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Germany: A Thorny Matter Continues

Published on , by La Gazette Drouot

In mid-March, a national get-together in Berlin is being held to debate the question of collections originating from the colonies. Germany had taken the initiative in this approach, now revived by the controversy in France.

Concert in the courtyard of the building shortly to house the Humboldt Forum: a reconstruction... Germany: A Thorny Matter Continues
Concert in the courtyard of the building shortly to house the Humboldt Forum: a reconstruction of the former royal Berlin palace.

Reactivated in France by the report commissioned from Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, the restitution debate in Germany has rapidly spread beyond the context of African works to pieces from the colonies. The country's museums contain some two million works, a quarter of them in Berlin's collections. Long confined to restricted circles, the discussion on the appropriate treatment of this now embarrassing heritage is omnipresent in the media. It is particularly relevant to preparations for the opening of the Humboldt Forum, designed to exhibit ethnographic Prussian collections starting in the autumn of 2019. Named after two learned brothers from the Age of the Enlightenment, this multidisciplinary centre is housed in the extraordinary setting of a reinforced concrete main building taking on the size and appearance of Prussia's royal Berlin Palace, damaged in 1945 then dynamited by the East German Communist party.  

In Germany, the report submitted to French President Emmanuel Macron was seen as divisive for both its content and the tone in which its authors delivered their message. On 13 December, Die Zeit published an appeal from academics, with eighty of them calling for a law making it mandatory to return all objects acquired in the context of colonial violence. However, the appeal proposed going still further, with a policy involving in-depth investigations and accompanying measures. After Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr organised an explanatory tour in the country, on 22 January the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) summed up its views in a more disparaging article, referring to two speakers "who believe in their mission". The article criticised them for their moralising attitude towards Europe and their condescension towards Africans, reduced to the status of victims and seemingly prevented from playing a role in their own history. Paradoxically, the report's obsession with restitution revives the colonial myth whereby, in their minds, the object takes precedence over the idea. The intensity of this debate is due to the presence of Bénédicte Savoy, a major figure in German cultural life – whereas Felwine Sarr is barely audible. A fluent German-speaker, Savoy has held a chair in Art History at the Berlin Technische Universität since 2009. The intellectual rigour of her previous work earned her unequivocal academic acclaim, but since then, she has attracted considerable enmity through an attitude considered intransigent and militant.

The Humboldt Forum Foyer.
The Humboldt Forum Foyer.© SHF / Franco Stella with FS HUF PG

The French should not have been surprised at the tone of her report: in 2017, she had slammed out of the Humboldt Forum prefiguration mission, accusing it of sacrificing the search for provenance. "It's Chernobyl!" she fulminated at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, stigmatising the "totally ossified" approach adopted by collections. Some criticised this spectacular   exit, when she had only attended one meeting. The former Chairman of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, also called in as a consultant for the fledgling museum, observed that it was "not designed as a research institute", nor equipped to carry out investigations, but "to present the results to the public". In turn, the head of the Prussian collections, Hermann Parzinger, pleaded the "lack of means" of an institution whose set-up has been made extremely complicated by the sharing of every decision between its supervisory body and the federal government. He has assumed a decisive role, because in this sphere, the government carries little weight with regard to the Länder and municipalities, and only has influence on four out of the country's forty-five ethnographic museums. The main collections are concentrated in Berlin, in the group of works managed by Dresden and Leipzig, in Hamburg, in Munich and in Bremen, but other smaller museums are found in localities most Germans would find hard to place on a map, like Werl or Unna. Even though he became a target for Bénédicte Savoy, who accused him of "colonial amnesia" in her report, Hermann Parzinger has actually encouraged a considerably open attitude towards both Africa and the rest of the world. In calling for a dialogue between equals in a spirit of "shared heritage", he has proposed cooperative ventures at every level with indigenous populations, curators, academics and specialists. For instance, in 2014, in a televised interview, he promised to meticulously sift through the 500,000 objects in his collections (including 75,000 from Africa), undertaking "not to exhibit any without having investigated their origins" while providing information on the context.

Micronesia, Figure of a deity, before 1877, exhibited at the Humboldt Forum Highlights.
Micronesia, Figure of a deity, before 1877, exhibited at the Humboldt Forum Highlights.© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnological Museum/Humboldt Forum foundation in the Berlin Palace, digital reproduction: Jester Blank GbR

Struggle for Influence
The federal Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, has attempted to take back the initiative. In an article published in mid-December by the FAZ, she exhorted museums to take an in-depth look at the history of collections "resulting from a colonial context", announcing that she would include them in the work carried out by the DZK (institute for research on provenances), hitherto dedicated to Nazi plunder. She plans to bring together the Ministers of Culture from the Länder to discuss the matter on 15 and 16 March in Berlin. In July last year, she presented a "code of conduct" for ethnographic collections, written over two years by the national association of nine hundred museums. While this book of a hundred or so pages examined the possibility of restitution, it never envisaged making it mandatory. No sooner was it published than it underwent a revision in cooperation with twelve representatives from the countries of origin, and this should result in a new version in the coming months.

Germany thus seems to be aiming for flexible solutions involving multiple cooperation projects. Its position seems easier than France's. In contrast with the omnipresent memory of the Second World War and the Shoah, Germany's role in the colonial era is only very superficially acknowledged by the collective awareness of a country that abandoned its imperial ambitions a century ago. 2018 was a political turning point. In March, the necessity of assuming responsibility for this period was included in the coalition agreement serving as a working basis for the government. The Bade-Wurtemberg Länder had already raised the possibility of returning objects in the Stuttgart Museum to Namibia. Wiebke Ahrndt, the director of Bremen's Overseas Museum, called for a continuation of this "open dialogue". But though she cited three examples, she made no mention of any actual restitution. Will Germany be able to come to an agreement on a shared response, or will it leave without one? On 23 January, Hermann Parzinger pleaded for joint progress with France, while awaiting April's international conference in Paris.   

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