France plans to return stolen cultural artefacts. What effect does this decision have on the Humboldt Forum? A discussion with Hartmut Dorgerloh and Lars-Christian Koch.
The French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr were commissioned by Emmanuel Macron to produce a report advising France to return all of the cultural artefacts stolen from its colonies. Does this position have an effect on Germany’s showcase project the Humboldt Forum where artworks with a colonial past are to be shown? Ijoma Manfold from DIE ZEIT spoke with general director Hartmut Dorgerloh and ethnologist Lars-Christian Koch, director of collections for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin at the Humboldt Forum.
DIE ZEIT: Did you think that the restitution report by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr would again stoke the controversy surrounding the Humboldt Forum?
Harmut Dorgerloh: It was clear that the report would influence expectations placed on the Humboldt Forum. To me, however, the fact that for some this has now become associated with the notion that the entire concept for the Humboldt Forum is untenable only goes to show that people are simply not yet familiar enough with the idea of the Humboldt Forum. Which is to create a place in the centre of Berlin for precisely these types of debates.
Lars-Christian Koch: The report sends out a strong signal in a discussion that we have been having for years and which has influenced the concept behind our exhibitions we are organizing together with the countries of origin. Furthermore, as a part of this cooperation, we are examining our collections because we are convinced that restitution can only really work if it is combined with good provenance research – even if some are of the opinion that this is just a stalling tactic. We have to know where and to whom we are returning the things.
ZEIT: What parts of the Savoy-Sarr report would you disagree with?
Koch: Savoy and Sarr are focused on the sub-Saharan region. We want to take it further.
ZEIT: Wanting to take things further in terms of geography is not an objection.
Koch: It certainly is. For example, our colleagues from Oceania have very different ideas and concepts. My colleagues from the Belau National Museum want to leave the audio recordings from Palau with us so that people here in Europe can experience their culture, too.
ZEIT: This is what’s known as “shared heritage”, and it often sounds like a smokescreen that is put up to avoid doing what actually has to be done when it comes to stolen cultural goods – which is to return them!
Koch: We have to do both! We’re not saying and have never said that we won’t return these objects. Where injustices have been committed, the items will be returned, as was the case this year with parts of our collection from Alaska. We will do the same for other parts of the collection. But we cannot simply dissolve entire museums. And this is not something our colleagues around the world expect of us.
ZEIT: How do you plan to proceed with the famous Benin Bronzes?
Koch: In line with the agreements established by the Benin Dialogue Group, in which we exchange ideas with other museums and with colleagues from Benin City. A museum is in planning there and we are also taking part in that project.
ZEIT: Participating in the form of loans?
Koch: Initially yes, but this is not a tactic for avoiding restitution.
ZEIT: The Benin Bronzes are an example of an artwork that the society of origin wants back.
Koch: We’re not that far yet officially, but this, too, is part of the dialogue.
Dorgerloh: In my opinion, the Benin Dialogue Group is exemplary, and it has also led to a first concrete result. This will also affect the presentation in the Humboldt Forum. As part of the exhibition of the bronzes, we will show video interviews with participants in the Benin Dialogue Group as well as representatives of the royal family, politicians and our colleagues.
ZEIT: Will there be Benin Bronzes in the Humboldt Forum in ten years time?
Dorgerloh: That’s a question I would like to put to our colleagues from Nigeria. Where do they think the Benin Bronzes should be displayed in the future? And how? This is what bothers me the most about the current debate: the fact that once again we here in Europe think we know best how to do it and what has to be done. First I’d like to find out what our colleagues in Tanzania or Namibia or Oceania have to say about this report. We recently had a visit from the president of an African country whose territory was also once part of a German colony. He thought it was regrettable that so little from his country would be on display in the Humboldt Forum and asked: “What can we do to have more of a presence in the Humboldt Forum?”
ZEIT: It makes a difference whether a country makes the sovereign decision to send an object to Germany for representative purposes or the object is in Germany because at some point in history it was stolen during a punitive expedition and sold off.
Dorgerloh: It’s precisely this difference that we’re talking about. First we have to identify it, then we can investigate it, and finally we can take action accordingly.
ZEIT: But very little action is happening!
Dorgerloh: Germany’s museums are still talking too little about the concrete action they are taking. I’ve been at the Humboldt Forum for five months, and every week I learn more about how many cooperative projects are underway throughout the world with the societies of origin or how many sealed agreements have already been made on future restitutions. Very little about this is known by the general public in Germany.
ZEIT: The original idea behind the Humboldt Forum was to set an example of cosmopolitanism and against nationalism in the centre of the republic. This idea has now been turned on its head: what was originally intended to show Germany’s openness to the world now stands as a memorial to Germany’s colonial past.
Dorgerloh: I disagree wholeheartedly. Today the Humboldt Forum is even more important than when it was first conceived twenty years ago. Back then it was easy to say: “What does this have to do with us?” But today if we are finally talking about how we shape our relationships to people, countries, religions and cultures in Asia, Africa or the Americas, then we are also doing so thanks to the Humboldt Forum. And we want to, and indeed will, continue to shape this discussion. By the way, this discussion is not limited to the era of colonial empires. The Humboldt Forum’s focus on exploitation, inequality, repression and discrimination will go much further than that both geographically and historically, and it will certainly extend into the present. It will cover topics ranging from slavery in ancient Greece all the way to working conditions in the textile industry in Southeast Asia today.
ZEIT: Horst Bredekamp, a member of the Forum’s Steering Committee, recently dismissed the Savoy-Sarr report by stating the Germany had never been a colonial power.
Koch: We do not have to agree with that statement, and we certainly don’t. Germany was a colonial power.
ZEIT: Until now re-evaluating the past in Germany, was always associated with National Socialism, but this is changing. Now colonialism is also part of this process.
Dorgerloh: National Socialism was the central focus of past decades. That was the right decision, even if it meant that Germany’s other crimes, such as the genocide against the Herero and Nama in former German South West Africa, now Namibia, were overshadowed. But if Germany is now expected to take on more responsibilities in world politics, then the country also has to address its historic role in the world as a whole. The problem is that the further back in history you go, the more difficult it becomes to work with today’s categories of guilt and responsibility. My grasp of things is different for the history of National Socialism where I’m dealing with individual victims and perpetrators, than it is of the Spanish colonization of America. This is why the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which addresses the return of artworks to the victims of National Socialism and their descendants, cannot simply be applied to objects from the colonial context. But in many ways it can serve as a role model for future international arrangements.
ZEIT: The “No Humboldt 21!” initiative has been saying for years that these things can’t be put on display because they are all stolen. It seems as if they have achieved most of their political historical aims.
Koch: Not every issue of provenance is problematic, particularly since collecting continued after the colonial era. And gift-giving existed under colonialism. Here I’m thinking of the important collection of Sourindo Mohan Tagore, who provided all of Europe’s museums with material in order to show that India’s music culture was on par with Europe’s. This inspired a lot of academic research in the West. Of course this is all about power structures, for knowledge is always power, and the objects are always related in some way to knowledge, documentation and often information that is no longer available in the place of origin. What’s important now is to share this with others for everyone’s benefit.
ZEIT: Give us a percentage: how much of the collection is “safe”?
Dorgerloh: What do you mean by “safe”? Safe from today’s point of view or from a historical perspective? Is something “safe” today just because it can be substantiated with legal documentation? “Safe” is just too imprecise of a term for us to work with when it comes to restitution.
Koch: Many of the objects have undergone a process of transformation within the museum context. For example, the Benin Bronzes are now considered works of art, although in the past they were closely connected to courtly life of the Oba in Benin.
ZEIT: Whenever someone broaches the topic of restitution, you answer by going into the complexities of the history of a specific object.
Dorgerloh: And we also state that restitution must and will take place. A one-size-fits-all restitution is not the answer to the complex histories of cultures, societies and states that are reflected in Western collections of non-European cultural artefacts.
The interview was conducted by Ijoma Mangold and published in the weekly DIE ZEIT on December 12, 2018.
Read the interview in DIE ZEIT ► (in German)