German Lost Art Foundation approves approx. €700,000 for seven research projects in the field of colonial contexts for the first time
Where do the 30 human skulls and bones in the anthropological collection at the State Museum for Nature and Man in Oldenburg come from? What should be done with them? What about the masks, ancestral figures, weapons, musical instruments and jewelry in the ethnological museum in Lübeck that were collected by German officers and medical staff from the imperial protection force in Africa in the vicinity of the Herero and Nama genocide more than 100 years ago?
In order to clarify the provenance, and thus indirectly also the whereabouts of items from the colonial era in German museums, the Executive Board of the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg has acted upon the recommendations of its nine-strong Funding Committee, and approved seven research applications in this field for the first time. It has initially granted a total of €703,589 in funding for these projects.
The Commissioner for Culture and Media, Monika Grütters said: “The federal government-funded German Lost Art Foundation is making significant progress in driving forward provenance research into collections acquired during the colonial era. The projects in the first funding round show how challenging and complex, yet worthwhile this task is. Now and in the future, the Foundation will help museums and universities analyze their holdings by conducting detailed research with sensitivity. Creating transparency is the most important prerequisite for understanding and reconciliation.”
For around three years now, the debate on how to deal with objects from colonial contexts has been gaining momentum in Germany too, and museums with African and other non-European collections have increasingly been asking themselves questions about the origin of items in their holdings and possible returns. The recently published appeal to “Öffnet die Inventare!” (open the inventories), which came from more than 100 prominent scientists, cultural practitioners and artists, underlines the timeliness and urgency of this subject. “This call once again vehemently reiterated the frequently heard demand for a better understanding of holdings in museums,” said Gilbert Lupfer, Executive Board member at the German Lost Art Foundation, in his assessment of the discussion.
In January 2019, the German Lost Art Foundation was expanded to include the specialist field of colonial contexts in response to a funding mandate from the Foundation Board. Since then, it has been possible to apply for funding for projects dealing with cultural goods and collections of this sort. “Through our project funding—which brings with it an obligation for the findings to be published extensively—we are making an important contribution to greater transparency around collection holdings from the colonial era,” said Gilbert Lupfer, describing the task.
The applications submitted by the deadline of June 1, 2019, were made by museums, university-based collections, and universities, some with cooperation partners in Germany and abroad. The subject matter of the planned projects not only encompassed ethnographic and anthropological collections, but also archeological and natural history collections.
A wide variety of projects were approved, with a significant number of the research proposals focusing on human remains, collections and bundles of items originating from regions colonized by the German Empire. The funding recipients are large ethnographic museums, small city and regional museums, and multidisciplinary establishments.
Applications for longer-term projects may be submitted by January 1 and June 1 each year. Applications can be submitted by all publicly funded institutions in Germany that collect, hold or research cultural goods from colonial contexts. They include museums, universities and other research institutions. “It is highly desirable,” said Lupfer, “for the funded institutions to work closely with the communities of origin wherever possible, as their experience and skills are crucial.” An overview of all the projects approved in this application round is available in the annex.