How a Cologne museum is dealing with its colonial heritage | Arts | DW | 01.10.2019
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How a Cologne museum is dealing with its colonial heritage

Works from Africa are in many German museums, including in the Cologne Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum. A new cooperation project with Kenya aims to establish the provenance of its exhibits.

"There is a revolution happening in Germany's museums," says Nanette Snoep. The director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum is sitting in her office in the center of Cologne. Just a week ago, she led a workshop for the International Inventories Program.

The "IIP" was launched by the National Museum Nairobi and the Goethe-Institut Kenya. The goal is to create an inventory of Kenyan cultural assets in museums and institutions worldwide.

With the speech of Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou on November 28, 2017, a new era began: "the post-Ouagadougou era," says Snoep hopefully.

Nanette Snoep. The director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (DW/S. Oelze)

Nanette Snoep, director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum

Two years ago in the capital of Burkina Faso, France's president promised to return to their countries of origin objects that had been looted during the colonial era. "It was a thunderbolt," says Snoep, who has been working in Cologne since January 2019 and previously headed the State Ethnological Collections of Saxony.

Macron commissioned two experts, the French art historian Benedicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, to produce a "Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage," based on a year of research that included trips through Africa, Asia and France.

Discussion has reached Germany

The French state initiative led Germany to also get involved in the debate surrounding the restitution of art looted during the colonial era. "Museums are now actively determining how to conduct provenance research systematically. The topic has also reached the public," Snoep told DW.

A major problem is transparency: "Many countries in Africa do not know what's in European museums," Snoep points out.

Germany is now under pressure as neighboring countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and France began digitizing their collection stocks years ago and making them available online.

Nanette Snoep has developed expertise in this field through her 16 years spent working at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris: "The then President Jacques Chirac made sure that all of the museum's 350,000 objects were available to be viewed in a database on its opening day, on June 21, 2006."

The IIP is an attempt to take concrete action. It's not just about restitution, but also about cooperation and gaining knowledge on the objects. The available data is "not always enough," says Snoep.  In some cases, she adds, "cooperation partners do not even understand how we handle the objects." Some of the exhibits in glass showcases in Cologne can be bought at a market in Nairobi. This is why knowledge and relations of trust need to be established; mistrust towards former colonial rulers was caused by centuries of unequal power relations.

Deutschland Rautenstrauch Joest Museum und Schnütgen Museum in Köln (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka)

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum is a museum of ethnography in Cologne

Often poor storage conditions in Europe

For a long time, the argument against restitution was that German museums were better equipped to safe-keep African artifacts. It was doubted that the countries of origin could provide proper storage for them.

However, the collections of German museums are not always in good condition, with objects being destroyed by mold or woodworms or damaged by flooding. Considering the poor storage conditions of collections across Europe, Snoep says museums across the continent should be more modest on this issue.

The depot of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne is in top condition. Snoep proudly shows the collection's storage space that was established in 2010. 

Before the objects were moved to the new building that year, there was no complete inventory of the collection: "Everything was very approximate," says restorer Christine Hopp. In the former storage space, a building from the 19th century located near the Rhine River, everything was damaged, having withstood wars and floods. "We once had a little skull of sugar, but it was no longer recognizable after 20 years in the depot."

Storage space of Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (DW/S. Oelze)

The objects are carefully stored with foam protection

Today, every object is individually wrapped in special foam. The shelves can be adjusted at different heights to avoid having objects touching each other.

There's a special section for objects from Kenya. The artifacts are being researched as part of the IIP. At the end of November, there will be a second meeting in Nairobi. Two artist collectives, the Nest from Kenya and Shift from Germany and France, are taking part in it.

In 2020 and 2021, the results of this dialogue will be presented as part of the exhibition "Invisible Inventories" in Nairobi, Frankfurt and Cologne. "We're just at the beginning," says director Snoep, "but the IIP has great potential."


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