Reversal of the gaze Epistemic violence, epistemic reconciliation, response-able knowledge production

8. January 2019

by Souad Zeineddine

The reversal of the gaze – whether in anthropology or in art history –, is neither a banal nor a simple undertaking. Both the ability to reverse the gaze and the practiced reversal of the gaze are necessary conditions for the critical inquiry of the interrelatedness of contemporary power relations and the production of knowledge. Reversing the gaze is not just a productive mode of knowledge production but goes hand in hand with taking on the ‘response-ability’[1] (Haraway and Kenney 2015: 256-257) for past-present-future knowledge production, circulation, mediation and accessibility of knowledge in its various forms.

„Der/Die Europäer/in wird selbst zum Objekt des Blickes und Gegenstand der Darstellung. […]. Die Verfremdung des Eigenen, die uns in diesen Skulpturen begegnet, ist manchmal komisch, manchmal verstörend.“
(Brus 2017: 123)

Unsicher blickte ich mich um, […] mehr Objekt der Beobachtung als Beobachter.“
(Zillinger 2013: 17)

These quotes, whether implicitly or explicitly, state that the production and mediation of knowledge give rise to similar emotions as those brought out by the debate on restitution that is currently fore fronted in the global arena. Taking into account the multiple vulnerabilities and including the manifold emotions that are explicitly sometimes implicitly articulated and negotiated in the debate, I would like to make a transgenerational and interdisciplinary contribution to the restitution debate. This might be an overambitious and possibly daring attempt, but let us see where it takes us…

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The ‘Restitution Report’ First Reactions in Academia, Museums, and Politics

18. December 2018

by Margareta von Oswald

This review gives an overview of the first reactions to the so-called ‘restitution report’ handed in to French president Emmanuel Macron on Nov 23, 2018 by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy[1]. The debate and reactions in politics, museums, academia, but also from the art market have been polarized and emotionally charged. Starting with first reactions in France, the review then gives an overview of the official responses by museums and politics in different European and African national contexts. After that, it attempts to resume how the report has been debated, challenged, and commented, notably in academia. Due to the quantity and speed of publications and reactions in circulation, this review can only present a selection of arguments and articles.

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Whoever’s Right Remarks on the Debate about Provenance and Return from the Perspective of Social and Cultural Anthropology

6. December 2018

by Larissa Förster

Translation: Mitch Cohen


In the debate about colonial provenances and the restitution of objects from German museums to formerly colonized countries there is always an elephant in the room. The elephant is the law – when we are dealing with a “context of injustice”, the question whether this is or should be justiciable, and when a museum item must therefore be returned. Many complain about the lack of legal instruments to place returns on a juristically solid basis. For this reason, some engage in legal dodges, others let political bodies decide, and yet others plead for a “Washington Declaration” for the colonial era or want to change customary legal practice with “Third World Approaches to International Law”. Much is thus written about colonial legal orders, about the development of international law, hard law, and soft law, about German public and private law, earlier and today.[1]

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Everything Must Go: Looting the Museum as Compensation for Looting the World Raubkunstforschung als angewandte Wissenschaft

28. November 2018

by Erhard Schüttpelz

Preliminary Remarks on: Felwine Sarr/Bénédicte Savoy, „The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics“ (November 2018).

Marx was right, but we can delve deeper into his famous dictum from „The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“. History does not repeat itself by alternating from tragedy to farce. Farce is the covering of tragedy, i.e., its being and its mask. The development of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is a tragedy that hasn’t only now taken on the form of farce, but that was prepared by many little tragicomic travesties, and will be accompanied by several more. But even this capital tragicomedy pales in comparison with the art historical Chernobyl Accident of the decade, the „Report“ written by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy for Mr. Macron. In the following lines, I try to devote myself to the tragedies involved in this „report“ to make the travesty more recognizable. There are many people in the fields of museum curating, anthropology and post-colonial exhibitions that could write a better commentary than I am able to assemble in the first rush of anger and perplexion. The only reason I have started writing this text is, that I have witnessed the ambivalence of others like myself. After all, is this not a historical landmark (or landslide) report? Are our sympathies not with all those who were robbed, humiliated and disinherited under colonial rule? And indeed, from what I can tell, museum people are behaving cautiously and act like diplomats, after all, they are depending on political decisions too; anthropologists do sympathize with the radicalism and the „payback“ promised after centuries of power abuse, and they think of the possibilities of the dispossessed being compensated for material and immaterial losses; nobody wants to be called a colonialist; and some older anthropologists have admitted defeat in the face of a new epoch that flies in the face of everything they stood for and the scholarly authority they could take for granted. And I feel like that too, sympathizing with the radicalism and the „payback“ offered after centuries and in the presence of power abuse. But that should be no reason to accept a proposal that is full of inconsistencies and injustice, uninformed and actively distorting history.

Please compare Nicolas Thomas’ passages in:



  1. This report is not about looted art, it is about looting museums in the name of historical justice. That is, in the name of a concept of historical justice.
  2. The museology in this report is pseudo-museology. The history written in the report is pseudo-history.
  3. The legal principles of this report are against traditional principles of law. And they don’t try to acknowledge the legal conceptions of source communities either.
  4. The report is not about the restitution of property, but about getting rid of inalienable property, and especially about getting rid of the concept of inalienability.
  5. Making inalienable property into profane property means making it commercial property: the report creates a new art market (and a potentially violent art market too).
  6. If you give up the custody of scientific scholarship for political reasons, the artefacts will be political artefacts, and they will be disinherited many more times.
  7. If you give up the heritage of anthropological museums, you are not turning artefacts into art: you are preparing for historical amnesia, and for anthropological amnesia.
  8. If you put this report into practice, tragedy will be performed as travesty, and travesties will be parts of tragedies.



A Human Skull for Sale: Is this possible?

20. November 2018

by Sarah Fründt and Oliver Lueb

On Oct. 18, 2018, under a title that translates as “Someone who buys something like this must be a bit crazy”, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published an interview with the business manager of the auction house Lempertz, Prof. Henrik Hanstein. The talk, conducted by Jörg Häntzschel, addressed an auction held on Oct. 24 in Lempertz’s Brussels branch, at which human remains (a shrunken head from the Jívaro, who live in the Amazon Basin near the border between Ecuador and Peru, and several ancestors’ skulls from Oceania) along with objects of clear colonial provenance were sold. Lempertz’s homepage showed the catalog and openly depicted all the items up for auction. Particularly considering the discussion of the colonial legacy conducted on almost all levels in recent years, not only the auction house’s plans, but also many of the statements made in the interview led to consternation in specialist circles as well as among a broader public.

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Empirical notes on the exhibition “L’Un et l’Autre” (One and the Other) Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2018

6. November 2018

by Anna Seiderer

“It is so much easier if you are an art museum!”[1]

In the framework of the conference Exchanging perspectives: anthropologies, museum collections and colonial legacies between Paris and Berlin[2], I was asked to give an overview on the institutional changes of Parisian art museums with regard to colonial history.

Indeed, I could have mentioned several shows that have been presented during the last months in the city such as the current exhibitions by Bouchra Khalili or Daphnée Le Sergent at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, the Belgian artist Vincent Meessen or the South African artist David Goldblatt at the Centre Pompidou, Mohammed Bourouissa at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Black Dolls at la Maison Rouge, Julien Creuzet at Béton Salon and the project Practising colonial images – Propaganda films and private archives at the pluri-disciplinary art space Khiasma. All these projects are differently connected with colonial history. It would thus be worth to look at each of them systematically and precisely in order to observe the various ways in which art institutions in Paris today are confronted by (and confront themselves) the colonial pasts and its current resonances.

moreEmpirical notes on the exhibition “L’Un et l’Autre” (One and the Other) Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2018

[Announcement] Achille Mbembe on “The Capacity for Truth: Of ‘Restitution’ in African Systems of Thought”

2. November 2018

A.W. Amo Lecture
14th November 2018, 18h15, Melanchthonianum XX, MLU, Universitätsplatz 8/9, Halle

Achille Mbembe
WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg


The Capacity for Truth: Of ‘Restitution’ in African Systems of Thought

The lecture will explore some of the meanings attached to the concept and practice of restitution in precolonial African systems of thought. It will dwell in particular on those traditions that considered the most damaging wrongs as those causing harm to one’s ‘vital force’. We will elicit the juridical underpinnings of the right to restitution and revisit the relation between ‘persons’ and ‘objects’ it presupposed.

Achille Mbembe is currently Research Professor at WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He obtained his Ph.D. in history at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France, in 1989. He subsequently obtained a D.E.A. in political science at the Instituts d’études politiques also in Paris. He has held appointments at Columbia University in New York, Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Duke University and at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. Today, Achille Mbembe figures as the most renown philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual of the African continent and won several outstanding prizes, also in Germany. His most important works are: Les jeunes et l’ordre politique en Afrique noire (1985) ; La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1920-1960); Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (1996); De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (2000); Sortir de la grande nuit : Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (2003); Critique de la raison nègre (2013); Politique de l’inimitié (2016). Most of his books have been translated into English and German.

Download Announcement here.

[translation underway]

30. October 2018

The contribution “Das Kulturerbe Benins auf dem Prüfstand der Zeit” by Claudia Jürgens & Barpougouni Mardjoua is currently being translated. Please check back in a few days.

Call for reviews of the “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts” issued by the German Museums Association in May 2018

23. October 2018

by Larissa Förster

The colonial legacies of German museums have been discussed intensely over the past few years – also in this blog.

In September 2016 the German Museums Association established a working group that is looking into the issue of “collections from colonial contexts” and developing guidelines for the care of such collections.

In May 2018 the working group published a first draft of the guidelines.

See for the German version:

See for the English version:

In a multi-step process the draft will be discussed with experts and stakeholders and revised accordingly. As a first step, an internal workshop will be held with experts from the countries where collections originated (Hamburg, October 29-30, 2018). A second and revised version of the guidelines will be published in spring 2019.

Since its release, the draft guidelines can also be reviewed online – by whoever takes an interest and would like to make a comment. To submit your comment or review (in German or English) please e-mail to: or use the comment section of this blog!

All comments received until December 1, 2018, will be read, forwarded to the members of the working group and discussed.

The working group on behalf of the Board of the German Museums Association is chaired by Wiebke Ahrndt. Its members are Hans-Jörg Czech, Jonathan Fine, Larissa Förster, Michael Geißdorf, Matthias Glaubrecht, Katarina Horst, Melanie Kölling, Silke Reuther, Anja Schaluschke, Carola Thielecke, Hilke Thode-Arora, Anne Wesche, Jürgen Zimmerer. Veit Didczuneit and Christoph Grunenberg contributed to the “Guidelines” as external authors.

As a member of the working group I look forward to a lively discussion – this is what is needed in order to explore ways of dealing meaningfully with colonial legacies in German museums!


Larissa Förster is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and member of the editorial board of “Wie weiter mit Humboldts Erbe?”.

Sleeping Objects On the future of museum artefacts

2. October 2018

Aquí leen la versión en castellano

by Ingrid Kummels

The news of the devastating fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro calls to mind the following aspect of museums of a similar immense size: In keeping with their claim of representing the nation and the wealth of its cultural heritage, they have amassed large quantities of artefacts that have been collected for them all around the world. Over time, these objects have been predominantly stored in the depots of these prestigious buildings. But this very concentration is what makes this cultural heritage vulnerable to the catastrophe of a fire. Even though the many objects in their storerooms are being conserved and some of them are being investigated – for the depot is “the continually throbbing heart of a museum” [1] – these stored objects lack an “exhibition status”, and thus have no public impact. The tedious task of preserving them in the depot lurks in the shadows. The depots contain, in addition, hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of cultural assets that have never been put to any scholarly use during their decades and centuries there. In this way, they are withheld from world knowledge.

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