What is a colonial house builder tool
“By the way, I don't see it in such a way that we can only keep what the countries don't want back”: Hermann Parzinger on looted colonial art
The debate about the return of colonial objects is fundamentally about the question of historical justice. In Germany, museum curators and scientists are working on the holdings - the result does not always lead to restitution. According to Hermann Parzinger, coming to terms with German imperialism requires not only self-criticism but also, above all, close cooperation with the societies of origin.
Mr. Parzinger, did you find Emmanuel Macron's much-discussed statement that all colonial art should be returned to Africa helpful?
He didn't say it that way. And in the “Communiqué des Elysée” it says that those things that have been stolen should be returned. But there is also talk of circulation and exchange.
Somehow, in the public discussion, it already seems as if the French are much further than the Germans on the restitution issue.
Yes, that is remarkable when it is the other way around. There was this speech by Macron, in which he explained that one wanted to return objects temporarily or permanently within five years. Then came the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, who radically call for everything to be given back. But when you talked to French colleagues afterwards, it was not clear to them either what French politics was. I think France wanted to show a special responsibility in terms of cultural policy, to make it clear that they are looking for a new attitude towards Africa. But so far nothing has been returned, so it will be interesting to see how it goes from here. So the question is interesting. We have already returned objects in Berlin; Stuttgart did that too. France has not yet returned anything. And in fact the perception is completely different. If you've read the newspapers in the last few months, you got the impression that half of them were already packed for shipping in France - it's not at all like that.
But you also kept saying that giving back isn't everything. Why?
I don't mean that we don't need a return. It must and will certainly come to that. But we are also in the process of developing a new quality of relationships and cooperation that should encompass a lot. From the other side we should hear what she even wants. An example: a few years ago the SPK took over the human remains from the anthropological collections of the Charité. In autumn, the provenance research carried out jointly with partners in these countries on a large collection from East Africa will be completed, then we want to return these “human remains”, much of it to Rwanda. This is also new for the other side, and we have to work together to find a solution on how to deal with this legacy and what to do with it.
Why are you in this case for a return?
Because these human remains were removed from graves without permission. The graves were simply opened, partly by the locals themselves, because it was known that the Europeans collect them. There were no archaeological excavations in graves of past centuries, but cemeteries were plundered by the village communities that existed at the time.
“The German colonial history started very late, was very short, but also extremely bloody. You can't deny that. "
For you - as for Macron - are the use of force and coercion the decisive factors for a return? Can you say that in such a case there is no discussion?
Yes, such an injustice context must be demonstrable. There were many forms of acquisition, including legal ones, of course. I find it difficult to have a basic stance that anything in a colonial context is illegal per se and must be returned. What would that lead to? Should German museums, to put it exaggeratedly, then only show German folk art? That would be absurd, especially at a time when our society is becoming more and more colorful and it is becoming more and more important to know more about other cultures, about the world. More and more people from all over the world are coming here, and should we return the objects? It's kind of weird. A differentiated view is required. But, by the way, I don't see it in the way that we can only keep what the countries don't want back. You also have to be aware that there are hundreds of thousands of objects - and they are not just sculptures. You don't have to do an individual study for every arrowhead. It depends on the important things.
And who determines what is important? How should one imagine the dialogue with the countries of origin?
An example: Representatives of the Chugach from Alaska have worked on objects from their ancestors in our collection. You have digitized around 200 objects. And at the end they pointed out to us that there were nine objects that - according to the information in the acquisition documents - had been taken from graves. And not in the context of archaeological excavations, but from the graves of a village community that existed at the time. Therefore they asked for the return of exactly these objects. We agreed to this immediately. This is how I imagine working together: enabling access, researching together and making decisions together. And, by the way, I would go even further: If you come across certain objects while working with societies of origin and countries of origin that are eminently important for them - even if they have been acquired legally, so to speak - then you can occasionally ask for a return as Speak on permanent loan. In the 1980s, for example, the foundation returned a stone sculpture to Zimbabwe as a permanent loan because it is an important national symbol there.
Returning is not a dialogue yet.
No, it is also increasingly about imparting knowledge about other cultures, because only knowledge can lead to more tolerance and respect. And then the public must also be involved in this dialogue. I think there is still room for improvement and there is still a lot to be done.
The Humboldt Forum, which is now due to open in 2020, is suddenly at the center of the colonialism debate. How do you reconcile the tasks of an ethnological museum, as von Dahlem is supposed to move there, with today's demands on such a highly political project?
This is the Humboldt Forum's great opportunity to comment on current debates. The collections are now an occasion for critical examination, including self-examination. Incidentally, the topics of colonialism and the history of the collection in most of the exhibition modules, for example on Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania, but also China, were always part of the narrative, even when they were first planned ten years ago because the curators were always aware of the colonial context. Nevertheless: not everything is subordinate to this topic. The Humboldt Forum will not become a colonialism museum, I have to say that quite honestly. Because there are also other stories to tell about the objects.
What exactly is the concept for the Humboldt Forum?
It's about not just us telling the stories about the objects. For example, we asked curators from Tanzania to use some objects to make their view of the German colonial era and the Maji-Maji war clear. But it was important to them to present their history before the colonial era. The objects from the Maji Maji war will be on view for some time, after which we want to return them because the context of violence is clear.
You have already addressed the uncertainty on the part of Rwanda regarding the returns you have promised. And the Tanzanians obviously no longer want to be reminded of some events in their past. How do you find yourself there? Do you give in or do you say that this is important to us because German colonial history has to be dealt with here? How do you deal with the problem that your own assessment can be an affront to the other side?
We have not yet had a case where we wanted something that was rejected by representatives of a country of origin or a society of origin. It is part of a partnership-based cooperation on an equal footing that we do not determine the result alone. When it comes to, let's say: German crime is a part of German colonialism, I would say that it should be addressed, even if the other side is not so comfortable with it. But when it comes to the cultural developments of the others, to objects that they say you shouldn't show that, I think you have to be considerate. For example, if a society of origin definitely does not want an object to be shown, then that must be respected. In New Zealand I have met Maori curators who do not approach certain objects without brief rituals. However, it will not go so far as to destroy something because the other side says it has to be destroyed. I have to say that's where it ends. You can cover that in the depot, for example, and not make it accessible. These are really negotiation processes, in the course of a close cooperation it is clarified how things should then be presented in the exhibition. And there is constant learning from one another.
How much colonial heritage will be presented in the future in Berlin in the area of Museum Island and Humboldt Forum?
That is the question of how to define colonial heritage. I find this term rather generalized, imprecise, and it always somehow suggests an injustice context, even if there was none. Much on Museum Island comes from regular divisions of finds in the context of excavations in the Middle East. But of course the overall political context at that time was still characterized by more colonial power structures.
Why is the turmoil so great now, why has it become such a heated discussion - beyond the fact that the rebuilt Berlin Palace is of course a large emotional projection surface because it brings history back?
Different things came together: Macron gave an impetus with his speech. In addition, the Bundestag spoke for the first time of a genocide against the Herero and Nama and started negotiations on compensation with Namibia.
There are critical voices who say that because of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the Herero and Nama should not speak of genocide.
This is something that, I believe, you cannot avoid, even if the Holocaust is unique and cannot be compared with anything in history: German colonial history began very late, was very brief, but also extremely bloody. You can't deny that, and it has to be told in the Humboldt Forum, because these things are not taught in history lessons today and many people don't know anything about them. Museums can play an important role here.
Could Germany also serve as a role model in coming to terms with the colonial era based on its experience of coming to terms with the history of the crimes of the Second World War?
Many say that when it comes to Nazi-looted art, the processing in Germany is exemplary. That doesn't mean that more couldn't happen, perhaps with a restitution law. It is about historical responsibility and reparation. Jewish citizens have been systematically persecuted, disenfranchised and murdered. We don't want any things in our museums that the Nazis stole from them; we want to give back such stolen art. With regard to collections from a colonial context, Germany is currently looking to find its way. There is now a key issues paper from the federal, state and local governments. It would be nice if Germany could perhaps also take a pioneering role in dealing with this topic and serve as a role model - in the form of a very differentiated view.
"Anyone who says here that the museums only play for a limited time is making cheap polemics."
With the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), you are in charge of Germany's largest cultural institution. How are these questions currently changing cultural policy?
My predecessors had already dealt with the question of the legal possession of art and cultural goods in the context of Nazi-looted art, looted art now in Russia and GDR injustice. Now the topic is expanding to include ethnological collections. It is important that politicians work with museums to address these issues. This development has of course shaped our relationship to the world and also the history of institutions. In this respect, it is important to come to terms with this without having to treat museums like robbers' dens.
What is returned is ultimately a political issue?
Yes. But it is also not as if the politicians had said, now give it back quickly, so that we can show a success here, but you are very factual. Representatives of all 16 federal states and the federal government sit on the foundation council of the SPK. This committee has to decide on returns, that is not the responsibility of the president alone. Politicians, of course, rightly expect us to conduct provenance research and submit suggestions for returns if certain items are wrongly tainted.
However, science is currently often accused of simply playing for time.
Look, we have taken over 1,100 skulls from formerly German East Africa from the Charité. This stock is distributed across different countries, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Around 700 skulls were labeled "Tanzania". The name Tanzania has only been around since independence, since the sixties, when Tanganyika was united with Zanzibar. The lettering cannot have been done until the sixties at the earliest. However, our provenance research has now found that the majority of these skulls come from Rwanda. Without provenance research, we would have returned a huge stock of human remains to a completely wrong state. It can't be that either. That shows how important this work is. It took three years for this project. Anyone who says here that the museums only play for a while is making cheap polemics.
“Earlier researchers also wanted to know how humans spread. Migration is an interesting topic. "
Why was there so much interest in skulls at the time?
It must be said that skulls were not only collected from Africa, Oceania or America, but also from all parts of Europe. The aim was to create the broadest possible basis for racial research by measuring human remains and examining them for special characteristics. One wanted to systematize and order the world, its objects as well as its people. It was also a time of almost manic collecting, not just objects. For example, we have the phonogram archive, which is part of the Unesco “Memory of the World” list: 16,000 wax cylinders on which languages, song and instrumental music from all parts of the world were recorded in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This encyclopedic, positivistic collecting: It was unbelievable. And it has created an extremely valuable basis for research in many disciplines to this day.
But in the case of the skulls, were there also racial ideas behind it?
Naturally. Today we no longer speak of races, but of populations. No more skull measurements are made, but DNA examinations. At that time, people also wanted to know where the population groups came from, how they can be differentiated, how homogeneous, how mobile they were. Those were questions that one wanted to clarify at the time with the help of the measurement of human remains. Previous researchers also wanted to know how humans spread. Migration is an interesting topic. As an archaeologist, relatively little can be said about the objects. It is very easy to draw wrong conclusions, which is why a DNA test is extremely important. However, it was overlooked that such research is too easily misused for racist ideologies.
You have already mentioned: the question of colonial legacy is also linked to a debate about globalization. In this social reappraisal, museums find themselves in the position of a catalyst. Are there not many exaggerated expectations at the moment?
The problem is the current emotionalization. First you point your finger at the museums without looking at what they have already done. Museums have to deal with their history, but society also has to face its history.
At the beginning of the planning for the Humboldt Forum, did you suspect that colonial origins would become such an issue?
Colonialism has always been an issue for the curators of the Dahlem museums. It was already clear to me that the question of the return would be topical again, perhaps because I am an archaeologist. But that it will be so emotional today and shape the debates for months was perhaps not necessarily foreseeable ten years ago.In my first years at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, we returned the Hittite Sphinx that Turkey had always reclaimed. The case was not clear. The Turks said they should be back. There were also no more documents. It was a special case in many ways. But with this voluntary gesture, the foundation already proved back then that it is ready and able to find creative solutions.
What do you do if you want to restitute, but the countries concerned do not want it?
Difficult question, has not happened yet. Then of course we would have to keep it for now. But you could transfer property back and keep the objects in safekeeping for the time being. Perhaps one day the other side will reconsider their posture. For me, “shared heritage” does not mean sharing, but participating, taking responsibility together and making decisions together. It is also clear that we cannot force anyone to withdraw.
Processing of the colonial legacy
ces. · The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin belong to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which was founded in 1957 in order to preserve and further develop its cultural collections as an all-German heritage after the dissolution of the Prussian state. In the future Humboldt Forum, the SPK will play on key areas with the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. Provenance research is one of the central tasks of the institution - also due to the turbulent German history. The SPK is therefore a decisive voice on the question of how Germany should deal with its colonial heritage.
With regard to the political question of the return, the federal and state ministers of culture agreed in a "key issues paper" in the spring that priority should be given to "human remains" when processing the collections from colonial contexts. In terms of cultural goods, those that were removed from their societies and brought to Germany as part of the formal colonial rule of the German Reich, as well as cultural goods from other colonial rule for which requests for return have been made, are particularly important. The latter should be processed quickly. In addition, museums and collection institutions are called upon in the paper to independently identify works that are eligible for return. Coming to terms with German colonial history is part of the “common social culture of remembrance” and belongs “to the basic democratic consensus in Germany”. Beyond politics, this applies as a task “for all areas of society, including culture, education, science and civil society”. Unlike in France, this statement stands for a broad political consensus on how to deal with the colonial legacy, the statement said.
The reference to France goes back to the November 2017 speech given by French President Emmanuel Macron at the University of Ouagadougou, who described it as unacceptable that African cultural heritage can only be found in private collections and European museums. He wanted, Macron said at the time, that “in five years the conditions for the temporary or permanent return of African heritage to Africa will be met”. A recent statement by the French Minister of Culture Franck Riester on the sidelines of a symposium in Paris, according to which the exchange between Europe and Africa should not be limited to restitutions, but should consider longer-term loans, now suggests that the French government is about to to revise their position on the return of African cultural goods.
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