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Germany’s Recent Efforts at Addressing a Historical “Blind Spot”

By Claire Dettelbach

How are German museums, advocacy groups, and government agencies confronting the nation’s long-overlooked colonial past? On May 16, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, stood before the media and presented John F.C. Johnson, a representative of the Alaskan Chugach people, with a wooden mask. This wooden mask was one of nine objects which Germany recently returned to the indigenous Alaskan community from which they were taken in the late 1880s. This public display of restitution reflects a greater trend in the German cultural consciousness: a new focus on the origins of Germany’s non-European artifact collections that were amassed during the country’s colonial era.

Historically, Germany’s restitution efforts have revolved around returning artwork looted by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. This is partially because of the immense nature of this task and the amount of international attention which, for historical and ethical reasons , surrounds it. It is also partially because Germany was simply never as large an empire as France or England, and consequently has put less of an emphasis on critically examining its own colonial history. But recently, with French President Emmanuel Macron insisting that “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums”, Germany too is working to repatriate artifacts taken both directly from its former colonies and during its colonial era. Germany’s colonial era stretches from 1884 to 1918, during which it had a number of colonies in Africa and New Guinea comprising over 25,000,000 km2 of territory. During this period, artifacts were taken from these colonies and from other non-European nations and brought back to Germany. Many of these artifacts can now be found sitting behind glass display cases — or, in some cases, deep in basement storage — in German museums.

German museums have recently been under increasing pressure to confront the colonial-era origins of their collections. Culture Minister Monika Grütters announced that the German Lost Art Foundation, which has historically been focused on returning Nazi-looted art, will now provide government grants for museums to conduct extensive provenance research into their non-European collections. She hopes that the grants will “motivate museums to use these research opportunities and develop new forms of cooperation with the countries of origin”. There will also be four new positions opened in the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation solely dedicated to the examination of colonial artifacts. Additionally, in May of 2018 the German Museum Association released a 130-page handbook detailing ways in which cultural institutions can “identify and confront colonial-era artifacts in their collections”.

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One reason for the acceleration of efforts toward colonial-era repatriation in Germany is the recent national criticism over the opening of the new Humboldt Forum, which will house Germany’s non-European collections. Art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned in July of 2017 from the advisory committee of the Forum over complaints of insufficient provenance research being done into its holdings. (Savoy now works with Emmanuel Macron to aid in France’s African repatriation efforts.) The Humboldt Forum, which is set to open in 2019, will focus on religion, migration, and colonial history. Criticisms abound, however, that both the colonial history aspect and the questionable origins of many of the artifacts are not being sufficiently addressed.

While Savoy insisted in her resignation that no artifacts with unclear provenances should appear in exhibits, others maintain a more moderate position in the controversy, acknowledging that progress can be made short of entirely returning artifacts. Historian Christian Kopp, a member of the activist collective No Humboldt 21, wishes to see dialogues between Germany and the affected countries that go “beyond offering individual representatives patronizing invitations to Berlin”. If such dialogues occur and are fruitful, he and many others see no issue with allowing the artifacts to be displayed. The handbook released by Grütter and the German Association of Museums also includes ways to address conflicts that don’t mandate actually returning them, such as considering long-term loans or joint-custody agreements.

The recent public attention toward Germany’s long-overlooked colonial past has led museums and government agencies to make more concerted efforts toward acknowledging the imperial origins of many German museums’ non-European collections. With a 2017 exhibition called “Blind Spot”, the Kunsthalle Bremen museum became the first museum to directly examine its own collection’s colonial origins. Additionally, the recent return of the nine Alaskan artifacts to the indigenous people from whom they were stolen represents a symbolic step in the direction of repatriation. While it is uncommon for artifacts to be entirely returned, as they were in this case, the move is a public demonstration of Germany’s willingness to open up lanes of cooperation with foreign governments.

Germany’s repatriation funds and manpower have long been spent primarily on Nazi-looted art. The trend toward colonial-era repatriation, as manifested by the Humboldt Forum’s publicity and government initiatives, is a quite recent move. Although Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and founding co-director of the Humboldt Forum, insists that the Humboldt Forum and similar institutions would “need more funding to expand [] research” into the colonial artifacts, with the resignation of Savoy and the public outcry over the Forum for the first time it is almost impossible to ignore the need for Germany’s colonial history to be addressed.

Grütters called the German imperial period “a blind spot in our culture of remembrance for too long”. It is an era of German history that, despite being substantially represented in Germany’s non-European artifact collections, has had little scholarly or popular attention. Now that it is being brought into the spotlight, considerations must arise of how stringently to view our colonial predecessors’ actions. It is hard but necessary to look back on the past with a critical yet sensitive eye: one must acknowledge that atrocities were indeed committed by our predecessors while taking into consideration the profoundly detached perspective with which we view these events. This is in no way meant to exonerate the past of all responsibility, but one must consider that history is rarely free of events upon which we now, with our minds thoroughly rooted in modernity, look back upon with horror. As the German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his Thesis on History, “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.  And that is exactly what some of Germany’s non-European collection is: a “document of barbarism”.

The question remains to what extent should the past’s atrocities be swallowed, and at what point does the present’s interference become the only acceptable path? The value of Germany’s non-European collections as documents of history should not be underestimated. So Germany need not give up all of its artifacts and resign itself to embracing a purely European cultural heritage. Rather, with the new attention to Germany’s colonial past coming from new government initiatives, public outcry, and museum efforts, the hope is that Germany’s colonial history, and the origins of its non-European national collections, will now be the subject of a greater dialogue between Germany itself and the nations from which its artifacts come.


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About the Author: Claire Dettelbach is a Summer 2018 Intern at the Center for Art Law. She is a rising second-year undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota where she is a prospective Art History major. She originally hails from Boston.