in the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich Lino Mirgeler © picture alliance/dpa
    The “Blue Rider Post”, a block of wood from Cameroon carved on two sides, in the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014 Marietta Weidner © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014
  • Provenance research in the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente (Museum Five Continents) in Munich: View into the Africa section of the permanent exhibition
Cooperation with museums from the Global South is needed, but at the moment priority must be given to joint provenance research. Research concerning human remains, cult objects and regalia should be sorted out before anything else.

What do you think of the Sarr‑Savoy report and how it could be implemented?

The recommendation of Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Saar is plausible due to the level of loss (90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage), but it seems to be a bit one-size-fits-all without sufficient acknowledgement of the fact that colonial history is a shared history. It would represent a huge disservice to Africa – even if everything was stolen – if African cultural goods as objects of intercultural remembrance were suddenly to disappear from Europe overnight. There were phenomena of resilience in Africa, in other words some of the cultural objects that were important to the community were replaced, but not all of them. What if the legitimate owner left his property to the “thieves” as a punishment? Beyond the court, your own consciousness is the actual judge. With a win-win strategy the cultural goods could even stay in Germany, and royalty arrangements could be negotiated.

Let us turn to the broader issue of decolonization - not only in ethnological museums, but also in the field of knowledge production and dissemination: where do you see an urgent need for a change of mentality?

From the 14th to the 20th century, the global North dictated to the global South how to do things. In the 21st century, increased mobility and multilateral knowledge transfer have brought the West to a point where it has nothing unique to offer. Humanity needs alternative paths to universality. The era of a world society has dawned. Nations and regions should be in equal relationship with one other. The global South should also stop whining and use its resources for the common good of its own people. The precondition is that the global South grows out of its partly self-inflicted immaturity and decolonizes itself. 

The interview was conducted by Eliphas Nyamogo, online editor at the Goethe-Institut in Munich.