Provenance chaos Berlin failing on return of looted colonial objects

Despite its new policy to verify and give back stolen artifacts, the German government doesn’t actually know how many bones and treasures it owns or where many of them come from.
Heading home?

Ask a German museum curator if they have any skeletons in their closet and it’s highly likely they’ll say yes. In museums and private collections up and down the land, skulls and bones are packed away in dusty cellars. The remains are usually of African and Asian people who were killed under colonial rule. Their skeletons were then brought to Germany for "race research."

Germany had colonies in modern-day Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Rwanda, Togo and Tanzania, on the African continent. For years now, Namibia and Tanzania, among others, have been demanding the return of stolen bones. The latest government has promised to take care of this as part of a "coming to terms with colonialism" policy.

But, according to an official answer, the government gave to a recent Green Party inquiry, little has been done. Berlin does not have “quantifiable data” on how many human remains from the colonial period are in Germany. Nor does it have an overview of how much looted art from former colonies, such as the so-called “Benin Bronzes,” a series of West African statues, lies in federal collections.

It doesn’t know, for example, how many objects of dubious origin are among its 20,000 exhibits from all over the world. It doesn’t even know what is held at the famous Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which it co-funds to the tune of €483 million.

Arts from their elbows

Officially, the government wants to change this situation and expand "provenance research," or scientifically verify the origin of controversial cultural artifacts. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, in which the federal government is involved, is to receive six new workers for this purpose.

But Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, a Green Party lawmaker, thinks this is far too few. "If the government is really interested in comprehensive research into these objects and their origins, it must make a significant conceptual and financial contribution," she said. Ministers “lack creative will,” she added.

In reply, Berlin says it does not want to introduce mandatory labeling of colonial looted art, and has no plans for an initiative to rapidly return stolen works of art to their countries of origin, as is planned in France. It argues that parliament should be taking the initiative in this area and that most museums are in any case the responsibility of the states and municipalities.

Hiding behind procedures

They are one step ahead. Representatives of the Berlin and Hamburg state governments have already asked for forgiveness for German colonial crimes, and their provenance work is more advanced. In recent years "separate offices for provenance research have been set up for municipal collections and museums, research projects initiated and carried out, and funding provided for educational work," says Verena Göppert, deputy chief executive officer of the German Association of Cities and Towns.

For many critics though, the federal government should be taking responsibility. "It is hiding behind procedural questions, the subject is being pushed away," says Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of history at the University of Hamburg. He wants independent experts — not the museums themselves — to investigate the question of looted art.

Social Democrat lawmaker Karamba Diaby is also dissatisfied with the government's progress. "We need a genuine reparation policy that leads to a comprehensive return of cultural assets and bones from Africa," he said.

But his colleague Martin Rabanus, the Social Democrat parliamentary spokesman on cultural policy and therefore a government representative on the issue, defended its policy. "Even if we have to be open to the return of cultural assets, this is not the only answer," he said.

It looks like those skeletons may be gathering dust for some time to come.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]