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Essay / Crossroads

Confronting the Colonial Legacies of Museum Collections

The Humboldt Forum, a new exhibition venue in Berlin, has raised questions about museum restitution and the importance of researching objects' provenance.
The photograph features many people in a sunny, open plaza with buildings towering above on three sides.

Berlin’s Humboldt Forum opened its doors to the public for a special event in 2019, even as construction on the building continued.

David von Becker/SHF

Art historian Bénédicte Savoy didn’t mince her words. “The Humboldt Forum,” she told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2017, “is like Chernobyl,” referencing the city turned nuclear disaster site.

The €644 million Humboldt Forum, an exhibition and event venue dedicated to cultural issues, is a major prestige project for Berlin. When the forum opens later this year, it will showcase items from many of the city’s niche museums, most particularly its Ethnology Museum, which features artifacts from cultures around the world.

But the forum has been beset by difficulties from its inception. Critics have taken issue with the space itself, the collections it could present, and how various objects might be displayed.

At the heart of these critiques is the concern that forum organizers had failed to reckon with the “provenance” of collections—the ways in which many items came to museums over the centuries through colonial oppression. As historian Jürgen Zimmerer from the University of Hamburg puts it, the forum’s original approach perpetuated a “colonial amnesia.”

Egypt has demanded the return of this bust of Nefertiti, currently housed in Berlin’s New Museum.

Rüdiger Stehn/Wikimedia Commons

Savoy had been a member of the board of international experts advising on the development of the forum but resigned in rage over what she saw as a failure to prioritize provenance research. She told the newspaper that the directors were more interested in displaying items for their crowd-pleasing characteristics than sharing their histories. The forum plans, she argued, effectively left the collections’ origin stories hidden “under a lead roof like nuclear waste.”

Germany’s museums are hardly alone in facing such scrutiny. In recent years, pressure has built for curators to confront how their collections may be legacies of colonial or racist practices. The protests leveled at the Humboldt Forum fed into ongoing global debates about how to handle collections of ethnographic objects that were acquired illegally or unethically.

Some discussions, for example around Native American cultural heritage, have led to extensive restitution, or sending remains and artifacts to the communities from whence they came. Others have stalled. Germany, some experts say, was simply very late to the conversation.

Nevertheless, the critiques launched by Savoy and others ultimately sparked a shift in forum planning. The story of how things went astray and how organizers righted their course offers a window into the larger call for change at many museums and the strategies that could help these institutions address past wrongs.

The fate of hundreds of metal artworks from West Africa, known collectively as the Benin bronzes, illustrates the ethical quagmire that confronts museums around the world. In 1897, British forces looted the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria. In the process, they stole the exquisite plaques and sculptures, some dating back to the 13th century.

These bronzes ended up in over a dozen different museums in Europe and North America. The Ethnological Museum in Berlin acquired the second-largest collection of Benin bronzes after the British Museum.

In 2018, Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki, the governor of Nigeria’s Edo state, which encompasses Benin City, told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung why Nigeria was demanding their return: “These works of art embody what we are: our people, our culture, our religion, also part of our political structure. They are symbols of our identity.”

These bronzes are just one example of the illegal or unethically acquired artifacts from colonies of other empires that landed in Germany’s collections through sales, swaps, or gifts. Germany’s museums profited directly from its own colonies as well.

Germany’s colonial history was short, beginning in the mid-1880s and ending with the First World War, during which all German territories were seized by the Allies. Still, Germany had managed to build one of Europe’s largest colonial empires at that time, mostly in Africa. German collectors brought back innumerable artifacts—and human remains—from the colonies, selling or donating many of them to museums.

Multiple nations are discussing the possible return of Benin bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures taken from the West African Kingdom of Benin in the 19th century.

Multiple nations are discussing the possible return of Benin bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures taken from the West African Kingdom of Benin in the 19th century.

Joyofmuseums/Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, activists the world over have lobbied for museums to acknowledge colonial history and rectify some of that era’s wrongs. In 2018 and 2019, for example, protestors led “Stolen Goods” tours of the British Museum in an effort to raise awareness of objects that had been acquired during the colonial period.

In Germany, discussion about what to do with significant cultural artifacts has been relatively slow to gain traction, though politicians, sensitive to the country’s history of genocide and human-rights abuses during the Nazi era, were quick to see to the restitution of many human remains to their home countries.

Uta Werlich, a director of the Museum of Five Continents in Munich whose background is in the anthropological study of Chinese language and culture, says that Germany had been late off the mark “because the trauma of the country’s Nazi past has dominated so much of the public debate.” That pushed aside the issue of colonial times, she says.

In 2017, Savoy’s comments to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper about the Humboldt Forum elevated the issue of colonial legacies in museum collections to public attention. And the news story only added to festering discontent circling the forum.

Berlin was, for some 30 years, a city divided, split by the border of West Germany and East Germany. When Germany reunified in 1990, the people of Berlin came together. In the years to come, however, many East Germans would resent the subsequent “Westernization” of their culture and the Humboldt Forum became one more point of contention.

Planners placed the forum on the former home of an East German landmark, the Palast der Republik, a giant box-like construct in the city’s historic center. Many East Berliners were deeply offended by their city’s decision to tear down the building they considered part of their heritage.

Other critics took offense at Berlin’s decision to base the Humboldt Forum design on the Baroque palace that predated the socialist building. “The Berlin Palace was the home of the last German emperor, in whose name atrocities were committed in the colonies,” says Zimmerer, one of Germany’s leading colonialism researchers and a vociferous critic of the Humboldt Forum.

“When Savoy made her provocative statements, they fell on fertile ground,” says museum director Uta Werlich.

The final design is not entirely Baroque, however. The riverside wall of the palace has been left unadorned, as a symbol of the forum’s desire to be a bridge between past and present.

Savoy’s outburst created a whole new level of outrage. She complained that the forum’s initial plans did not include any effort to research how objects had come to be in museums. The forum has noted that the museums exhibiting in the new space have their own provenance research programs, but Savoy’s comments still left many critics questioning the forum’s priorities. Provenance research, most scholars argue, is the first step in rectifying past wrongs.

Wrath fell on the Humboldt Forum’s founding directors. The ensuing debate may have been ferocious, Werlich says, but “that was good, because it escalated things to the political level.”

And because public dialogue around museums and colonialism was changing, Werlich says, “when Savoy made her provocative statements, they fell on fertile ground.”

Temperatures began to cool somewhat in spring 2018, when the founding directors stepped down and Hartmut Dorgerloh was appointed as the Humboldt Forum’s first director general. Dorgerloh, who had studied art history and conservation at Humboldt University, then in East Berlin, defused some of the tensions.

Under his watch, the Humboldt Forum has committed to exhibiting the process of provenance research about objects on display. In other words, when people see an exhibition at the forum, they will also learn about the histories of various artifacts, what is known and unknown, and how they came to be in a particular museum.

“This will be done in a manner that displays the power relations between the colonists who brought the objects to Germany and the colonized,” says Dorgerloh.

In addition, multiple German institutions are prioritizing provenance research that can help museums exhibiting at the forum. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, for example, has now provided additional funds for new positions for provenance researchers, and the German Research Foundation supports a digitization program.

museum restitution - Hartmut Dorgerloh (center), the director general of the Humboldt Forum, has taken steps to ensure that the forum will include discussions of provenance for any collections it displays.

Hartmut Dorgerloh (center), the director general of the Humboldt Forum, has taken steps to ensure that the forum will include discussions of provenance for any collections it displays.

David von Becker/SHF

German politicians are also on board. In March last year, the culture ministers of Germany’s 16 states agreed to guidelines for the sensitive handling of cultural objects and, in some cases, for returning them to their home governments or communities. That same year, the federal government allocated €1.9 million for provenance research.

Once provenance is established, what should be done with the information? Consider the Benin bronzes. The Humboldt Forum plans to depict the history of their looting and the process of researching the objects’ provenance in their exhibition of these items.

In addition, the Benin Dialogue Group, set up a decade ago, includes museum directors and political representatives from several countries (Germany and Nigeria among them) who are discussing the possible repatriation of the bronzes, or sending them back to their original home. Zimmerer argues, “The museums should immediately restitute all of the bronzes and then pay fees to Nigeria to loan them back.”

In practice, decisions about the restitution of particular items are not simply in the hands of a single museum or institution but are made at the highest political levels. Anthropologist Lars-Christian Koch, director of the Ethnology Museum of Berlin, housing the Benin bronzes, says that permanent restitution of the bronzes would require bilateral government negotiations.

With the support of the Benin Dialogue Group’s European members, Nigeria is planning a museum in Benin City to exhibit the bronzes. While restitution discussions continue, the current concept is for European museums to coordinate loans of bronzes from their collections to the new museum.

Ethnologists and activists often disagree on repatriation. Skeptics argue that objects returned to their home nation or community could land in museums that are not equipped to take care of them. However, the planned Benin museum will meet the highest international standards—and some activists point out that German museums have often failed to adequately care for their collections.

The Humboldt Forum’s design includes a blank exterior wall that images can be projected upon for special events.

The Humboldt Forum’s design includes a blank exterior wall that images can be projected upon for special events.

David von Becker/SHF

That’s a sore point. A media exposé this past summer revealed collections being squirreled away in poor storage conditions in many of Germany’s ethnology museums. (Though it should be noted that some of these claims were exaggerated, says Koch, who also directs the Asian Art Museum of Berlin.)

Some critics are concerned that overzealous restitution would gut ethnological collections important to research. Others say that’s a straw man argument. George Abungu, the former director of Kenya’s national museums who has overseen the restitution of objects back to Kenya, says that no one should fear a clean-out of museums. “Only those objects that have spiritual or cultural value for people should be returned—and that is actually very few,” he says.

Abungu has observed the arc of the fighting with close attention. A member of the Humboldt Forum’s international team of experts since its inauguration in 2015, he says that the people who first raised the provenance critiques were correct—and he applauds the response from the forum directors as well. Important for the Humboldt Forum, he says, is that objects on display should always be accompanied by correct information about their original ownership and about how they were collected—as the forum has agreed.

The criticisms [of the Humboldt Forum] were harsh, but they were appropriate and they made a difference,” says art historian Natalia Majluf, a former director of the Lima Art Museum in Peru and a member of the Humboldt Foundation’s international advisory board of experts. “Things have changed to get provenance research underway and to digitize the collections, even if the pace is not what we would have all wanted.”

Abungu agrees. “There is a lot of talk in lots of countries, with little action—but Germany has been looking at the issues very critically and addressing things in a very proactive way, and that’s a big difference,” he says.

Visitors to the forum in 2019 attend a celebration of the legacy of Alexander von Humboldt’s voyages to South America.

David von Becker/SHF

Indeed, 2019 saw a groundswell of different activities, as the community of ethnologists in Germany gained confidence and politicians came on board. And the German Federal Foreign Office set aside €8 million to launch, in association with the Goethe Institute, an Agency for International Museum Cooperation. The agency will support international exhibitions by German and African museums, and the training of African curators and restorers, a move that could help redress some of the imbalances that plague efforts to right the wrongs of colonial history.

And I saw no trace of tensions at the Humboldt Forum’s first major public event in mid-September. The forum takes its name from the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, two giants of the German Enlightenment who did much to shape science and education in their country and the world beyond. Unlike colonial history, the Humboldt brothers’ story speaks to a happier legacy of Germany’s relationship with the larger world.

On the occasion that I visited, the forum, still under construction, was partially open to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth. Thousands of visitors filed past cranes and scaffolding, some curious to view the architecture, others to enjoy the exhibitions, lectures, performances, and Latin American dancing. Most visitors came to learn about Alexander von Humboldt’s extraordinary explorations in South America, from 1799 to 1804. These voyages led Humboldt to his major theory of the connectedness of nature, elaborated on in his massive tome Kosmos.

The Humboldt Forum is reluctant to give specifics on when and what the first exhibitions will be. Around 20,000 objects will be transferred to the Humboldt Forum over the next year or so, and a few have already arrived, most notably a 19th-century, 16-meter outrigger canoe from an island in Papua New Guinea.

In the latest schedule, the forum aims to open this fall, around the 30th anniversary of German reunification. That’s a notable historical symbol—one that Alexander von Humboldt, who understood that all things in the cosmos were connected, would have relished.

Alison Abbott is a science journalist based in Munich, Germany. She contributes regularly to Nature. Follow her on Twitter @Alison_C_Abbott.


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