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A gap in our memory

15.12.2018 - Article

Article by Michelle Müntefering and Monika Grütters in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.

For many decades, colonial history has been a blind spot in European – and German – culture of remembrance. The injustice of this period has been forgotten and suppressed for far too long. The topic is now increasingly in the public eye. We very much welcome that. Lively and contentious discussions on the cultural policy approach to the colonial past have been taking place in Germany with regard to the Humboldt-Forum for some time. This urgently needed debate came to a head partly as a result of the speech given by French President Emmanuel Macron in Burkina Faso in 2017 that gave rise to the recommendations by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr recently published in Paris.

The debate is also being conducted in Germany by policymakers, civil society and cultural institutions and forces us to ask and answer uncomfortable questions. How can museums and collections justify having objects from colonial contexts that were brought to Germany in a way that contravenes our current value system? What does it say about us if it is sometimes insinuated that cultural objects would not enjoy the protection they deserve in their countries of origin? We believe it is vital to emerge from the narrow confines of a purely Eurocentric perspective. The main reason why it is worthwhile thinking about taking major steps is that nothing less than human identity and dignity are involved here. Such identity and dignity are also reflected in cultural objects, in which they find a form of expression. That holds true all over the world, and that is why we in Germany have introduced legislation to protect parts of our cultural property. In their country of origin, cultural objects recount history and stories and play a crucial role in the identity of a country and its society. That applies to the past and even more so to the future.

In its coalition agreement, the German Government unequivocally expressed its commitment to addressing colonialism. We are facing up to this unedifying part of our history. To this end, we also need to take further cultural policy steps in Germany in order to heighten our perception of aspects of Germany’s past that have been neglected so far and to address our colonial history. As Ministers of State, we want to take these necessary steps with all those involved. We will only succeed here if we are familiar with the past and if we are willing to engage in a genuine dialogue with the societies of origin, also in the interest of multilateralism, and thus to foster a future based on partnership.

Firstly, we expect willingness on the part of museums and collections to openly address the issue of returning cultural objects from colonial contexts. The provenance of the objects must be clarified in a nuanced way. However, this should not create the impression that we are merely playing for time, particularly if the objects’ return seems justified. There is no question whatsoever that stolen human remains do not belong in Europe storerooms, but rather in the hands of the descendants. That was made clear once again during the handover of human remains by the Minister of State for International Cultural Policy at the Federal Foreign Office to members of the Namibian Government and of the Nama and Herero peoples in Berlin in late August 2018. Returns such as those by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to indigenous groups in Alaska or the planned return of the Witbooi Bible to Namibia by the Linden Museum Stuttgart in 2019 show that solutions, including the return of objects, are possible. We see that where there’s a will, there’s a way! This necessitates dialogue between the museums and cultural institutions with those concerned.  

Secondly, we need to have the greatest possible transparency. Museums and collections now have no option but to present the origins of cultural objects from colonial contexts when they are displayed. All visitors have the right to know how cult, cultural and everyday objects from colonial contexts came into the possession of a museum or cultural institution. This urgently needed openness also means that our cultural institutions must reveal which objects they hold in the first place. And that means that we need to significantly boost our efforts to digitise collections and stocks. It would make sense to have a Germany-wide data bank whose research would be available to everyone. The debate on addressing the colonial past must ultimately go beyond museums and discussions in the arts sections of German newspapers. It belongs in lecture halls, schoolbooks and television programmes. It involves nothing less than closing a gap in our culture of remembrance and cultural policy memory. That is also why it is important to include civil society in this discourse. For this reason, we expressly call for a debate in the German Bundestag on establishing a memorial site in Germany for colonial injustice. Society as a whole is responsible. We must live up to this responsibility in our cultural policy sincerely, energetically and with the greatest possible sensitivity. And we want to do so. To this end, we intend to draw up a joint policy position on dealing with cultural objects from colonial contexts by next spring with the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federation-Länder Working Group.

Thirdly, it is vital that we work internationally in a spirit of partnership and dignity. One aim of our international cultural relations and education policy is to enhance cultural collaboration with Africa and to promote cultural exchange and dialogue with African partners. As Ministers of State, we will follow up on and actively take part in our French partners’ international dialogue initiative, such as the European-African conference in Paris announced by French President Emmanuel Macron. Thanks to its diversity, creativity, young people and great potential, Africa is the continent of the future. Our national and international cultural policy should serve as a road map for this future.

In all the talks with our partners, we will avoid using rash European – let alone German – concepts. Instead, we have launched a process aimed at facilitating a dialogue between equals with our African partners leading to concrete projects. The Goethe-Institut is an important player in cultural exchange, mediation and creating access to cultural objects. It is currently coordinating the Museum Conversations launched by the Federal Foreign Office, featuring numerous workshops and seminars in Kigali, Kinshasa, Ouagadougou, Accra, Johannesburg and Windhoek. The results of this dialogue are to be collated at a conference in Kinshasa in 2019, joined up with discourse from other parts of the world and then brought back to Germany, as cooperation between experts, curators and academics needs to be enhanced. This includes more exchange at working level and in particular fellowships for German museum experts and curators in Africa, Asia and Oceania. In a dialogue with members of various interest groups, we want to explore the rather new idea of circulating objects. We welcome and support the activities of the Benin Dialogue Group,which includes various European and German museums. It is working with Nigeria on plans to exhibit objects from the colonial past in an appropriate way and to put them into context with one another, both in Africa and Europe.

Fourthly, the German Government wants to enhance knowledge about and awareness of Germany’s and Europe’s colonial past. Provenance research on cultural objects is crucial here. To this end, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media will launch a programme on research on objects from colonial contexts with the German Lost Art Foundation in 2019. In this way, museums all over Germany will receive support on researching the origins of objects. They will include the countries and societies of origin in this research. During the research process, solutions involving an exchange, joint projects or a return of objects often emerge. In order to set up an initial framework for this, we have helped the German Museums Association to develop guidelines for dealing with human remains (2013) and with objects from colonial contexts (since 2016). That is only the start. A new version of the guidelines containing additional material by international experts is due to be published next year. It will generate momentum in Germany and beyond. Not only the state, but also cultural institutions, are responsible for dealing with the difficult questions involved in addressing colonialism. Such institutions have a great need for guidance and orientation. That is why we should think about setting up a commission to advise museums and claimants in difficult cases and to identify constructive solutions.

Remembrance of German and European colonial history certainly poses huge historical, moral and political challenges to us. European colonialism robbed societies of a part of their identity that cannot be replaced. Addressing this past is part of Germany’s and Europe’s responsibility for their colonial history and a prerequisite for reconciliation, understanding, and a shared and better future. 

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