German Museums Announce a New Wave of Restitutions, With Plans to Return Objects to Namibia, Cameroon, and Possibly Tanzania

The returns are the result of years-long negotiations.

SPK president Hermann Parzinger and Esther Moombolah/Gôagoses, director of the National Museum of Namibia. Photo: © SPK / / Thomas Imo.

The board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), a federal body that oversees 27 museums and cultural organizations in and around Berlin, has agreed to return a number of objects to Cameroon and Namibia. The news is the latest significant restitution from Germany as the country continues to examine its national collections and refine its policy toward colonial-era artworks and objects. 

Twenty-three objects from the Ethnological Museum of the National Museums in Berlin will be permanently returned to Namibia. The artifacts, which include jewelry, clothing, and historic artifacts, first travelled back to the country in May as part of “Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures,” a research project carried out in partnership with the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN). 

“We know how significant these objects are for Namibia,” said the SPK’s president Hermann Parzinger. “They are very early pieces of which there are no comparable objects left in Namibia itself because of the violent colonization. If we now return these objects permanently, we will support our Namibian partners in reconstructing the history of their country.” 

Ngonnso’. Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Eric Hesmerg.

A years-long negotiation with Cameroonian authorities has also concluded with the return of the so-called Ngonnso’, a female figure taken from the historical region of Nso’ (northwestern Cameroon) by colonial officer Curt von Pavel, who gave it to the Ethnological Museum in 1903. 

The dialogue around the future of the object was accelerated by the group Bring Back Ngonnso, led by activist Sylvie Njobati. In a December 2021 meeting, scholars and museum officials from Cameroon and Germany agreed that, although the object had not been looted, the presence of von Pavel in the city of Kumbo was an expression of colonial violence. 

“The question of returning collection items from colonial contexts is not just a question of a context of injustice,” Parzinger said in a statement. “The special—especially spiritual—significance of an object for its society of origin can also justify its return.”

Parzinger has also, with the authorization of the foundation’s board, begun talks with colleagues from Tanzania over several objects stolen during the Maji Maji Uprising and later wars. The works’ provenance came to light thanks to another collaborative research project, “Tanzania/Germany: Shared Object Histories?

In September, a small exhibition at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin will examine the colonial-era contexts of the museum’s Tanzania collection, with some of the same objects due to be included in a major 2024 exhibition on Tanzania’s history. After the show ends, the objects will be formally returned to the country.

Germany made headlines last year when it was the first country to hand back Benin bronzes that had been looted by British troops from Nigeria.

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