Tribal Displays: Colonial Repositories and Community Reconciliation

9. July 2019

by Abiti Adebo Nelson

A version of this paper will be given at the upcoming international conference „Museum Collections in Motion. Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters“, Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne, July 15th- 17th, 2019. 

The practices of a new museology have recently raised debates involving public forums and dialogues. However, these transformation processes have also sought to rethink museum practices in remaking persons and remaking society. The practice of displaying ethnic groups in the museum builds on the debates of decolonising museums especially of those having ethnographic artefacts. Having spent some periods of time in the work with ethnography, I point out that the characteristics of several ethnographic collections in the Uganda National Museum relate to the stories associated with creating tribal groups as well as with governing those tribes in order to legitimise the colonial rule. In other words, the Uganda Museum was a special institution of the colonial administration that worked to implement indirect rule in Uganda. This paper seeks to ask how the idea of a new museology in a contested history of violence uses the space of the museum galleries to rebuild society from the experiences of war trauma.

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Through the looking glass (excerpt) From an anthropological museum…

11. June 2019

by Anja Nitz


Anja Nitz is a Berlin based artist and photographer. Born in Hamburg (1971) she studied at Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee. In her work she deals with socially relevant institutions and she conceptually potrays the related buildings. Among others she has worked on the Berlin Charité Hospital and several important Berlin Embassies, the United Nations Headquarter in NYC, German State Libraries and depots of museums. Her most recent work was at the Berlin Volksbühne. Her works have been exhibited and published numerous times. She has received grants and scholarships including the Bonn Foundation Kunstfonds.

Decolonising requires dialogue, expertise and support The Heidelberg Statement

6. May 2019

Statement approved on the occasion of the 2019 Annual Conference of the Directors of Ethnographic Museums in German Speaking Countries, in Heidelberg:

Within the German speaking area, more than twenty public ethnographic and world cultures museums, university museums and collections, as well as the ethnography departments of composite museums, conserve a substantial number of collections comprising cultural artefacts, photographs, film and sound documents, as well as written archives. We safeguard these collections in a fiduciary duty of care. Relations have been established between humans through these objects, which have been – and continue to be – important for those who once created them, for their descendants as well as for all societies in general. These relations stand – similar to diaspora relations – in the foreground of our attention.

We explicitly welcome the high level of current concern for civil society in our establishments, in our work, and in questions and problems about the colonial history of our collections. Equally, we appreciate concerns about whether it is legitimate to preserve sensitive collections such as human remains, burial objects, and sacred objects, or artefacts of potentially key cultural heritage. The new public engagement points to a social development which coincides with an increasing awareness of the knowledge preserved in our museums, and the relevance of the collections for societies of origin, in which society accepts an ethical responsibility in dealing with the objects.

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Mal D’Archives Revisited or Archive Evils from a Postcolonial Perspective. An Obstructed View

19. March 2019

by Knut Ebeling

In the current public debate about the restitution of non-European cultural legacy, one gap (among diverse others) is especially conspicuous: the conditions of the search for the Herkunft (provenience) and provenience are systematically disregarded. Postcolonial provenience research has been pointing this out for thirty years; accordingly, the various persons who have recently expressed themselves on this topic in public media have regularly pointed out the difficulty of reconstructing Herkünfte (proveniences) and that the funding for provenience research must, of course, be increased. But the political debate, in particular, often works with an illusion of transparency based on the impression that it would be possible, “without further ado”, to reconstruct the distant and diverse Herkünfte of complicated intercultural transactions and media and to look into the past with an unobstructed view. In short: the means and media that are regularly employed for this view into the past and that are necessary for a successful reconstruction of Herkünfte are equally regularly ignored.

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Le patrimoine culturel à l’épreuve du temps au Bénin (Rapport de l’école doctorale au Bénin du 14 au 30 juillet 2018)

5. February 2019

Par Claudia Jürgens et Barpougouni Mardjoua avec la collaboration de Verena Rodatus

(1) Otoiu (2018), président du Vodoun, Dada Daagbo Hounon Hounan II et le groupe doctoral.
L’école doctorale d’été « Processus de patrimonialisation, usages et muséification du passé » qui fait objet du présent rapport s’est déroulée à Porto-Novo au Bénin, du 14 au 30 juillet 2018. Dans cet article nous exposerons des discours temporels et spatiaux sur les processus de patrimonialisation au Bénin. Les processus de patrimonialisation incluent des discours sur le patrimoine culturel matériel et immatériel et leurs perceptions locales. Notre intérêt est de comparer les collections d’objets béninois en Allemagne – en particulier les collections des musées de Berlin – avec les discours d’espace et de temps prononcés par les différents acteurs. En somme, notre objectif est de contribuer aux débats contemporains sur la restitution d’objets appartenant aux collections ethnologiques d’Europe, dans une perspective spécifiquement locale, liée au Bénin. more “Le patrimoine culturel à l’épreuve du temps au Bénin (Rapport de l’école doctorale au Bénin du 14 au 30 juillet 2018)”

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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“The truth is that Europe has taken something from us, which it will never be able to return”*

11. December 2018

by Achille Mbembe

*Translation from French by Michael Dorrity

Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr have finally delivered President Emmanuel Macron with a report concerning the restitution of African objects currently held in French museums. For understandable historic reasons, Emmanuel Macron had limited the reach of the mission to previous territories over which the Republic had exercised responsibility. It would be difficult to reproach him for not having extended it beyond the zone of colonial influence in Africa.

Neither was the goal of the mission to attend to the acquisition of patrimony resulting from pre-colonial intra-African conflicts. The resolution of such disagreements where they exist is incumbent upon Africans and Africans alone.

Sarr and Savoy’s report proposes a series of honest, reasonable and realistic recommendations and its gradual implementation requires a sustained critical dialogue between French and African museums. In the absence of preconceptions or prejudices, such a dialogue could open new avenues toward a cultural Franco-African encounter of global significance.

Beyond the material restitution of artefacts, the objective of the report, as the authors have incessantly pointed out, is to recreate the conditions for a relationship based on reciprocity and mutuality. It is not a question of emptying French museums, as has been insinuated by certain malevolent critics. It is a question of rectifying a historical wrong and offering France the opportunity to establish a relationship with Africa built on different foundations, for the sake of what ought to be called the good of the world.

Regurgitating prejudices

Although the tonality of the report and its conclusions have been positively received by Africans – primary protagonists in this historic conflict–, they have already provoked innumerable debates and controversies outside the continent. With the help of the English translation, the dispute is no longer limited to mainland France.

While the majority of criticisms are muffled, even paternalistic, others are severe and others still, though hidden behind a mild academic veneer, are simply opportunistic. The most strident come from the United States and the Anglo-Saxon world. They are essentially of an ideological nature, tainted with the habitual disdain for Africa and all things African. The procedure is more or less the same in each case, it consists in paying lip service to the principle of restitution while consistently attempting to neutralise its transformative impact.

After the customary genuflection, there follows a lengthy discussion of all the supposed negative consequences entailed by restitution for Western museums whose last line of defence is what the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne calls “overhang universalism” (universalisme de surplomb). The damage already suffered by Africa as a consequence of the confiscation of its objects as well as the damage incurred by non-restitution are quickly passed over in silence.

Numerous critics are content to merely regurgitate the same prejudices that the report meticulously refutes. Such is the case with legal prejudice, in the name of which many recur to diverse variations of the European cultural heritage legislation to demonstrate that rarely is authorisation given for the return of objects to their rightful owners. Nobody would dare to deny that these objects were created by Africans. And yet we act as though the question of whom they belong to in no way depends on knowing where they came from and who produced them.

Pillage, extortion, predation

In line with colonial cynicism, a cleavage is made between legal property, ownership and usage on the one hand, and the creative act and the subject who creates on the other. The critics of the report highlight in particular that it does not automatically suffice to have created something in order to be its owner. And just as creating something is not equivalent to owning it, the origin of a work is not a sufficient condition to exercise property rights over it.

It is similarly assumed that the conditions under which these objects were acquired weren’t the least bit problematic. To this effect, the proven facts of pillage, extortion and predation are minimized and one pretends as if we were dealing, from beginning to end, with transactions between equal parties on a free market, where the worth of objects was determined by an objective pricing mechanism.

They thus come to the conclusion that having been put to the market test, these objects are effectively “inalienable.” They are presumed to be the exclusive property of public authorities (which manage them through the museum institutions) or of private individuals who, having purchased them, are entitled to use them fully and without restriction in strict accordance with the law. From a legal point of view, the debate over the restitution of African objects thus has no subject, their presence in Western museums barely being the result of confiscation and as such requiring neither moral nor political judgement.

Others (or sometimes the same) claim that Africa would not have the institutions, infrastructures, technical or financial resources, qualified personnel or know-how to insure the preservation and conservation of the objects involved. To return these collections to such inhospitable environments would expose them, we are assured, to the risk of destruction, vandalism or despoliation.

Diversion strategies

In other words, Africans would be incapable of taking care of the objects, which they produced and which accompanied their collective lives for centuries before European penetration of the continent. The safeguard of universal heritage would thus demand that we oppose the principle of restitution. The best way to do this would be to conserve African objects in Western museums apart from occasionally lending them to Africans for temporary exhibitions.

Posing the problem of restitution in this way is part of a strategy of diversion and evasion used by those who are convinced that the winner is always right and that force creates law. Opposition to the project of restitution recommended by the report is at times insidious, at others frontal. In either case, the point of the strategy is to empty the concept of its operative force by neutralising any disruptive effects.

The aim is also, particularly for criticism from across the Channel and the Atlantic, and to some extent from institutional and racist milieus in countries such as Germany and Belgium, to smother at birth the international impact, which Macron’s initiative could have not merely on the art market but also on a conceptual, juridical, social and even epistemological level.

How to prevent the trivialisation of such an eminently political and moral cause other than by turning our backs on such a cynical conception of law and returning to the essentials? Indeed, in this case, as in so many others, the function of law is precisely not to sanctify relations of force and extortion. It is to serve justice. There is hardly a law, which could be said to be completely detached from its obligation to serve justice. Wherever law is not in the service of justice, it should be amended.

A practically incalculable loss

Moreover, any authentic policy of restitution is inseparable from a capacity for truth; to honour the truth and thereby create the indispensible foundation of a new bond and a new relationship. The truth is, that for a relatively long time we have been the warehouse of the world, at once its vital source of provisions and its despised subject of extraction.

Thus, of all the human beings on earth, we are the only ones to have been, at a particular point in modern history, reduced to the status of commodities. Who could honestly deny that what was taken was not merely objects but with them enormous symbolic deposits, enormous reserves of potential?

Who does not understand that in paying such heavy tribute to the world, something colossal, almost priceless, has been lost forever? Something which the lives of all our objects in captivity have witnessed, just as it has been witnessed by all those of us incarcerated in the prison landscapes of yesterday and today?

Who does not understand that the appropriation of African treasure on such a massive scale constitutes an immense, almost incalculable loss? Who does not understand that such a loss could not be compensated with mere financial indemnification, given that this loss is the draining of our ability to create worlds, to create other figures of common humanity?

An intractable racist superiority complex

In spite of appearances, history has never been a simple question of power and force. Thus, there is no more powerful nor enduring force than the truth. The truth is that Europe has taken something from us, which it will never be able to return. We will learn to live with this loss. Europe, for its part, must learn to accept its deeds, this shady part of out common history, which it seeks to relieve itself. But if new links are to be forged, it must honour the truth for the truth is the midwife of responsibility. This debt of truth cannot be erased.

The time for sidestepping, procrastination and political schizophrenia has passed. For one cannot, on the one hand, turn the page, close a dubious chapter and move on in the relation with Africa while, on the other hand, confiscating its objects and thereby sustaining an intractable racist superiority complex, which appears to be undergoing a thorough revival all over the globe.

Moreover, one cannot, on the one hand, confiscate these works while on the other hand claiming that they are a burden for museums, that their preservation is expensive and that they are of no interest to anyone anyway.

One must make up ones mind.

Restitution can be neither a merely charitable nor benevolent gesture. The restitution of African objects to Africans is an obligation, the beginning of a new system of circulation, without conditions and on the whole planet, of the general heritage of humanity.

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual. Since 2001 he is a Research Professor of History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Romance Studies at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University. He has also held appointments and fellowships at Columbia University, Berkeley, Yale University, the University of California and Harvard University.

Achille Mbembe’s research interests lie in the social sciences and African history and politics. More precisely, Mbembe investigates the “postcolony” that comes after decolonization. He is especially interested in the emergence of “Afro-cosmopolitan culture”. Among Mbembe’s 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). His seminal work De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (On the Postcolony) was translated into English in 2001 and published by the University of California Press.

This article was first published in French in the newspaper Le Monde and was translated for this blog.