The reality of pillaged colonial art and restitution

“As we engage with museums in a colonial context, we are faced with the reality that historical trauma and contemporary trauma coexist because the result of this ‘hewa’ (sin), the wrongfulness of the theft of origin, persists, “said Noelle MKY Kahanu at the German Lost Art Foundation’s Berlin Conference on the Return of Collectibles from Colonial Contexts. But the seed of their return lies in the timing of their theft, said the University of Hawaii researcher.

The three-day online conference bringing together more than 40 academics and experts from around the world kicked off in a conciliatory, albeit stimulating, atmosphere with words that show just how much loss of cultural heritage still weighs today.

Over the centuries, a number of objects from Hawaii have found their way to Europe in an illegal context, including sacred objects and human bones.

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It is only slowly that the demands for restitution and repatriation are yielding results.

In October 2017, the Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen ethnographic collections returned human bones to descendants of Hawaii – after 26 years of unsuccessful repatriation requests from the Hawaiian side.

The long road to restitution

Conference attendees, more than 40 academics in the field, examine why there are still so many unanswered questions after all these years. Discussions examine the history of artefacts and their unfair acquisition, trace disputes between museums and the original societies, and discuss what the “return” of human bones or cultural objects may mean for them. companies.

The debate is welcome and long overdue, according to Hermann Parzinger, director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

“The issue of decolonization is certainly not just a question for museums. It is a challenge for our whole society and for many other institutions which have also been affected by it,” he said at the meeting. opening event.

Dealing with the colonial past

Some “historic steps” have been taken in the acceptance of German colonial history, said German Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters, listing the return of the whip and the Bible of local folk hero Hendrik Witbooi to Namibia and Germany’s commitment to return the so-called Benin bronzes to Nigeria from 2022.

“The issue must and will remain a high priority for cultural policy, also and especially here in Germany”, she declared at the opening of the conference.

Grütters added that the process of accepting the colonial past is still in its infancy in Germany, both politically and socially.

This includes funding from the German Lost Art Foundation, based in Magdeburg, which hosts the conference. To date, the center supports 40 projects with around 4.4 million euros ($ 5 million).

One of the themes of the conference will be the debate on the return of cultural objects from sub-Saharan Africa – 80% to 90% of its cultural heritage is in Western museums.

During colonial times, many pieces were acquired illegally and ended up in European collections. In recent years, European museums have shown an awareness in this area, but it has taken a long way before Europe wants to talk about restitution.

Already in the 1870s Ethiopia was demanding the return, among other things, of sacred objects, said Wolbert GC Smidt, who teaches at Friedrich Schiller University in the city of Jena in eastern Germany and at the University of Mekelle in northern Ethiopia.

Only a few items were returned, which for Ethiopia “amounts to de facto undermining Ethiopian power,” Smidt said.

Lessons to be learned from failed restitution requests will be one of the topics of the conference’s closing event on Friday. It already seems clear that much remains to be done to come to terms with the colonial past.

This article has been translated from German.

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