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Facing Germany's colonial heritage: It's 'detective work'

March 7, 2017

Masks, jewelry and statues - how did items from the colonial era find their way to Germany? The director of the Linden ethnological museum in Stuttgart shares her insight in an interview with DW.

Inés de Castro
Image: Linden-Museum Stuttgart/A.Dreyer

Deutsche Welle sat down to chat with Inés de Castro, a social anthropologist and ethnologist of German-Argentinean descent who has been director of the Stuttgart-based Linden Museum since 2010.

The museum houses one of the most comprehensive ethnological collections in Europe. Public interest in its collection has grown significantly and so have the demands placed on it with respect to the origin of its contents, says de Castro. To seek answers to such complex questions, the Linden museum, in cooperation with the University of Tübingen, initiated the research project called "Difficult Heritage." It explores the museological and scientific handling of objects from the colonial era.

DW: The Gurlitt art discovery has triggered an international debate about art once looted by the Nazis. Is colonial art now coming into the spotlight instead?

Inés de Castro: Questions concerning colonial heritage have increasingly moved into focus - a development that was probably accelerated by discussions centering on Berlin's Humboldt Forum. There is now a lot of suspicion surrounding objects brought to museums and into collections during the colonial era, since many people assume they were stolen or illegally obtained. As a matter of fact, there are many ways in which these items came into Germany. We should, of course, consider colonial power structures during this time, but we should also keep in mind the variety of circumstances under which these objects were acquired.

Deutschland Blick in die Afrika Ausstellung Linden Museum
The Linden Museum in Stuttgart is one of Europe's most significant ethnological museumsImage: D.Drasdow

For example, by exploring ownership history, also known as provenance research? Which colonial objects are seen as problematic in the first place?

The history of many anthropological and ethnological museums in Germany is closely connected with the appropriation of colonies. Most of these museums were founded between the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century - an era that also saw the establishment of social anthropology as a science. The objective of doing provenance research is to show how the objects got into the museums: were they sold or exchanged? Did objects deemed to be dangerous have to be given to missionaries? Were they looted during a war or as a result of so-called pacification measures? Were they bought by explorers or were they actually produced for a European market? What's problematic is the fact that quite often the context in which the objects were acquired wasn't properly documented. That's why projects concerning ownership history research are vital. We are happy about having been able to create a new position within the "Difficult Heritage" research project at the Linden Museum. Treating the collections in a responsible and transparent way is very important to us.

Why hasn't there been such a position before?

Right now, the German Lost Art Foundation only promotes provenance research concerning art affected during the Nazi period. But that will change in 2018, which is good news for museums that had to struggle for a long time. Provenance research can only be carried out with additional staff, since it is a highly complicated matter involving intricate detective work. Right now museums need to be very creative if they want to set up additional positions in this field.

How exactly is provenance research carried out?

The sheer volume of objects poses a big challenge. Our collections consist of approximately 170,000 items and our objective is to thoroughly explore them and their ownership history. That will take many years, even if we succeed in securing continuous funding for this new position. Right now, we are focusing on selected collections of objects from Namibia, Cameroon and the Bismarck Archipelago. At the same time, we are trying to work out a systematic classification of colonial provenance research.

Linden-Museum Stuttgart
This building houses approximately 170,000 art objects, ritual objects and objects of daily use from all continents Image: Linden-Museum Stuttgart/A.Dreyer

Is it necessary to cooperate with scholars from the countries of origin?

For many years already, ethnological museums have been working with nationals from the countries concerned, as well as migrant communities from these countries, with the aim of deciphering the origin of these objects while accepting different perspectives when it comes to their interpretations. This participatory approach should also be applied to colonial provenance research. Besides exploring the circumstances of acquisition, it would be very interesting to learn more about the current significance of the collections to those in the countries of origin, as well as migrant communities. This aligns with our interest in strengthening cultural identity. 

What about demands to return the items? Have you ever been confronted with such queries?

Not all demands for restitution of the items are connected with the colonial era. We shall see what the future will bring. Personally, I believe that there won't be as many demands for restitution as some of the current debates suggest. Visitors from the countries concerned often mention that they look at the objects from the perspective of ambassadors of their countries and are quite glad that the objects are kept so well over here. Nevertheless, potential restitution demands should of course be considered very seriously. By negotiating with those in the countries of origin this way, we are trying to initiate a lasting dialogue with them.

The interview was conducted by Julia Hitz.

On March 7, a panel discussion about the colonial heritage of museums and collections took place at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The Linden Museum Stuttgart will hold an international symposium on the museological and social handling of the colonial heritage on April 24.