December 17, 2018

Scholars Urge Germany to Create a National Institute Addressing Colonial-Era Objects

BERLIN, GERMANY—Over eighty scholars working in art history, ethnology, and history called on the German government to found an institute in Berlin that would develop policy, research, and initiatives to address the nation’s colonial history and the inclusion of colonial-era objects in public collections, reports the Art Newspaper.

The appeal, published in Die Zeit and led by five German scholars, also urges the government to lend long-term support to initiatives such as Cologne Postkolonial and Berlin Postkolonial, which address local histories of colonialism.

“This debate should not be limited to demands for restitution or reparations,” it reads. “We should seize the opportunity the discussion over these objects offers to rescue from oblivion a centuries-old common history, one that is in many ways brutal and violent, and to take responsibility for this entangled history in the present and future. . . . It presents a unique opportunity to redefine and create a sustainable basis for relationships with countries and societies in Africa, Oceania, Asia, Australia and the Americas, founded on a new view of common colonial history.” Scholars from the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and Togo also signed the letter.

Their appeal comes in the wake of a groundbreaking 108-page report, published in November by the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, that recommends the permanent restitution of African art and artifacts acquired by France through “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery, and forced consent.” Commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, the report has spurred France to return spoils of war and colonial theft and violence to African nations. The country agreed to restitute twenty-six sculptures to Benin last month, and many have wondered whether other countries will follow suit.

Savoy also served on the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum, the new museum and events space opening in Berlin, before resigning in protest of the museum’s lack of provenance research last year. The Cologne-based historian Ulrike Lindner, one of the initiators of the appeal, said the Humboldt Forum would not be the right place for the institute, as it “has already sparked a lot of criticism and we need a freer debate,” she said in an interview on the German radio station Deutschlandfunk.

The controversy prompted Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation president Herman Parzinger to call for international guidelines—similar to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art—to aid museums in researching and restituting objects. In May, German culture minister Monika Grütters pledged to secure funding for museums to investigate the provenance of the colonial-era artifacts in their collections.

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