Germany boasts some of the finest museums in the world, including an array of ethnographic ones. In former times, these were deemed to cater to the curiosity of the German public to glimpse something of the lives of ostensibly “primitive” peoples, as well as to showcase the successes of German colonialism and the work of Christian missions operating from the country. Those peoples were presented as colorful representatives of the stages of humanity that German viewers felt they had long left behind. Satisfying curiosity was thus linked with the bolstering of feelings of superiority.
This basic approach has persisted until quite recently when museum operators increasingly saw the need to adopt a more critical, postcolonial approach. The turn was dramatized when in July 2017 eminent art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the advisory body of the Humboldt Forum, an organization meant to present the ethnographic collections of the former Prussian state in a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern castle in central Berlin. Savoy’s intervention, where she graphically called for knowledge about “how much blood is dripping from a work of art,” helped to propel the issue of the provenance of museum holdings center stage in Germany.
In late 2018, Savoy, along with Senegalese philosopher Felwine Sarr, published a celebrated policy paper to guide sweeping restitutions of cultural heritage objects from French museums back to former colonial territories, and to give substance to French President Emmanuel Macron’s foray of late 2017 when he made “the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa” his priority. Not accidentally, when the new German federal government was formed in March 2018, federal state minister of cultural affairs Monika Grütters declared research into the provenance of “colonial heritage in collections and museums” a priority, comparable to efforts towards dealing with Nazi robberies of art. Meanwhile, much of the euphoria over these proclamations has evaporated in the face of the sad state of museums and their collections, and their lack of staff and funding. Actual restitution, which hinges on the clarification of provenance, remains limited to singular cases.
It has become clear that restitution is not a simple matter. Savoy has quipped that after the wholesale return of its collections, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin might be stocked by fake (copied) objects in a fake castle. This may be an attractive proposition, but there are also serious problems. Not least, these begin with the way artifacts have been treated once they entered the museums. As a result of precautions against pests and insects, most of the objects from former colonies in the care of the museums are now heavily toxic, since arsenic as well as DDT have been applied on them. Such artifacts can only be approached or handled with gloves, dust mask and protective clothing, since they emit carcinogenic micro particles.
Even so, the evident concern inherent in restitution, to set right the injustice perpetrated against those who have been robbed, viz., their descendants, comes up against a very massive obstacle. Artifacts, at best, can only be returned to their country of origin for safekeeping by appropriate institutions. Therefore, even given the best of intentions, colonial injustice cannot simply be undone in a postcolonial situation.
Such issues came to the fore when in late February 2019, the first actual restitution from Germany to Namibia was carried out. This concerned the Bible and riding whip of the legendary Hendrik Witbooi, today one of Namibia’s national heroes. Both objects had been taken as booty by the German military during a raid on Witbooi’s settlement in 1893. After a long process of negotiation, The Linden Museum in Stuttgart, which had held the artifacts since 1902, along with the State Ministry of Science and Culture of Baden-Württemberg pioneered this restitution. Shortly before the envisaged date, obstacles emerged on account of competing claims by the Namibian state on the one hand and the Witbooi community on the other. The Namibian government claimed ownership on account of Hendrik Witbooi’s status as a national hero, whereas his descendants insisted that the Bible and the whip were family heirlooms and Namibia had not existed as a territory at the time of the raid in 1893. A working accord was eventually reached, and the return ceremony went ahead at the Witbooi traditional capital of Gibeon in southern Namibia.
Still, the incident demonstrated that the effects of colonialism cannot be undone by independence—postcolonial states, as modern states, are the heirs of colonial ones. They are under heavy constraints to act as such, and in their self-interest. From a German perspective however, such issues and considerations must not divert from the central demand of restitution. For German institutions, restitution, if requested, is the main avenue for setting things right—as far as this may be possible today. In this sense, Felwine Sarr has made the basic point that the responsibility to restitute applies regardless of what will happen to artifacts thereafter. This is not for the colonizers or their successors to decide.
However, it would be a mistake to take this as a release from responsibility on the part of former colonial powers. In erstwhile colonial metropoles, the past must not be erased by sweeping colonially acquired artifacts out of museums and collections. It is here that diligent provenance research remains a responsibility, both in order to know from where objects have been taken, and to live up to accountability. Generally, such work is much more complex than in the case of the Witbooi Bible and whip, or the Benin bronzes, where circumstances of colonial violence and theft are well known.
At the same time, museums can and should be turned into sites of educating the public, not only about the richness of human existence and activity, but also the provenance of the objects exhibited. In Germany, some forays have been made. Even there, accounts of provenance in the colonial project as one basic requirement remain scanty in the exhibitions. The Humboldt Forum, officially advertised as a venue to showcase Germany’s opening to the world, will still have to measure up to such requirements.