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Berlin museum returns artifacts to Namibia

May 27, 2022

More than 20 looted objects from Namibia — including jewelry, tools, fashion and dolls — are being sent back to the country. The loan is the latest move by Germany to address its colonial past.

SPK President Hermann Parzinger and Esther Moombolah/Gôagoses (Director of the National Museum of Namibia) view an artifact being returned to Namibia
The artifacts include an ancient three-headed drinking vessel, a doll wearing traditional dress and various spears, hair pieces and other fashion accessoriesImage: Thomas Imo/photothek.net

Twenty-three museum pieces were loaned back to Namibia on Friday from Germany as part of a commitment by Berlin to repair ties with its former African colony.

The loan is the latest in a series of moves by Germany toward making up for its colonial-era past.

Artifacts not expected to return

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which runs the Berlin museum, did not say why the objects were not simply repatriated to Namibia, rather than put on long-term loan.

Local media reported that the SPK does not expect the objects to be returned to Germany.

The items, including an ancient three-headed drinking vessel, a doll wearing a traditional dress and various spears, hairpieces and other fashion accessories, were sent from the Ethnological Museum in Berlin to the National Museum of Namibia.

They were picked by a panel of experts in Namibia for their particular historical, cultural and aesthetic significance and will be made available to local artists and academics for research.

The repatriation and research project costs almost €300,000 ($322,000), most of which will be used in Namibia, according to a news release from the SPK.

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"Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures" is funded by Germany's Gerda Henkel Foundation. The first phase saw the National Museum of Namibia renovated and a restorer and a museologist hired.

A new Museum of Namibian Fashion in Otjiwarongo is due to open on June 1. Both projects cost €400,000.

Berlin's Ethnological Museum said it has been working with counterparts in Namibia for three years to discuss the future of the hundreds of objects from the southern African country that remain in its collections.

Germany confronts colonial past

Last year, Berlin officially recognized that it committed genocide in Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. 

German colonial settlers killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people in the 1904-1908 massacres — labeled by historians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The atrocities have poisoned relations between Namibia and Germany for decades.

Over the last years, Germany has returned skulls and other human remains to Namibia that it had sent to Berlin during the period for "scientific" experiments.

The Ethnological Museum also reached an agreement last year to begin returning its collection of Benin Bronzes, ancient sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, to Nigeria.

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The 16th to 18th century objects are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Cultural officials welcome return of artifacts

This is a step towards reassessing "the long, complex history that Namibia and Germans have", Esther Moombolah, director of the National Museum of Namibia, told journalists in Berlin.

"We urge all future partners to follow suit like this institution," she said, stressing that Namibians should not "have to get on a plane to see our cultural treasures which are kept in boxes in foreign institutions."

South African museum expert Ciraj Rassool also welcomed the return in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA).

"This is the beginning of a new phase and hopefully these repatriations will manage to further intensify the restitution issue," the historian said.

Rassool denied the loan, rather than permanent return, amounted to "gift-giving" by Europeans, but is about Africans laying claim to the objects. "Ultimately, it's a project that has restitution at the end of it," he said.

mm/rc (AFP, KNA)

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