More than a question of origin

4 Jul 2022

In the grand interview from EINSICHTEN magazine, Antoinette Maget Dominicé, Uta Werlich, and Philipp Schorch talk about how anthropological museums can tell stories about the world in the future, against the backdrop of the restitution debate.

A good 5,000 objects, sculptures and plaques, mostly of bronze, are spread across the museums of Europe, with German collections and vaults alone accounting for around 1,000 of these. To the public eye, these Benin bronzes are a clear case of looted art: During a bloody “punitive expedition”, British colonial troops in 1897 plundered the royal palace of Benin City in present-day Nigeria. The items, dating back to the 16th century, thus found their way first to London and then, via international art dealers, to other European countries as well. Yet aside from the issue of how clear this particular case is, their unmistakable design idiom effectively makes these pieces symbolic of a protracted debate about looted art and restitution.

A ship on its travels

Experts preparing the magnificent sailboat from the island of Luf for its move to the Humboldt Forum in the center of Berlin. The Luf Boat could carry 50 people.

© SPK/ Koehler

This question has moved center-stage at the latest since the debate about Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. How can anthropological collections still exhibit treasures from all the different cultures today? And how do they come to terms with the fact that at least some of the artifacts ended up in European museums via devious routes, to put it mildly? How can these establishments – formerly known as museums of ethnology – face up to the reality that the history of their collections is often intricately intertwined with the colonialist era? And what should be done with those artifacts whose “acquisition” cannot be clarified unequivocally?

A museum director, a provenance researcher and a museum anthropologist recently debated the mission of anthropological collections and how other cultures can contribute to the way they are presented: How should museums talk about our world in the future?

Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig, Stuttgart: The list of museums is a long one. And all of them are announcing their intention to return Benin bronzes and other objects to their countries of origin.

Werlich: The Museum Fünf Kontinente (Five Continents Museum) is likewise prepared to return objects with a problematic acquisition context to the countries of origin. In the case of the Benin bronzes, it will be an important step to see how such a complicated process can be made to work.

What triggered this wave of announcements?

Werlich: It is quite clear that political forces are now driving this issue. The museums were not really dragging their feet. And the debate surrounding the Humboldt Forum once again made it clear to us as museum directors that we need to face up to our colonial past. Society has now given us a mandate to do so. The Benin bronzes are the touchstone that will show whether such restitution can work. This is an extremely complex case with a plethora of stakeholders and varying interests. It is hard enough merely to identify the stakeholders in Nigeria: Are we dealing with the national government, the state of Edo, the royal household? The topic is surfacing only now, although what is referred to as the Benin Dialogue has been in progress for about ten years. A whole host of museums are in talks with Nigerian representatives.

Maget Dominicé: The political situation in Nigeria was unsettled for a long time. Yes, there were repeated claims for the restitution of individual objects. Yet at the same time, it was unclear who should officially speak to whom. It took some time before politically stable dialogue became possible.

Benin bronzes

16th century Mask of Queen Idia in the Benin Exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© Andrea Mohin/ NYT/ Redux/ Laif

What makes the Benin bronzes a test case?

Werlich: It seems to be a fairly clear-cut case. Right now, experts are very strongly taking the view that objects whose nature and workmanship, whose iconography, whose quality attribute them to the royal court almost certainly came from the British punitive expedition in 1897. So, we have a well-documented context of injustice, which makes it clear that these objects have to go back. We will see what happens as a result. What will happen when the right of ownership has been transferred to the Nigerian state? Are there objects we can keep? On what terms will objects be returned? Who will finance the returns?

“Merely returning the objects will not undo the injustice that has been done”

What does restitution actually mean? Will the items be physically returned to the countries of origin in all cases?

Maget Dominicé: The term “restitution” is often brought into the discussion with its counterpart, “return”. Both terms refer to the act of returning an object that is classed as a cultural asset as defined by international treaties. Restitution can be made in many and varied ways: Ownership and possession of a cultural asset can be transferred back to the original owners. But objects can also stay where they are, in which case alternative ways of exchanging them must be found. That said, merely returning a cultural asset will not turn the clock back and undo the injustice that has been done.

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Door opener to a wider debate

Schorch: I don’t understand why the public debate is currently so focused on museums. After all, the legacy of colonial entanglements influences every area of life. Why do people think the issue of the Benin bronzes can be used to settle the matter, and that the whole topic can thus be dumped onto the collections? It is fascinating to observe what is happening in Germany in particular. I have spent most of the last 15 years working abroad and I am now back in Hawaii. A short time ago, human remains – the Hawaiians speak of iwi kupuna, the bones of the ancestors – were returned here after a ceremony. They came from collections in Berlin, Bremen, Göttingen and Jena. Even just a few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined anything like that happening.


Schorch: When I came to LMU as a postdoc in 2014, you could count the researchers working in this country on German colonial history on the fingers of one hand. To this day, our knowledge of this chapter is still very limited. In Germany, this kind of question is aired publicly only nowadays, in the wake of broad discussions in the Anglosphere back in the 1980s. We like to talk about the Benin bronzes because they are so emblematic. And we behave as if restitution by the museums could get the problem of an unresolved colonial history off our backs.

But couldn’t the discussion about museum inventories open the door to a much broader debate?

Schorch: Yes, that is a hope that I share. Göttingen-based historian Rebekka Habermas has just published a journal volume on “postcolonial recollection”. Her work adopts a much broader approach, seeing museums as only a single node in a postcolonial network. The Überseemuseum (Overseas Museum) in Bremen is a perfect example: Its history clearly shows how three factors – business, academia and anthropology – were woven together in a tightly meshed network. Revealing precisely this issue today, that is what we need to do.

Werlich: We could also ask why Germany is taking restitution to Nigeria as its starting point. Nigeria was never a German colony. On the other hand you have Cameroon, where, despite the existence of enormous sets of items in German collections, not a single initiative has yet been launched. In my opinion, you can see foreign policy interests at work here. We could also ask why the debate is beginning specifically with the anthropological collections. To promote cultural dialogue, we could also involve other areas such as German art in Africa. But you don’t hear a word about that. Why not exhibit Dürer in Cameroon?

Maget Dominicé: Different levels are part of cultural policy negotiations even today. The Deutschland 8 (Germany 8) exhibition, for instance, was presented in China in 2017 to commemorate the establishment of diplomatic relations 45 years earlier. Culture is again being used much more forcefully in realpolitik. And as I know from the French context, that is equally true of the restitution debate, where side issues include contracts for certain services and migration rulings.

“The Luf boat: That is a typically German debate”

Another symbol of the restitution debate is the Luf boat from Papua New Guinea, which was also requisitioned during a punitive expedition and is now one of the imposing showpieces at the Humboldt Forum. Well-known historian Götz Aly has detailed the history of the boat in a book. Why does the debate get inflamed by such isolated cases?

Schorch: If you know how headlines are produced, it is easy to make use of this tool. That is a typically German debate which I find rather intellectually limited. It narrows our confrontation with the colonial past down to material things, to the legal status of a boat. And we are led to believe that, once we have begun to clarify this issue, we will have resolved the problem of colonial entanglements and post-colonial or neo-colonial realities.

But isn’t it intrinsically provocative to open a Humboldt Forum at great expense and choose an object from a “difficult” context as one of its central showpieces?

Schorch: Obviously. If injustice has been done, then that must be clearly stated.

The museums could use exhibits to tell the story of German colonialism and, for example, the associated story of trade.

Maget Dominicé: In Bremerhaven, a project on the history of Norddeutscher Lloyd is indeed running right now. This was one of the biggest shipping lines in the German Empire. It was a big player in German colonialism, so to speak.

Werlich: Maybe we should ask ourselves whether museums of anthropology are the right places to tell these stories. As anthropologists, we are essentially interested in other questions, in the people behind the objects, in the cultural aspects that we can use objects to illustrate. That is why so few historians work among us. Perhaps Germany should consider setting up a documentation center on colonial history. And one more thing: Yes, we do have problematic groups of objects in our establishments. But placing collections under general suspicion, which happens at times, misses the point.

Benin relief from the Museum Fünf Kontinente

Bronze plaques from the Kingdom of Benin in what is today Nigeria often commemorate historical events or prominent individuals from the kingdom. Two dignitaries are depicted here.

© MFK/ Nicolai Kästner

Understanding how colonialism works

But why are the accusations falling on fertile soil at the present time?

Werlich: I cannot give you an answer to that question. Our society clearly seems to be in the throes of a major upheaval. Today, we are post-migrant. That alone might go some way to explaining the phenomenon.

Schorch: Again and again, I find that today’s generation of students is asking different questions.

Maget Dominicé: Museums today have many initiatives that you would never have seen there ten years ago. The Lenbachhaus in Munich, for example, is showing a new series: “Worte finden – Sensible Sprache in Provenienzforschung und im musealen Kontext (“Finding words – Sensitive language in provenance research and the museum context”). The Museum Fünf Kontinente is also involved in an advisory capacity.

Schorch: Knowledge creation has become far more mobile. For example, I see that LMU’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology has become much more international. It is investigating how collecting activities, missionary activities, economic interests and political expansion were intertwined, how they influenced each other in order to realize colonial ambitions. We break this down in all its complexity based on the example of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. We are trying to understand how colonialism works and how it still resonates to this day. For me, it is absolutely essential that we deal with colonial realities.

What part can collections play in this today?

Werlich: We can’t concentrate exclusively on questions of provenance. We museums must also service society’s interest in the cultural education we provide. At the Museum Fünf Kontinente, we are at least fortunate enough to be able to fill a provenance research position. We will take an in-depth look at the role the museum itself played in the colonial context, how its protagonists were involved.

How do things look for your museum?

Werlich: A substantial inventory from our early collections originates from a large-scale natural history expedition undertaken by Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius in 1820. These objects were collected with the aim of exploring the world, understanding and opening up unknown regions. [The expedition was] commissioned by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. And then we have collections of objects that were acquired as objets d’art in China and India under Ludwig I, as well as Philipp Franz von Siebold’s extensive Japan collection, both of which also tell the story of trade geography. So, we have widely differing points of access to the objects and to aspects of our inventories.

Buddhist hermit U Kanti sold the lacquered hat he is wearing on this historical photo to Museum Director Lucian Scherman in 1911 for one rupee. | © Scherman/ MFK

A Buddhist abbot’s lacquered hat

What about during the colonial age itself?

Werlich: There were also gifts from the Bavarian military, who were active in the German colonies. And here you have the question of the role played by the museum at this time: Was it merely a passive recipient, or did it also actively acquire these items? Up to now, we have been fairly uncritical about the history of our collections. We have not paid sufficient attention to problems surrounding the context of collections. What, for example, should we think of Lucian Scherman traveling with his wife through what is today Myanmar and receiving a valuable lacquered hat from a Buddhist abbot, which he paid for symbolically with one rupee?

Can provenance research help to refute the sweeping accusations that are nowadays leveled at everything?

Maget Dominicé: Yes and no. It naturally helps us reconstruct the chains of ownership. Yet at the same time, it needs a much wider approach to also explore the contexts and the history of the receipt of items. The anthropological collections have indeed been caught up in a storm while other institutions have been spared by the political debates. That said, there are not a few objects in other museums where we could also inquire about the context of acquisition.

What part did science play in these establishments?

Werlich: The museum’s first collections were built up in a scientific context. Of the early directors, however, one was a travel editor, another was a distinguished military officer returning from Cameroon. These were people who had little grasp of anthropological matters. Scherman was the first director to also hold a Chair of Asian Anthropology at the university. So here in Munich, the link between the university and the collection is tenuous at best.

Schorch: You cannot write the history of German institutions. In the past there were many individual states, today we have federalism. We had West Germany and the GDR. And by no means least, there have been a multitude of different colonial entanglements, each of which largely shaped the face of different collections. Zooming out a little further, museums of ethnology were the institutions in Germany that drove the development of cultural anthropology as an academic discipline. Berlin and Leipzig are two classic examples. In Great Britain, for example, the collections took shape much earlier, back in the days of Cook’s journeys. They thus followed the concept of the cabinet of curiosities, where even Renaissance regents were already collecting all kinds of oddities.

What impact did these differences have in the periods that followed?

Schorch: In Germany, this late boom gradually led to a marked dichotomy between academic and museological anthropology. That in turn goes hand in hand with a generally declining interest in material culture in the humanities and social sciences. This estrangement is much more pronounced in Germany than, say, in the USA. In what we call the West, I have never seen anything like the focus on books, on texts as primary historical sources, to the extent we see in Germany. And that is probably one of the reasons why we now feel out of our depth: This turning away from material culture and toward other empirical, methodological and theoretical approaches stands in contrast to the sheer abundance of things that have been gathered together in German museums. At the end of the 19th century, Berlin’s museums constituted the biggest collecting institutions in the world.

“Anthropological collections are exceptional knowledge repositories”

What can our dealings with artifacts look like in our vaults and exhibitions?

Schorch: Anthropological collections are exceptional knowledge repositories for the collaborative processing of history. We can use them to answer questions about future lifestyles, about the relationships between humans and the environment – important questions for the 21st century, in other words. For me, a collection enjoys the same status as a library. Maybe its three-dimensional nature and sensory quality opens up access to other worlds of perception than books do.

How can the museums regain their role as repositories of knowledge?

Schorch: A resurgent interest in material things is discernable in many disciplines. Together with members of what are often called ‘communities of origin’, we are working to get collections once again understood as material archives, to get the objects seen as an expression of creativity, cultural adaptation and innovation.

What new forms of participation and collaboration can be developed in the course of a restitution process?

Schorch: Restitution is not the end of a relationship: It is the beginning of a new chapter. We should place restitution in a much more complex context and approach it with a view to the future. A process of restitution embodies the process of working on a relationship, on postcolonial memory work. It shows that material things – be they human remains or religious artifacts – still bring people together and mobilize them. Emotional ties emerge with the potential for genuine intercultural dialogue. And the museums create the conditions for this dialogue. How much poorer we would be if these institutions of cultural diversity were no longer there!
Werlich: I would like to see museums so well-endowed that I would have the opportunity and resources to bring experts from the communities of origin over here and work together with them on the collections.

That is actually a self-evident observation. Why has so little apparently happened over the decades?

Werlich: No money, and in some cases no interest. Rather than involving a co-curator with the right expertise, the money was instead invested in marketing. It’s all a question of where the focus lies.
Schorch: For me, the crucial aspect of the current debate is that the collections are being taken seriously again. The University of Cambridge, for instance, already has a new Centre for Material Culture, with which we too are collaborating. At LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies, we have defined a research focus on “Materiality – Museology – Knowledge” by bringing archaeology, anthropology, art history and natural history together. As a general statement, museology at LMU carries much more weight than it did only ten years ago.

So the debate about the provenance of anthropological collections does have its positive side?

Werlich: Of course it does. I think that, without the discussion about the Humboldt Forum, we wouldn’t be at the point of questioning our collection so critically. We have placed the emphasis on transparency in recent years. We have put a lot of documents such as inventory books online. And we will also make the findings of our provenance research more visible. The polemic side of some criticism is not always nice, obviously, and sometimes it is over the top. But it sets things in motion.

Moderation: Hubert Filser und Martin Thurau

Prof. Dr. Dr. Antoinette Maget Dominicé is Junior Professor for Cultural Heritage and Provenance Research at LMU’s Institute of Art History. Born in 1980, Maget Dominicé studied art history, history, German philology and law at the Universities of Lausanne, Paris and Eichstätt. She earned her doctorate in law (public law) and art history. After periods at establishments such as the Institut national du patrimoine in Paris, she served as Senior Assistant for Legal Sociology and Legal Theory at the University of Lucerne’s Faculty of Law. Antoinette Maget Dominicé is part of the Colonial Contexts Funding Committee at the German Lost Art Foundation.

Prof. Dr. Philipp Schorch is Professor of Museum Anthropology at LMU. Born in 1978, Schorch received his doctorate in museum and heritage studies at Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Following stays at Deakin University, Australia, and the University of Göttingen, he conducted research at LMU under a Marie Curie Fellowship. Schorch then served as Head of Research at the anthropological museums in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut before returning to LMU. The European Research Council (ERC) awarded him one of its prestigious starting grants in 2018. Schorch is also Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Dr. Uta Werlich is Director of the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Five Continents Museum) in Munich. Born in 1970, she studied sinology, anthropology and general and comparative literature in Bonn, Berlin and Tainan, Taiwan. She holds a doctorate in sinology and anthropology. After serving as Research Assistant at the Museum der Ethnologie Hamburg (Museum of Anthropology in Hamburg) and as Curator for Central and East Asia at the Museum der Kulturen Basel (Museum of Cultures in Basel), her most recent position was as Head of the East Asia Department at the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart before she came to Munich in 2018.

Read more articles of the current issue and other selected stories in the online section of INSIGHTS. Magazine.

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