German museums hold 40,000 artifacts from Cameroon—more than any other museum collection worldwide, including the state collections of Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé—according to a new study presented last week by Bénédicte Savoy and Albert Gouaffo, professors at the Technische Universität in Berlin and the University of Dschang in Cameroon, respectively.
The study, titled Atlas der Abwesenheit, or Atlas of Absence, was carried out over two years by researchers from Germany and Cameroon and with the support of curators across 45 German museums. The prodigious number of Cameroonian heritage objects in German museums—a startling figure compared to the 6,000 objects in possession of Cameroonian museums—are mostly in storage. The study excluded items in private collections, natural history museums, and archaeological finds in museums of prehistory.
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Seeking to expand its trade routes, Germany claimed Cameroon as a colony from 1884 to 1920 and sustained its power over the native population through violent means. The period was marked by brutal “punitive expeditions” during which the occupying forces would pillage villages and farms to secure the country’s rich natural resources, and destroy and loot cultural heritage. Germany lost control of the territory during World War I after which it was split between the British and French until the early 1960’s.
Cameroonian embassy officials, speaking at the presentation of the study in Berlin, have stressed their intention to reclaim the objects held in German museums. “Germany is full,” Maryse Nsangou Njikam, culture advisor to the Cameroonian embassy in Germany, said, as quoted by the Art Newspaper. “Cameroon is empty. We must have these objects back. We need them to build the future. Restitution is the cherry on the cake, the goal we are heading for.” Nsangou Njikam also shared that a restitution commission has begun meeting with museum directors in Germany, though it will likely be a long process.
“Confronting one’s own acts of brutality requires more political and psychological work,” Savoy said.
The artifacts listed by the study include ritual masks, textiles, manuscripts, royal thrones, and musical instruments. A beaded stool taken from Bagam as a war trophy, for example, is now in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart; another object looted during a punitive expedition, a wooden carved drum, is held by Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.