Website of the German Lost Art Foundation

“Dealing with our own colonial past”: The German Lost Art Foundation hosts the digital autumn conference “The Long History of Claims for the Return of Cultural Heritage from Colonial Contexts”

Date 2021.11.17

The de­bate around the re­turn of cul­tur­al goods to for­mer colo­nial re­gions is high­ly top­i­cal – and at the same time much old­er than most as­sume. In the dig­i­tal au­tumn con­fer­ence “The Long His­to­ry of Claims for the Re­turn of Cul­tur­al Her­itage from Colo­nial Con­texts” from 17 to 19 Novem­ber 2021 in co­op­er­a­tion with Stiftung Preußis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz and the Re­search Cen­ter for Ma­te­ri­al Cul­ture of the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um of World Cul­tures, the Nether­lands, the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion in­ves­ti­gates the long his­to­ry of claims for resti­tu­tion of cul­tur­al goods and hu­man re­mains from colonised coun­tries.

The con­fer­ence will sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly re­view the de­mands for a re­turn of cul­tur­al her­itage pre­sent­ed to Eu­ro­pean colo­nial pow­ers by in­di­vid­u­als and some­times com­mu­ni­ties – e.g. from Namib­ia, New Zealand, Ethiopia, and Pe­ru – since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. 500 par­tic­i­pants have al­ready reg­is­tered to take part in the event. For many decades, how­ev­er, re­turns re­mained the ex­cep­tion:

 “The de­mands for resti­tu­tion go back a long time and still of­ten re­main unan­swered un­til to­day. This demon­strates the im­por­tance of find­ing sen­si­ble and trans­par­ent so­lu­tions for the ap­proach to cul­tur­al goods and col­lec­tions from colo­nial con­texts”, as Gilbert Lupfer stat­ed, ex­ec­u­tive board of the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion. “Deal­ing with our own colo­nial past is al­so of great im­por­tance for the iden­ti­ty of Ger­man in­sti­tu­tions. Prove­nance re­search, that is the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ori­gins of ob­jects and of hu­man re­mains from colo­nial con­texts are a key el­e­ment in this ap­proach”.

At the con­fer­ence, more than 40 in­ter­na­tion­al schol­ars and ex­perts will present and dis­cuss de­mands and resti­tu­tions un­til the 1970s.  Their re­search re­veals dis­putes about resti­tu­tions some­times last­ing for decades, traces veiled ref­er­ences to colo­nial vi­o­lence by the for­mer colo­nial pow­ers in archives, and dis­cuss­es what the “home­com­ing” of hu­man re­mains can mean for so­ci­eties. The ques­tion of lessons to be learned from his­to­ry is fi­nal­ly posed at the end of the con­fer­ence in a high-lev­el pan­el dis­cus­sion chaired by the jour­nal­ist Ste­fan Kold­e­hoff (Deutsch­land­funk). 

Ger­man Min­is­ter of State for Cul­ture and the Me­dia Moni­ka Grüt­ters: “Shed­ding light on the wrongs of the colo­nial era is es­sen­tial to bring about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing with peo­ple in the so­ci­eties af­fect­ed. This in­cludes deal­ing ap­pro­pri­ate­ly with col­lec­tions from colo­nial con­texts. The State­ment on Benin Bronzes rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in this ef­fort, and sub­stan­tial re­turns will be made in the com­ing year on the ba­sis of this state­ment. What is cru­cial now is to pur­sue this pro­cess vig­or­ous­ly, and by do­ing so to raise aware­ness of our colo­nial past. This con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion is an im­por­tant means to that end.” 

Her­mann Parzinger, Pres­i­dent Stiftung Preußis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz: “In the de­bate about ob­jects ac­quired in the colo­nial era, mu­se­ums have a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ty that goes be­yond aca­dem­ic dis­cus­sions: as pre­serv­ing in­sti­tu­tions, they must find con­crete so­lu­tions – to­geth­er with coun­tries of ori­gin and com­mu­ni­ties. At SPK, we as­sume this re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for the col­lec­tions en­trust­ed to us, just as we have done for years in com­ing to terms with the Nazi past. It is es­sen­tial to learn from the ex­pe­ri­ences of the past. That is why this con­fer­ence is so im­por­tant!"

Wayne Mod­est, Con­tent Di­rec­tor of the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um of World Cul­tures, the Nether­lands: “The ques­tion of re­turn has be­come one of the press­ing mat­ters of our cur­rent mo­ment that re­minds us that the colo­nial past is not just a thing of the past but a past that con­tin­ues to shape our present. And while we are some­times led to be­lieve that these are dis­cus­sions that on­ly start­ed re­cent­ly, we should nev­er for­get the longer his­to­ries of strug­gles to place this ques­tion on the agen­da. This dis­cus­sion is in­tri­cate­ly bound up with ques­tions of jus­tice in the present, of his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices that live on in the present. To con­front such in­jus­tices is part of the work that we have to do as mu­se­ums – we can­not hide any­more – if we are to help to shape a dif­fer­ent kind of present, and fash­ion more just and eq­ui­table fu­tures. I see this con­fer­ence not sim­ply as an en­gage­ment with the longer his­to­ry of claims, it is not just an­oth­er his­to­ry les­son, but an im­por­tant part of learn­ing from what has al­ready been done, and what must still be done to re­al­ly make changes.“

Please note:
The con­fer­ence lan­guage of this in­ter­na­tion­al event is En­glish, the keynote lec­ture by Béné­dicte Savoy on Thurs­day 18 Novem­ber at 7pm (CET) and the roundtable dis­cus­sion con­clud­ing the con­fer­ence on Fri­day 19 Novem­ber at 2.30 pm (CET) will be held in Ger­man (with  En­glish trans­la­tion). You will find the con­fer­ence pro­gramme on https://his­to­ry-of-resti­tu­tion.com. As the max­i­mum num­ber of par­tic­i­pants has been reached, the event will al­so be broad­cast via livestream on the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion’s YouTube chan­nel (or at www.kul­turgutver­luste.de) where it is pub­licly avail­able with­out reg­is­tra­tion.

Con­fer­ence pub­li­ca­tions
The first ar­ti­cle of the new se­ries “Work­ing Pa­per Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion” is pub­lished in con­junc­tion with the con­fer­ence, in a new on­line for­mat for pub­li­ca­tions: “Re­turns of Cul­tur­al Arte­facts and Hu­man Re­mains in a (Post)colo­nial Con­text: Map­ping Claims be­tween the mid-19th Cen­tu­ry and the 1970s” (by his­to­ri­an Lars Müller). The se­ries pub­lished at ir­reg­u­lar in­ter­vals will ad­dress cur­rent re­search sub­jects and is avail­able on the on­line plat­form https://per­spec­tivia.net/ of the Max We­ber Foun­da­tion – Ger­man Hu­man­i­ties In­sti­tutes Abroad. The pro­gramme will in­clude dossiers, guide­lines, re­search aids, re­search re­ports and overviews from all ar­eas of ac­tiv­i­ty of the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion, be it Nazi-loot­ed cul­tur­al prop­er­ty, war-re­lat­ed trans­fers of cul­tur­al prop­er­ty, cul­tur­al as­sets seized in the So­vi­et Zone of Oc­cu­pa­tion/GDR, and cul­tur­al goods and col­lec­tions from colo­nial con­texts. The in­au­gu­ral work­ing pa­per is avail­able on: https://doi.org/10.25360/01-2021-00017

The con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings will be pub­lished by the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion in the fourth vol­ume of its schol­ar­ly se­ries “Provenire”.

The Foun­da­tion
The Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion was found­ed on 1 Jan­uary 2015 in Magde­burg by the Ger­man fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, the Län­der of the Fed­er­al Re­pub­lic of Ger­many and the three na­tion­al as­so­ci­a­tions of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties as a cen­tral point of con­tact for mat­ters per­tain­ing to un­law­ful­ly seized cul­tur­al prop­er­ty. The in­sti­tu­tion is spon­sored by the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sion­er for Cul­ture and the Me­dia, who al­so funds its project grants for re­search. The main ac­tiv­i­ties of the Foun­da­tion fo­cus on cul­tur­al as­sets con­fis­cat­ed by the Na­tion­al So­cial­ists through per­se­cu­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly those from for­mer Jew­ish own­ers (so-called “Nazi con­fis­cat­ed art”). Since 2019, when the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion ex­pand­ed with a de­part­ment for colo­nial con­texts, it has al­so been pos­si­ble to ap­ply for the fund­ing of projects deal­ing with cul­tur­al goods and col­lec­tions from colo­nial con­texts. Ap­prox­i­mate­ly 4,4 mil­lion Eu­ros have been grant­ed for a to­tal of forty projects in this area.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion is avail­able on: www.kul­turgutver­luste.de

Lena Grund­hu­ber
Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion
Civ­il Law Foun­da­tion
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In co­op­er­a­tion with Stiftung Preußis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz and the Re­search Cen­ter for Ma­te­ri­al Cul­ture of the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um of World Cul­tures, the Nether­lands.