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Germany urged to own up to colonial past

December 15, 2018

Germany must put 'maximum' research into colonial-era artifacts and trace their origins, insist two deputy ministers. Museum directors recently issued study guidelines, saying 'large gaps' in public awareness remain.

Bremen museum researcher Ndzodo Awono wearing white gloves holds whistle close to the camera, Überseemuseum Breme
Bremen's Overseas Museum: A whistle from CameroonImage: picture alliance/dpa/C. Jaspersen

Germany's "ignoble" past as a colonial power remained a decades-long "blind spot" in how it remembers history, wrote Monika Grütters and Michelle Müntefering in their guest article in Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper.

Grütters, minister of state for culture in Angela Merkel's Chancellery and Müntefering, minister of state for international cultural policies in Germany's Foreign Ministry, said visitors to exhibitions had a right to learn how colonial-era objects had ended up in Germany.

Read more: Skulls and bones secret of German colonial era

"How can museums and collections justify having objects with colonial contexts in their collections, whose [past] transfer to Germany contradicts our present-day values system?" they asked.

This historical reappraisal "belongs in the lecture halls, in school books and in television programs" to fix Germany's euro-centric "memory lapse," Grütters and Müntefering insisted.

Michelle Müntefering und Monika Grütters photographed at a cabinet meeting in May 2018
Trace origins of artifacts, urge Müntefering and Grütters Image: Imago/Metodi Popow

Thousands of museums, few in federal hands

Located in Germany are more than 6,300 museums and 470 exhibition facilities that draw 118 million visitors yearly, according to the most recent data from Berlin's Institute for Museum Research.

Only a few, such as the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin, are federal institutions. Most repositories belong to communal and regional state authorities as well as foundations, church communities, and universities that house ethnological collections. 

Until its defeats in two world wars, former imperial Germany, like other past European powers, exercised colonial power in Africa, for example in what is now Tanzania and Namibia, and the Pacific region, for example Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

Personal apologies, compensation awaited

Visiting Namibia in August, Müntefering asked for "forgiveness from the bottom of my heart" as Germany returned human remains of 27 Herero and Nama.

They were among some 70,000 ethnic people killed under an "extermination order" issued by German general Lothar von Trotha during a 1905 uprising. Skulls were sent to imperial Germany for "research," later used by the Nazis against Jews.

Although it recognized the killings as genocide in 2015, postwar Germany has not yet formally apologized. Herero and Nama are pursuing a US class-action lawsuit for reparations.

Provenance guidelines published

Last July, the German Museums Association, representing 900 museums and institutions, issued its Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts, including a list showing where colonial powers were present.

The association concluded that "large gaps" in provenance [origin] research and digitization of artifacts, some centuries-old, exist at Germany's thousands of repositories.

"Many museum objects in Germany were collected between the 17th and the early 20th centuries, said the association, stressing "all kinds of museums" must disclose and explain what items they still hold.

Read more: Opinion: Germany must apologize for its genocide in Namibia

In their joint article Saturday, Grütters and Müntefering called for "maximal" transparency and research, including a nationwide database, so explanations on the origins of colonial-era artifacts are also put on display for visitors to learn about the object's historical context.

Looking back over decades at Germany's colonial past, the injustices of that period had been "forgotten and shut out," they said.

ipj/ng (KNA, dpa)