Why Berlin museums won’t just hand back colonial treasures

Handelsblatt 18 February 2018
By Nicola Kuhn

Should Germany do as French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested and give back all museum objects looted from former colonies? It’s not that easy, says the head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Colonial amnesia?

They knew it was coming, says German historian Hermann Parzinger. One of the Humboldt Forum museum’s three founders, he was fully expecting critics to one day take aim at the institution’s exhibits of objects connected to Germany’s often-bloody colonial past. And now they are.

Mr. Parzinger, who is also president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s many museums, has been attacked for displaying objects that could have been looted from their countries of origin and for not putting enough money or effort into finding out how they got to Germany. The Humboldt Foundation organizers were even accused of “colonial amnesia” by Hamburg University history professor Jürgen Zimmerer, who specializes in the German colonial era.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany and its Kaisers (emperors) held sway over dozens of colonial possessions. From Togoland, Cameroon and Tanzania in Africa, to Jiaozhou Bay, German New Guinea (now part of Papua New Guinea) and Samoa around the Pacific, the country gained significant global influence – and a reputation for brutality. But its short-lived empire was almost entirely broken up after the First World War.

In an interview with Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Tagesspiegel, Mr. Parzinger didn’t reject the criticisms about the displayed objects outright, but he did sidle around them.

“History is never just black or white.”

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation already has some rules about what to give back and to whom, he says. Most often these are applied to objects illegally gained. “At the end of 2017 we gave nine objects back to the Chugach [native people] of Alaska because they were taken from a cemetery without permission,” Mr. Parzinger notes. “We are also working with historians and curators from Tanzania on objects from the Maji Maji war. It’s hardly known here, but it has similarities to the genocide of the Herero and Nama [peoples of modern day Namibia]. Eventually we want to give these objects back.”

In all the cases he mentions, German colonialists pursued policies and undertook actions that resulted in hundreds of thousands of native deaths. Despite the bloody history and the passionate discussion about these colonial-era objects in Germany, Mr. Parzinger argues the discussion must be about more than simply returning items or restitution, as their provenance isn’t always totally clear. “Just to say it’s all stolen, let’s give everything back, is too simplistic,” he says in reference to Benin Bronzes taken by the British from what is modern day Nigeria. “History is never just black or white.”

The archaeologist, who specializes in early human history, agrees that a recent suggestion by French president Emmanuel Macron is interesting: Mr. Macron suggested that African artifacts and art in French museums should simply be returned to their countries of origin, in one fell swoop. “The question really is how to do that: Which museums should give which objects back, and for which reasons, to which African museums?” Mr. Parzinger says. “Who makes those decisions: the museums or the politicians?”

Experts need to debate the question in appropriate forums, Mr. Parzinger says, and any new guidelines “will impact all former colonial powers in Europe,” including the British, the Belgians and the Germans.

As it is, guidelines can change. “For a long time, we thought that the problems with art looted by the Nazis had been resolved, with negotiations over damages after the war,” Mr. Parzinger says. “But then we had to have the whole discussion again, thanks to changes in the way we looked at that history.”

In fact, he would prefer to see more exchange between Germany and the aggrieved nations. He also wants to encourage a learning process in which curators from different countries see each other as equals. “We want to give up the Eurocentric viewpoint,” he says. “But it is easier to say than to do. It’s got be learned.”


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:
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