German government announces agreement to repatriate looted colonial-era artefacts

In a meeting last Wednesday, culture ministers from 16 German states agreed to repatriate artefacts looted in the colonial era from Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific.

Germany’s Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, commented that “for many decades, colonial history in Germany has been a blind spot in the culture of remembrance”.

Established last year and chaired by Hamburg’s cultural senator Carsten Brosda (SPD), the committee of ministers aims to create clearer regulation for the restitution of colonial objects from public collections. Priority is given to the repatriation of human remains. Additionally, a central helpdesk has been proposed to provide information on colonial-era heritage.

Grütters described the return of artefacts to former colonies as “an ethical and moral duty” that will be conducted with “the necessary urgency and sensitivity”.

Across the world, an immeasurable number of artefacts were illegally or immorally taken from their original locations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many such artefacts are now displayed in public European museums, acquired through purchase or given to the institutions as gifts.

In Germany, items were often acquired from former German colonies in Africa or from territories under the rule of European nations. More than a quarter of a million of the exhibits in the Ethnographic Museum in Hamburg were looted world-wide in this period.

Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor of African History at Hamburg University, estimates that at least 50,000 artefacts were looted from Africa alone.

The decision to return artefacts follows an earlier announcement by the German government to allocate €1.9 million (£1.6 million) to provenance research of colonial era artefacts. From this year, the funding will be administered through The German Centre for cultural property losses.

The German government has already started the process of repatriating the Cape Cross column to Namibia after the country demanded its return. Since 1953, the column has resided in the Museum of German History, which recently was absorbed into the German Historical Museum.

Yet some have argued the decision comes too late: “Germany has missed the chance to make a big political gesture like France, but this document shows it is taking the subject very seriously”, stated Zimmerer. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to return African artefacts in his country’s museums in a speech in Burkina Faso.

Issues of transparency in national museums and the repatriation of artefacts are hotly debated topics in the UK as well. Recently, the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, received criticism after controversially stating that Greece is not the “legitimate owner” of the Parthenon marbles and their removal was “potentially a creative act.” But, until the UK government make a statement similar to Germany’s, the British Museum is unable to return, dispose or permanently loan any objects in their collection.

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