“LIKE PREGNANT HIPPOS”. Ethnographic Museums and the Legacy of European Colonialism: Outline of a Debate
* Gesa Grimme (born 1981) is an ethnologist and historian based in Berlin. She is currently earning her doctorate in Provenance Research on objects from colonial contexts in ethnological museums. She has participated in exhibition and research projects as a scientific associate at a variety of museums.
An old Bible from Namibia, a mask from Cameroon, a spear from New Guinea, even human remains: ethnological museum collections include thousands of objects from Africa, Asia and the South Seas, but what is the real history of these things? What do they mean? Who did they belong to and how did they get to Europe? Not only has the perspective on ‘foreign’ cultures fundamentally changed during the post-colonial discourses of the past years, but the practice of dealing with the colonial heritage and the selfunderstanding of ethnological museums has changed as well. A provenance researcher provides an insight into the debate, which is particularly topical and controversial for Germany at the present time.
At the “Mania and Obstinacy of Collecting” exhibition in the Museum der Kulturen Basel. “Souvenir and Memory” section.
A wall made of box display cases that contain souvenirs © MKB, Omar Lemke
Ethnographic museums, initially referred to in German-speaking areas as Völkerkundemuseum and today often carrying variations on the phrase “world culture” in their names, long downplayed their interest in the societal conditions under which more or less everyday objects from other cultures had become museum pieces in its collections. Interest was primarily focused on the societies and communities that had produced and used the objects and on the appeal to the audience of their assumed cultural characteristics.
Only in recent years have museums increasingly addressed the colonial histories of their collections under the concept of provenance research. This development comes in the context of persistent criticism aimed at the institution of the ethnographic museum in Germany since the beginning of the new millenium, first by activist groups and later originating increasingly from cultural and history scientific circles. Complaints focus more than anything on the inadequate historical contextualisation of objects, their frequently unresolved origin and the reluctance to return cultural assets looted during the colonial period (Kazeem et ai. 2009; AfricAvenir 2017; Edenheiser and Forster 2019; Schorch 2020). In connection with the planning for the Humboldt Forum now taking shape in Berlin, currently the largest cultural project in Germany, such criticism found an increasing resonance in the German media from the mid 2010s.
Provenance research refers to the examination of and encounter with the origin of collection pieces. Research looks at the circumstances under which the pieces were acquired, their previous owners and collections to which the objects previously belonged. This field of research enjoys special attention in the context of art confiscated by the Nazi regime. In 1998, 44 countries signed the Washington Principles and committed to search the collections of their respective cultural institutions for assets confiscated in the course of National Socialist persecution and to find “fair and just solutions" for their restitution (Poltermann 2018, translation adapted). Since about 2015, the term has increasingly been applied to the consideration of colonial backgrounds of ethnographic collections (Förster 2019).
Ethnology emerged as an established scientific discipline during the second half of the 19th century. Its further development is closely linked with the history of ethnographic museums (“Völkerkundemuseum"). Ethnologists dealt primarily with societies living outside of Europe, which they referred to as primitive peoples (“Naturvolk"). Observation of such cultures and the collection of their material objects was to serve as the basis for conclusions about the history of human development. Today, the modern term “Ethnology" is used, as is the description “Cultural and Social Anthropology". Classifications of societies as “primitive" or “cultural" have, in the meantime, become obsolete. The modern discipline focuses on the diverse lifestyles of humans and their practices in local and global contexts (Zimmermann 2001; Haller 2012).
Sold, swapped, stolen: Ethnographic Museums and Their Colonial Background
Today, ethnographic museums in Germany focus on the collection and display of the material cultures of various societies outside of Europe. The pieces in their collections include objects from all areas of human life. The scope is striking: The collection of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin alone contains 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological and culture-historical objects. Major portions of this collection came into the museum's possession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the peak of European world conquest. According to the research explorer Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), during this period, the museums bloated “like pregnant hippos” (Frobenius 1925: p. 19, translation adapted).
The creation of extended collections was favoured by the self-understanding of ethnology, which had only just emerged as a scientific discipline. Early representatives of the subject assumed that there must be enough empirical data in the form of objects to make theoretical statements on the human race and its development. Thus, the accumulation of material culture became a premise of the museums. Accordingly, the things they collected were considered to be scientific specimens rather than artworks (Zimmerman 2001; Penny 2002).
The opportunities for gaining access to the material cultures of the inhabitants of colonialised regions grew along with European expansion. In particular the numbers of the military, colonial civil servants, commercial representatives and entrepreneurs as well as missionaries and explorers increased with the establishment and expansion of colonial transport, administration and economic structures. These individuals were able to obtain objects on location by purchase, barter, theft or looting or received them as gifts, making the acquisition of objects for museums all the easier (Zimmerman 2001, pp. 149171). In addition, ethnological findings on the colonialised areas classified the societies living there in ethnic groups (“Volksgruppe”) as well as linguistic groups and by “racial types” as a basis for the formulation of cultural peculiarities. As a result, ethnology supported the assertion and strengthening of colonial dominance, at the same time creating the foundation for the scientific legitimation of European colonial expansion (Osterhammel and Jansen 2012, pp. 117-120; Conrad 2016, pp. 79-86).
Numerous ethnographic museums were founded during the second half of the 19th century in larger and smaller centres of the German Empire. In addition to collections emerging from the art vaults of colonial masters, many museums came into being on the initiative of public citizens and were sponsored by cities and associations (Penny 2002). These museums were integrated in the generation and dissemination of colonial knowledge as research and educational institutions. The societies presented in the exhibitions and lectures were usually presented as “primitive”, “backwards” and/or “primal” as well as, to an increasing degree, as “racially inferior”. The delineation from and denigration of the others so clearly presented and dramatised here made it possible for the museum visitors to affirm their own - alleged - cultural superiority (Laukötter 2007, 2013).
During the course of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the concept of "race" - the classification of people based on bodily appearance and presumed characteristics and abilities that could be ascribed to appearance - gained significantly in scientific, political and societal importance. The young discipline of ethnology also turned its attention to "questions of race". In the context of colonial administration this hierarchicalising categorisation was ultimately used to justify and bolster colonial power structures (Laukötter 2007, pp. 85-99).
“Some Pieces Bear Bloodstains”: Ethnographic Museums under Fire
The current debate regarding the legacy of colonialism in ethnographic museums is not the first of its kind. As early as the 1970s, there was open discourse about the origin of the objects in ethnographic museums and collections. In the years that followed, their colonial origins were also explicitly highlighted in publications such as “Nofretete Wants to Go Home” (“Nofretete will nach Hause”) (Ganslmayr and Paczensky 1984) and “The Hamburg South Seas Expedition: On Ethnography and Colonialism” (“Die Hamburger SQdsee-Expedition: Über Ethnographie und Kolonialismus”) (Fischer 1981) as well as in the exhibition “Commemorating Colonialism” (“Andenken an den Kolonialismus”) (Harms 1984). However, there was no sustained engagement with these topics, nor were there any internationally binding regulations on restitution for cultural assets expropriated during the European colonial period (Strugulla 2019; Savoy 2019).
In the early 2000s, representatives of the Herero in the USA took legal action against the Federal Republic of Germany as well as against German corporations involved in the genocide committed against the Herero and Nama during German colonial rule of what is today Namibia (Zimmerer and Zeller 2003; Kößler 2015; Kößler and Melber 2017). In Germany, this was followed by renewed public and academic interest in German colonial history. In particular, local historical associations and post-colonial initiatives worked for a more intensive examination of this part of German history. As plans for the Humboldt Forum in Berlin became more concrete, the attention of the debate turned increasingly to the inter-relationship of ethnographic museums with the assertion of colonial power. In the years that followed, the cultural project became the focal point of a growing public debate about German colonial history, the traces it has left in German museums and German society. The coalition “No Humboldt 21!”, which calls for the suspension of work on the Humboldt Forum, criticised the unreflected display of cultural assets looted in the colonial period. According to the coalition, the concept of the Humboldt Forum is “Euro-centric and archaic-restorative” and injures “the dignity and property rights of humans in all parts of the world”. Among the most prominently discussed examples of such “colonial looted art” is a group of metal and ivory pieces from the kingdom of Benin, referred to as the Benin Bronzes. Benin City, the capital of the kingdom, was conquered and sacked in 1897 by British troops. In spite of the clearly violent context surrounding the origin of the majority of the Bronzes, calls for repatriation have, as yet, gone unheeded. Critics from Africa and Europe see in this a typical example of the lack of readiness for dialogue on the part of European institutions in the context of calls for repatriation.
In 1897. British troops looted the capital city of the Kingdom of Benin, today a part of Nigeria, under the pretence of a punitive expedition. Approximately 3,500 ivory and bronze works of art were stolen. These objects, referred to as the Benin Bronzes, quickly became coveted objects in the art market. The majority of them were sold by members of the British military and their families to museums, scientists and collectors in Europe and North America. Only a very small number of the objects remained in Benin. In spite of the violent acquisition of the objects, today the Benin Bronzes are still sought-after exhibition pieces (Plankensteiner 2008, 2016). Repeated demands that the objects be returned have as yet gone unheeded (Opoku 2013). At present, the Benin Dialogue Group has been discussing the construction of a museum in Benin City in which the bronze and ivory objects could be reunited*.
* Press release on the meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in Benin City, Nigeria, from July 5 to 7, 2019. Online at https:// markk-hamburg.de/benin-dialogues/ (02.10.2020).
The debate intensified in 2017. In July, in an interview with the German news daily “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, the art historian Benedicte Savoy announced that she was resigning from the expert advisory council of the Humboldt Forum because of the lack of readiness on the part of those responsible for the project to engage in assessing the colonial connections relating to the origins of the collections. She went on to say that the Humboldt Forum is “like Chernobyl”, adding: “This is 300 years of active collecting, with all associated moral injustices and hopes. This is us, this is Europe. The imaginable possibilities would be endless, if only the whole thing was not buried under a slab of lead as if it was atomic waste, just to keep radiation from escaping.” (Savoy in Häntzschel 2017). While visiting Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in November, France's president Emmanuel Macron announced that “[within] five years [I want to establish] the basis for returning African cultural assets to Africa either temporarily or permanently [...]” (quoted in Thiemeyer 2018, p. 31, Translation adapted). Macron subsequently commissioned Savoy, together with the author and economist Felwine Sarr, to write a report dealing with the possibilities for restitution of African cultural assets from French museums and collections.
Pressure on lawmakers also grew in Germany following Macron's statement of principle and the publication of the "Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle ethique relationnelle” by Savoy and Sarr in November 2018. Activist groups, scientists and artists demanded a clear commitment to a stronger examination of Germany's role in colonialism and of responsibility for colonial injustice. In mid-December 2018, Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State for International Cultural Policy in the German Federal Foreign Office, and Monika Grütters, German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, published a statement entitled “Kolonialismus. Eine Lücke in unserem Gedachtnis” (“Colonialism. A Gap in our Memory”) in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (Müntefering and Grütters 2018). At the beginning of the same year, the currently governing parties (CDU, CSU and SPD) had included in their coalition agreement the provision that “the basic democratic consensus in Germany [...] includes examining and confronting the National Socialist reign of terror and East German SED party dictatorship as well as German colonial history.”
Genocide against the Herero and Nama
During the period of German colonial rule over the territory that is now Namibia, German settlers increasingly encroached on the land of the resident native Herero and Nama, stealing their means of subsistence. In 1904, resistance on the part of the Herero led to a colonial war, which later also involved the Nama. The supreme commander of the colonial forces, Lothar von Trotha, issued an order in October 1904 that no prisoners were to be taken and that the Herero were to be driven into the Omaheke desert. Relatives of the Herero and Nama who survived the war were imprisoned in concentration camps, where more than half of them died. Since 2015, Germany and Namibia have been negotiating on the recognition of these events as a case of genocide and the possibility of reparation payments (Zimmerer and Zeller 2003; Kößler 2015; Kößler and Melber 2017).
In 2002, the German Bundestag voted to rebuild the Berlin City Palace (Stadtschloss) and thus to tear down the Palace of the Republic, which the GDR had erected on the same spot. The project, dubbed the ‘Humboldt Forum", is currently the largest cultural project in Germany. The new structure is to house the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art, which had been located in the Dahlem district after 1945. The Stadtmuseum Berlin and Humboldt University will receive additional exhibition and event space. The buildings and exhibitions were inaugurated in December 2020 and will open in segments over the next two years. The project has been under constant criticism since its inception, in particular, the accommodation of collections from the colonial period in a structure evocative of the German imperial and colonial eras has been met with protest (Bose 2016; AfricAvenir 2017).
“Decolonisation Requires Dialogue, Expertise and Support”: Ethnographic Museums Today
In their statement of opinion in May 2019, the directors of the ethnographic museums in German-speaking countries welcomed “the high level of current interest on the part of civil society” in their museums and announced their fundamental willingness to return objects. However, more than anything, they demanded better financial support for the museums “for documentation, digitalisation and collaboration with societies of origin; for collaborative provenance research and clarification of collection histories; for partnerships with institutions in the societies of origin; for repatriation, restitution and other forms of mutually acceptable and respectful agreement.”
In the 2010s, the growing level of criticism had already brought the ethnographic museums to start paying closer attention to the histories of their creation, in particular with regard to the specific meaning of these histories for the present. Provenance research plays a particularly central role here. Thus, for example, since 2016, the project “Tansania-Deutschland: Geteilte Objektgeschichten?” (“Tanzania - Germany: Shared object histories?”) and the Humboldt Lab Tanzania at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin have been working together closely with Tanzanian scientists and artists on objects which entered the collection as the “spoils” of the Maji Maji war (Reyels et al 2018). Similar research projects were launched in Bremen and Stuttgart as well. The project “Schwieriges Erbe” (“A Difficult Inheritance”), which also started at Stuttgart's Linden-Museum in 2016, pursued a systematic approach and reached the conclusion that approximately 92% of the objects contained in the regional collections for Cameroon, Namibia and the Bismarck Archipelago (today part of Papua New Guinea) are from the years preceding 1920, that is, the period in which the German Empire was active as a colonial power (Grimme 2018, 2020).
The first permanent positions for scientists who concentrated their activities solely on the colonial origins of collections of objects were established at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 2019. The number of associated projects has increased many times over, with support for this research from the German Lost Art Foundation (Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste) and other private foundations. Here, collaboration with representatives of the producers and previous owners of the objects in the countries of origin are now a standard (Förster 2019, pp. 82-83).
Maji Maji War
In 1905, broad segments of the population of the German East Africa colony, which included what is today Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi, united in order to put up military resistance to the measures of the German colonial administration, in particular, the introduction of a poll tax. The unification of different groups was facilitated by the religious Maji Maji movement. The war lasted until 1907, with individual groups continuing to put up resistance until the summer of 1908. During the course of the war, the German colonial forces increasingly turned to systematic destruction of villages as well as fields, the basis of the population's subsistence. According to estimates, as many as 300,000 people died as a result of the war and the subsequent famine (Beez and Becker 2005; Giblin and Monson 2010; Reyels et al. 2018).
Today, human remains that apparently were still located in ethnographic, natural history and anthropological collections in German-speaking areas have already been returned to New Zealand, Peru, Namibia, Japan, Hawaii and Australia. The number of such returns has been increasing since the early 2010s (Fründt and Förster 2018; Winkelmann 2020). On the other hand, demands for the return of objects have become significantly less common. Negotiations on the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes have been ongoing since 2010 in the Benin Dialogue Group (Plankensteiner 2016). The first return from the collections of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin was in 2018, as burial objects looted from southern Alaska were returned to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. This was followed in 2019 by the return to the Republic of Namibia of the Bible and whip of Nama captain Hendrik Witbooi, which had been looted under German colonial rule and then found their way into the collection of Stuttgart's Linden-Museum.
The efforts on the part of ethnographic museums to renegotiate their standing in society have also intensified and have been changing museum exhibition practices. The devel opment of corresponding strategies has been supported in particular by the German Federal Cultural Foundation for several years now. Initially, the Foundation supported the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, which assisted the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) in Berlin with the revision of their presentations from 2013 until 2015 (Heller 2015). Currently, the Foundation's “Initiative for Ethnological Collections” is making it possible for the MARKK ("Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt") in Hamburg and the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart to experiment with new formats.
As early as almost 10 years ago, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt began an approach to the ethnographic collection from an artistic point of view in its exhibitions (Deliss 2012). At the same time, the RJM (Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum) in Cologne and the Museum der Kulturen in Basel have also implemented dramatic changes in the design of their exhibi tions. Following the renovation and new construction of their premises, both museums did away with classical geographical arrangements in presenting their collections. In Basel, the exhibition “Eigensinn” (“Obstinacy”) focused on working terminologies of university ethnology, such as “Handlungsmacht” (the power to act) and “Performanz” (performance) (MKB 2011). The new collection exhibit in the museum in Cologne addresses a comparison of cultures. It focuses on various aspects of human coexistence such as “Vorurteile” (prejudices), “Grenzüberschreitungen” (incursion of boundaries), “Tod und Jenseits” (death and the afterworld), “Wohnen” (residing) and “Kleidung und Schmuck” (clothes and jewellery) (Engelhard and Schneider: 2010).
The term post-colonial in no way refers to the time following a colonial period in the sense of a historical chronological sequence. It refers much more to the sustainable influence of a colonial period on the world, for example, the relationships between the nations of the Global North and Global South and their impact in the present (Hall 2002). Thus, for example, the post-colonial present of ethnographic museums includes more than just collections of objects and exhibition practices. The organising principles of the collections are based, until today for the most part, without critical reflection on colonial and thus hierarchicalising categories and classifications (Rasool).
Hope and Criticism: Perspectives
Questions about how to handle objects and collections from colonial contexts apply not only to ethnographic museums, but also to other museum types, such as natural history, municipal and art museums, as well as archaeological and culture-historical museums. These institutions are, for the most part, still in the early stages of involvement with their colonial backgrounds (Binter 2017; Heumann et al. 2018, among others).
In the case of ethnographic museums, it may appear at first glance as if only little had changed over the past two years, but there are highly promising developments that indicate that the encounter with their colonial past is intensifying. The question of what societal role ethnographic museums can take on today remains persistent. Suspicion on the part of critics that provenance research and increased collaboration with the “societies of origin” are merely token gestures intended to win the legitimacy of the museums' collections is, however, not entirely unjustified. Keeping a critical eye on the museums' progress will remain important in the years to come.
And although, in recent years, ethnographic museums in particular have been publicly criticised for their interrelationships with European colonial expansion, the debate reaches far beyond collections from the colonial era. The debate combines moral-ethical perspectives on German colonial history and European colonialism with sociopolitical negotiation processes regarding societal entitlement as well as the renegotiation of identity and culture of remembrance in a society characterised increasingly by diversity. Social coexistence still reveals the traces of colonialism in language and expressions, in everyday racism aimed at those who do not “look German” and in stubbornly persistent exoticising ideas about Africa, Asia, the South Seas and about Central and South America. Ultimately, the debate is also about reflection on the relationships between Global North and Global South and the acceptance of responsibility for colonial injustice, thus, to date, there has still not been an official apology from the German authorities for the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama.
- “An manchen Objekten klebt Blut”, Benedicte Savoy in conversation with Rene Aguigah, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 20.01.2019. (translation of title adapted). Online at https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/kunsthistorikerin-bene-dicte-savoy-an-manchen-objek-ten-klebt.974.de.html (30.09.2020).
- No Humboldt 21!, Moratorium für das Humboldt-Forum im Berliner Schloss, 2013 (Translation adapted). Online at https://www.no-humboldt21.de/resolution/ (29.09.2020).
- Available as audio: Rollhäuser, Lorenz, “Haus der Weißen Herren - Humboldt Forum, Shared Heritage und der Umgang mit dem “Anderen”, Deutschlandfunk Kultur Feature, 11.10.2017. Online at https://srv.deutschlandradio.de/dlf-audio-thek-audio-teilen.3265.de.html (30.09.2020).
- “Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Assets. Towards a New Relational Ethics”, online at: http://restitu-tionreport2018.com (30.09.2020).
- “Was wir jetzt brauchen. Für Restitutionen und einen neuen Umgang mit der Kolonialgeschichte: Ein Appell von Wissenschaftlern aus der ganzen Welt”, Die Zeit, 12.12.2018. Online at https://www.zeit.de/2018/52/kolonial-geschichte-umgang-kunstwerke-res-titution (28.09.2020).
- Coalition agreement between CDU, CSU and SPD 2018: 167, lines 7955-7956 (Translation adapted). Online at https://www.bundesregierung.de/resource/blob/975226/847984/5b-8bc23590d4cb2892b31c987ad-672b7/2018-03-14-koalitions-vertirag-data.pdf (29.09.2020).
- “Dekolonisierung erfordert Dialog, Expertise und UnterstQtzung”, statement of opinion by the directors of the ethnological museums in the German-speaking areas, of 06.05.2019. Available online for example at: https://markk-ham-burg.de/heidelberger-stellung-nahme/ (27.09.2020).
- “Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste bewilligt in der ersten Antragsrunde 2020 rund 650.000 Euro für fiinf Forschungsprojekte im Bereich koloniale Kontexte”, press release, German Lost Art Foundation, 10.06.2020. Online at https://www.kulturgutverluste.de/Content/02_Aktuelles/DE/Pressemit-teilungen/2020/2020-06-10_PM-Fo-erderentscheidung-erste-An-tragsrunde-Koloniale-Kontexte.pdf (29.09.2020).
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Photo: Atelier Bruckner/Michael Jungblut
Photo: Moritz Fehr, 2019
Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria. Latten brass
Photo: Atelier Bruckner, Michael Jungblut
Photo: Martin Clasen and Arno Jansen, Cologne
© Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Claudia Obrocki, 2019
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Dr. Lili Reyels
© Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
© Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
© Museum fur Völkerkunde Hamburg
© SHF / Foto: Stephan Falk
© Linden-Museum Stuttgart
© Linden-Museum Stuttgart. Photo: Dominik Drasdow
© Linden-Museum Stuttgart. Foto: Dominik Drasdow
© Shawn van Eeden
From the possessions of Hendrik Witbooi, captured by German invaders during the attack on Hornkranz in 1893
© Linden-Museum Stuttgart. Foto: Dominik Drasdow
© Museum fur Völkerkunde Hamburg
© MKB, Omar Lemke
© MKB, Omar Lemke
Photo: Andreas Wunschirs
© MKB, Omar Lemke
© MKB, Omar Lemke
© MKB, Omar Lemke