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Looted colonial art: Germany to set up new contact office

Stefan Dege db
October 18, 2019

Germany plans to set up a central contact office to help facilitate the return of African works of art looted in the colonial era. But will that make the process more transparent? Critics are wary.

bronze masks fronm BBenin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

French President Emmanuel Macron got the ball rolling two years ago when he announced France would return Africa's cultural assets. Since then, that debate has also gained momentum in Germany. Museums have been taking a hard look at their collections in search of relevant objects while intensifying research contacts with the countries of origin. Good will prevails, and received a new facet this week when German federal and state culture politicians announced plans to open a special contact office for "collections from colonial contexts" in 2020.

Anyone looking for missing objects, in particular institutions and individuals from the countries of origin, can then turn to the contact office for queries about art that German museums might be keeping safe in storage.

Important step, or too slow?

The signatories to the creation of a contact office say it is an "important step towards the greatest possible transparency," while researchers demand greater speed. In a joint appeal, ethnologists, historians, postcolonialism researchers and artists from Africa and Europe have demanded the acceleration of the return of colonial objects from German collections by allowing access to museum inventories.

"It's a scandal," the signatories to the appeal say. They argue that "despite a debate that has gone on for two years, there is still no free access to museum inventories," adding that a grasp of the museums' inventories is the basis for any dialogue. Interested parties in Africa say they have no idea where things are kept here, so how can they demand a return, Hamburg historian Jürgen Zimmerer, one of the signatories, told DW. "In order to create transparency, lengthy data preparation and completed digitization projects are not necessary," he said. The way things are going, "work on the inventories will never be finished," he added.

strone cross of cape cross
The Cape Cross stone column has already been returned to NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

About 150 scientists, artists and activists signed the appeal, including Benedicte Savoy, an art historian who teaches in Berlin, and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr. Late last year, the two published a report that caused quite a stir, recommending that French President Emmanuel Macron return African works of art from the colonial era to their countries of origin. It's time we had this postcolonial debate, Zimmerer said, adding that takes transparency.

It is important to regain lost trust, he said. "That is only possible if we say what we have, without allowing museums or political authorities to control what can or cannot be seen."

Elaborate research

While transparency is important, Übersee-Museum's Wiebke Ahrndt said the critics do not take into account everyday reality in the museums. "We are doing the best we can with the means we have," she told DW. The museums would like to do more, but they lack the financial resources to hire the staff they need for that kind of work, she said, adding that processing collections is a "laborious business" and digitization is even more complex.

In cooperation with researchers from around the world, Ahrndt helped create a guideline to deal with colonial-era collections.

The state and federal culture politicians who devised the new coordination office plan to invite the appeal's initiators in order to "clarify how we can move forward as quickly as possible," said Hamburg Culture Minister Carsten Brosda. The new contact office, which is scheduled to open by April 2020, will be financed in equal parts by the federal and state governments.