The Big Move to Berlin’s Humboldt Forum Has Begun, as Pressure for Restitution of Colonial-Era Objects Grows

The German Lost Art Foundation's expertise in researching Nazi-era loot will expand as demands for colonial-era restitution grows at home and abroad.

The transport of the South Sea boats from the former Ethnological Museum in Dahlem to the new Berlin Castle. Photo: David von Becker.

Gathering inside the colossal construction site that is Berlin’s Humboldt Forum late last month, officials donned museum-branded hard hats to witness the first ethnographic objects arrive to the replica Prussian-era palace. It was a symbolic event that launched a complicated move of thousands of non-European artifacts from Dahlem in the west of the city to their new home in the heart of the German capital. The procession of objects will continue daily this summer while the museum readies for a soft opening in 2019.

The first object to arrive on May 29 was a 52-foot-long crated boat from the South Seas. The fishing vessel was purchased in Luf in 1903, an island that now belongs to Papua New Guinea. Part of the country was under German colonial rule between 1884 and 1914, such that the prized acquisition was made in a period that the country’s culture minister Monika Grütters has now dubbed the nation’s “cultural blind spot.” But no mention of the boat’s colonial context appears in the Humboldt Forum’s official statements.

Outside the museum anyways, a heated political debate has been aroused by this new mega-museum and its large holdings of colonial-era objects. A new light is being shone on the troubled history of ethnographic collections not only in Berlin but across the country, as well as in London and Paris. After so many years stored away in the dark, the controversial provenance of swaths of colonial-era objects in Germany is beginning to receive something of the scrutiny so far only devoted to Nazi-era loot.

The transfer of the South Sea boat from the former Ethnological Museum in Dahlem to the new Berlin Palace. Photo: David von Becker

“Restoration Street”

Grütters and Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, stood by to welcome the South Seas boat move into a dark hole on the second level of the Humboldt Forum. “We are here. We have arrived,” Parzinger announced victoriously before Grütters, playfully referred to as commander that morning, called out: “Lift!” Slowly, the crated vessel was cranked into the belly of the museum, taking around 20 minutes. The opening in the wall will be bricked up after the remaining large objects are transported into the museum—a gesture terminal enough to feel macabre.

“All objects, whether great or small, from the Dahlem museums can expect to be seen by crowds of visitors in the heart of Berlin,” Grütters said in her statement. “That’s what I wish for them, at any rate.” But how realistic will the culture minister’s wishful words prove to be?

The sailing boat is prepared before its move from the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem. Photo by PK/photothek.net/Thomas Koehler.

The collection being moved is enormous: some 20,000 objects are coming from holdings that include 500,000 artifacts in total. And with that mass lies a major problem: Neither a complete inventory nor an intensive provenance research has yet to been completed on a majority of the artifacts, as Margareta von Oswald, a researcher at Berlin’s Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, tells artnet News. Nor could it feasibly be by the time the items have all arrived at the new museum, she adds.

As the move continues throughout the summer, a 70-strong team of conservators and researchers are preparing the objects, many of which have not received appropriate care in the past. Some of the objects are in poor condition and, due to their organic material, they need to be checked for insects. They call this accelerated multi-step processing between Dahlem and Berlin “Restaurierungstrasse,” or restoration street.

Hermann Parzinger (left), the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and John Johnson from the Chugach Alaska Corporation, during a restitution ceremony in Berlin in May. Photo by Ralf Hirschberger /dpa/AFP.

To Restitute or Not to Restitute

A first draft of guidelines for dealing with artifacts acquired during the colonial era was finally published last month after two intense years of activity. Called the Guide to the handling of collectibles from colonial contexts, the 136-page document was released by the German Museums Association; It includes the vexed issue of restitution, but mostly it emphasizes loans and international co-operation projects with institutions in source countries.

“Restitution is not requested very often,” says Wiebke Ahrndt, a professor of ethnography who led the working group that drafted the guidelines. She is also the director of Bremen’s Überseemuseum in Bremen, a natural history and ethnographic museum in the German port city, which boasts a vast collection of 1.2 million objects from Asia, Oceania, Africa, and America. “Restitution is absolutely not daily business.”

Also at the top of the list of to-dos, the guideline’s authors stress the cost and complexity of provenance research and the importance of financial support. Many institutions in the country, until now, have only digitized a fraction of their collections. “Museums need money,” says Arhndt. “What we often receive from source communities is not email request for returns, but requests on digital data. They want to know what we have. And I think they are right. We need transparency.”

That transparency would surely prompt more countries to initiate restitution requests, but determining rightful ownership is not an easy task, says Ahrndt. “It’s very often difficult to decide to whom to restitute. In the guidelines we state that you should be willing to restitute if you think that something is in your collection illegally or unethically.” But the distance between determining that something is wrongfully in a collection and getting it back to where it belongs seems to be, at least to the German museums, incredibly vast.

In this sense, ethnographic restitution cases differ greatly from other restitution situations. Claims for Nazi-era looted art are typically made by a particular family or an individual heir and in former colonies, these kinds of lineages may be hard or impossible to trace. In some situations, says Arhndt, former colonial countries do not want objects back right away because it might empower certain parties over others. Due to old laws, the conditions of return make restitution a legal nightmare for some source communities.

In sum, it’s complicated.

Exhibition view of “Looted Art? The Benin Bronzes” at MKG in Hamburg. Photo by Michaela Hille

But some vehemently disagree what that answer, and have been critical of Germany’s more nuanced position on colonial-era objects, especially when compared to the French President, Emmanuel Macron’s hard-lined approach to create a policy that will establish the conditions for returning African artifacts within the next five years. Ahrndt says this difference in approach is partly due to the differing structures already in place in the two countries. “In Germany, the way to restitution is already open. What President Macron said is that he will open the possibility to make it possible [for French museums] to restitute [objects].”

After the guidelines publication this spring, the campaign group No Humboldt 21 was quick to call out the German Museums Association for their soft approach, calling it “oppressive colonial legislation” in a respondent press release. The group accused the German Museums Association of distancing itself from “the French initiative for the restitution of African cultural and artistic treasures.”

The Tanzanian founder of the organization Berlin Postkolonial, Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, said in response to the guidelines: “We are waiting for an honest acknowledgements of colonial injustices and steps for reconciliation over a violent past. Restitutions are an integral part of it, and they should take place sooner than later.”

So far the voice of source communities is noticeably absent, but that is not because it won’t be considered eventually. The guidelines document is a work in progress and so the hope, on both sides, is that it will gain a more balanced perspective by the time of final publication next year. “Obviously the working group was not very diverse, because it consists mostly of academics who work in German museums or universities. None of us really comes from the countries or societies where the collections originated,” says Larissa Förster, of the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage. She was one of the members of the working group that drafted the document. Invited international experts are due to meet at the end of October in Hamburg for a first revision. The German Museum Association said that, as a first step, the guidelines could be formulated by German museum professionals and academics in order to address and provide guidance to colleagues around Germany, she says.

The facade of the Berlin Palace (Berliner Stadtschloss) under reconstruction. (AFP PHOTO / Tobias SCHWARZ)

Learning From the Lost Art Foundation

Another vital development will lie in a new mandate for The German Lost Art Foundation, an organization that was established in 2015 to vet and provide grants for museums to investigate their collections for Nazi and Stasi-looted art. In late April, it was announced that the foundation will also be allocating government grants to museums for provenance research into artifacts acquired from former colonies. The grants they will set up will help the country’s museums research their collections of non-Western objects.

“We were wondering in what direction the public debate was going to go and who could possibly become responsible for handling this new field,” says Gilbert Lupfer, a member of the executive board of the German Lost Art Foundation. “In our everyday communications with the government, hints accumulated that this new field of activities might be allocated to us.”

Lupfer says that by next year, the foundation may be able to launch pilot projects to test how they could roll out this new program dedicated to colonial-era objects. It’s an exciting prospect, but still all very new for the Magdeburg-based organization. Lupfer hopes funds will be available as soon as next year.

“In our view, what makes it sensible to put this new field within our organization is that many of the structures of the grant system will most likely be similar. There is already a lot of expertise as to efficiently execute grants, and, we are well established as a platform that deals with lost art from the 20th century,” Lupfer says.

Expanding the foundation’s remit indicates how seriously the German government is trying to take the issue of colonial-era objects, though the situation at the Humboldt Forum and within other prominent museums remains highly contentious. In any case, to term colonial-era objects as potentially lost art is a big step forward. But for now, everyone is waiting for the new federal budget to be confirmed to see just how much financial support will be dedicated to this new field of work and recruiting the expertise it requires.

“The big question right now,” Lupfer says, “is whether insights from the way that the German Lost Art Foundation’s grant proposal program is currently run may be used to do something equivalent for colonial-era goods, or, whether it has to be adjusted in principle.” Whether colonial-era restitution has anything to learn from Nazi-looted art is an open question, and how the drafted recommendations could bring real effects to source communities feels, for the moment, unclear. The move into Humboldt creaks forward. The pressure is on Germany, and the world is watching.


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