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Colonial Legacy: Where do Africa's treasures belong?

April 23, 2021

Berlin's Humboldt Forum is caught between provenance research and the debate over looted art. Right in the middle: Jonathan Fine, head of the Ethnological Museum. We accompanied him at work and on a 2017 trip to Cameroon

Nigeria Gedenkkopf einer Königinmutter, 18. Jahrhundert
Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Martin Franken
Deutschland Berlin | Kultur.21 | Humboldt Forum
Image: SHF/Christoph Musiol

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Germany’s biggest cultural project, has been opening step by step since December 2020. Intended as a place of dialogue, it houses exhibitions about the history of the German capital, as well as the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. Recently, instead of animated discourse, there have been many controversial debates about the ethnological collections. Many of the objects, acquired during the colonial period, are tainted with blood. What does this mean for the exhibitions currently being prepared at the Humboldt Forum? How should such works be dealt with generally? Amidst the controversy about looted art and the discussion about provenance research and how to curate sensitive exhibitions, Arts.21 joined the head of the Ethnological Museum, Jonathan Fine, at his work in Berlin and on an earlier trip to Cameroon.

Jonathan Fine
Image: Berlin Producers Media

Before taking on his current role, Fine was the curator for the collections from West Africa, Cameroon, Gabon and Namibia. In 2017, he was co-responsible for the exhibition "Beyond Compare" which juxtaposed artworks from the Ethnological Museum with sculptures from Berlin’s Bode Museum. In the same year, he travelled to Cameroon to conduct research into one of the collection’s most impressive objects, a royal throne from the Kingdom of Bamum. He was searching for answers: How did it get to Germany? Was it a diplomatic gift to the German Kaiser or a forced gesture of submission? Is it a case for restitution? If it were up to Cameroonian curator and art critic Bonaventure Ndikung, Germany would have to present Cameroon with an important artwork in return – as a true act of diplomacy.

Humboldt Forum
Image: SHF/Alexander Schippel
Berlin - Umzug Ethnologisches Museum - Mandu Yenu
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Another research project that Jonathan Fine began at the Humboldt Forum explores Germany's colonial past in Namibia. It was only in 2016 that Germany officially acknowledged the Herero genocide. Many treasures looted during the colonial period are still in the collections of German museums. As part of the provenance project, researchers looked at the history, significance and artistic potential of 1,400 objects from Berlin’s collections in cooperation with the Museums Association of Namibia. So far, 23 objects have been returned to Namibia, although only on loan. The renowned Namibian fashion and costume designer Cynthia Schimming, who was also involved in the project, has called for the works to be returned unconditionally.

Geraubte Kulturgüter aus der Kolonialzeit
Image: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

Many have asked that the same be done with the Benin Bronzes, some of the most renowned and controversial pieces in the Berlin collection. These masterpieces, which once adorned the royal palace in the Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria), were plundered by British troops as part of a punitive expedition in 1897. They were then sold on the international art market and many ended up in various European museums.

Kamerun Museum des Bamun-Palastes
Image: DW/D. Köpp

They have become a touchstone for whether the Humboldt Forum will really break new ground and dare to enter a cultural exchange on a level playing field. It was recently decided that part of the collection would be restituted, but some of the Benin Bronzes will be displayed at the Humboldt Forum. The question is how to do this appropriately.

For Jonathan Fine, ethnological museums today need to make it clear that Europe’s history is closely intertwined with colonialism: “I think it would be a success if we take the idea of a forum at its word and think of the Humboldt Forum, not as a place that will give us answers to our questions, but will enable us to pose questions about the past and the present and to bring in more voices, wider voices and different perspectives on what those questions mean. Only in that way, I think, can we come to an understanding and find answers for ourselves about what 500 years of European colonization has meant for the world we live in.”


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