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.

more “A Human Skull for Sale: Is this possible?”

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: office@museumsbund.de 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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Ambivalent Futures On the restitution of objects and white innocence

25. September 2018

by Sven Schütze

The legacies of colonialism and imperialism are keeping the European museum scene busy. At first glance, colonial amnesia seems to be overcome and museums to pave the way for postcolonial restorative justice. A second glance, though, might reveal inconsistencies and shortcomings structuring present museum work. The current debate mainly focuses on objects being looted, exchanged, extorted or bought under colonial rule, and considers the restitution of objects to former deprived communities or relevant descendants no longer a taboo subject. This is a development to be welcomed. What is striking, however, is that a sometimes narrow conception of decolonial engagement can be noted. Solely spotlighting the presence of objects, material entities and human remains as colonial legacies, these strategies fall short on challenging power hierarchies in the present. There is no colonialism without racism. But is racism a subject museums consider worth analyzing while discussing the restitution of objects?

moreAmbivalent Futures On the restitution of objects and white innocence

Ethnological Collections and Municipal Displays

18. September 2018

by H. Glenn Penny

On September 14, 2018, Manuela Andreoni and Ernesto Londoño published an essay in the New York Times on the recent destruction of artifacts and records at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. They titled it: “Loss from Brazil fire felt like a ‘new Genocide’.” Their first major point was that this museum had housed irreplaceable records – material objects as well as texts – that both Brazilian scholars and representatives of Brazil’s many indigenous groups had been using to learn about their pasts. As those records burned, so too did their access to those human histories. The world, they made clear, has been impoverished by that loss.

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Unbearable simultaneity On the correlation between mobile objects and people*

24. July 2018

by Silvy Chakkalakal

*Translated from the German by Jane Yager

On Sunday afternoon, 27 May 2018, I am watching the podium and listening to Tom Holert introduce the second day of the conference “Deep Time and Crisis, ca.1930”, which is taking place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin as part of the exhibition “Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, ca. 1930”. The exhibition, jointly curated by Holert and Anselm Franke, engages with the feeling of the unbearability of the present, following the work of Carl Einstein, which is contextualised in a dense composition of texts and artworks.

moreUnbearable simultaneity On the correlation between mobile objects and people*

From the brothers Humboldt to Jacques Chirac and back… A report from the three-day work shop: Exchanging perspectives: anthropologies, museum collections and colonial legacies between Paris and Berlin (June 6-8, 2018) held at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) and at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)

17. July 2018

by Felicity Bodenstein, Margareta von Oswald & Callum Fisher

It was at the recently renamed ethnography museum in Hamburg (formerly Museum für Völkerkunde, today Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt) that a meeting was organized on the 18th of May, 2018 by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Goethe Institut with the rather long and awkward title: From “Frosty Deposits of White Thirst for Knowledge” Towards Things and Wisdom without frontiers. Taken from an expression used by the German intellectual Carl Einstein in 1926 (“Das Berliner Völkerkunde-Museum. Anläßlich der Neuordnung”, published in Der Querschnitt), it refers to an early critique of Berlin’s ethnographic collections as trophies of white greed and it was published shortly before the author moved to Paris where he was to be famously part of the unique intellectual enterprise of George Bataille’s Documents. A policy meeting referencing transgressive critical thinking, may in itself be remarkable, but it was also designed to examine how German institutions might react to African claims for restitution by bringing together major actors from the German institutional landscape with African museum professionals mainly though not exclusively from former German colonies. It was clearly framed in the opening remarks as an effort to react to the November 2017 speech, made in Ouagadougou by French president, Emmanuel Macron and his self-imposed challenge to provide the conditions for a restitution of African heritage from French and even European museums. Invited but not present at the meeting in Hamburg was the French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, who has spent most of her career teaching at the Technische Universität in Berlin, and who together with Senegalese intellectual Felwine Sarr has been mandated with producing a report to engage this initiative in France. After providing fuel for the lively debate on the state of provenance research in Germany’s ethnographic collections and in particular in provision of the establishment of the Humboldt Forum, her nomination by Macron is exemplary of transnational emulation and mirroring, where individual actors move between national contexts of policy making and contribute to rhizomatic resurgences of critical discourses. Such constellations also exemplify the context that the authors of this report wanted to address by organizing the workshop discussed here. By bringing together several research groups involved in considering the implications and differences in how colonial legacies are dealt with in Paris and Berlin, between the creation of Jacque Chirac’s Musée du Quai Branly (opened in 2006) and the debates concerning the Humboldt Forum (set to open in 2019), the focus was particularly but not exclusively on ethnographic collections and anthropological knowledge production.

moreFrom the brothers Humboldt to Jacques Chirac and back… A report from the three-day work shop: Exchanging perspectives: anthropologies, museum collections and colonial legacies between Paris and Berlin (June 6-8, 2018) held at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) and at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)