BERLIN, Germany — “How can the debate on restitution be reinvented beyond the return of plundered goods?” asks the introductory text on the wall of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art. KW is one of the venues for this summer’s 12th Berlin Biennale STILL PRESENT, curated by artist Kader Attia. Last Friday, July 1, this urgent question posed by the Biennale’s artistic team echoed down Tucholskystrasse from the KW to the River Spree, resonating between the domes and columns of Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island), and reverberated into the World Hall of the Federal Foreign Office on Unterwasserstrasse — where hundreds of delegates and international press were gathered to witness the historic signing of the Joint Declaration on the Return of Benin Bronzes between Germany and Nigeria. It’s hard to recall or indeed to imagine a more hopeful moment for art, heritage, and museums. Nor one more fraught with risk.
This landmark agreement will see the return from museums across Germany of over 1,130 items looted in the British sacking of Benin City in 1897, starting with a commemorative head and relief plaque handed over at the ceremony. On the 125th anniversary year of the military attack and the chaotic pillage that ensued, and following nine decades of sustained Nigerian-led demands, at the stroke of a pen, the process of transferring the ownership of more than 10% of what was stolen was begun at long last. In the speeches, Nigerian Minister for Information and Culture Lai Mohammed observed that this represents the single largest comparable restitution of stolen artifacts, expressing the hope and expectation that this event “will be the harbinger of further returns.” German Culture Minister Claudia Roth quoted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech at the opening of Berlin’s controversial Humboldt Forum in September 2021, which urged that “we can’t change our past, but we can change our blindness to the past.”
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“Germany is about to change its blindness towards its colonial past,” Roth pledged. She continued: “As a federal government and as a country we acknowledge the horrific outrages committed under colonial rule. We acknowledge the murders and plundering. We acknowledge the racism and slavery. We acknowledge the injustice and trauma that have left scars that are still visible today.”
A series of remarkable U-turns from some of the staunchest critics of anti-colonial work in museums quickly followed. As recently as 2018, Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees many of Berlin’s museums, was arguing that in the case of the Benin Bronzes “to say that everything is stolen and give it back is too simplistic.” By contrast, last week he was telling the Guardian that this return represents “a milestone in the process of reappraising colonial injustice in the field of museum collections.” The leadership of ICOM-Deutschland has recently attacked Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, director of the Grassi Museum in Leipzig — who along with Nanette Snoep in Cologne has been one of the key players in these Benin returns — for commissioning artistic interventions around enduring imperialism. But on Friday they tweeted that the return represented a “day of joy.” Then in London, the day after the Berlin ceremony, Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, performed a similar backflip. In recent years, Hunt has produced a stream of articles variously arguing that “for a museum like the V&A, to decolonize is to decontextualize,” that work towards restitution is merely “identity politics” and that “the cultural left” should stop regarding “museums as reactionary vestiges of the colonial past with looted collections.” But now, The Times reported, he is calling for a change to legislation so the United Kingdom’s national museums would be “free to return looted colonial artefacts.” And yet, tellingly the language used by Hunt in a BBC radio interview that morning was of “disposals” rather than restitution, repair, restorative justice, or what Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy called in their landmark restitution report “relational ethics.” Therefore, as the global consensus on restitution passes the tipping point, some skepticism towards these sudden, improbable Damascene conversions towards restitution is probably justified. It was a day of immense hope, for sure; but we also need to talk about the immense risks.
“Is Germany now winning the Restitution Olympics?” I overheard one delegate asking another. The building in which we were standing is perhaps a 20-minute walk from Wilhelmstrasse, where the Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto van Bismarck, opened the Berlin Conference in November 1884. In that moment, the infamous dividing up of the continent of Africa, which ushered in a new phase of corporate-colonial ultraviolence through what’s euphemistically been called the “Scramble for Africa,” did not seem quite as remote from the present day as it might.
Two further important developments in Berlin last week have received less media attention than the Benin returns. First, agreements to return Namibian and Tanzanian objects have brought restitution into a deeper engagement with enduring histories of colonial violence and dispossession in the former colonies of German Southwest Africa and German East Africa. Second, the announcement of the return of a sacred female figure to Cameroon was the outcome of the longstanding grassroots civil society campaign “Bring Back Ngonnso!” Ngonnso was donated to the collections of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1903 by General Curt von Pavel on his return from two years of bloody service as Commander of the colonial “Schutztruppe” (“protection force”) in what is today Cameroon. Sylvie Njobati, who led the Bring Back Ngonnso! campaign, told me how “this success reminds us of the power we have as Africa to reclaim our ancestry stuck anywhere in the world and our potential to shape how these conversations and actions are unfolding. We are assuming this power to go after other ‘objects’ as a new generation.”
I went to see Ngonnso while she was still on display at Humboldt Forum, before her imminent return. These new displays are something else. As you enter the first room of the Africa galleries a large sign presents a quote from Robin DiAngelo: “I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview.” The second room is called “Open Storage Africa,” and has vitrines filled with objects with no interpretation apart from the name of whichever dead White male was responsible for leading the “expedition” during which they were taken. In this rogues’ gallery of colonial soldiers, anthropologists, and looters — Leo Frobenius, Adolf Bastian, Gerhard Rohlfs, and so on — in one text panel even a 21st-century White male museum curator’s name is added, whose soundbite declares, with no hint of irony: “Museums reflect not only who we are, but also who we want to be.” Finally, in the third room, named “Colonial Camerun,” Ngonnso was there, still in her case; the label made no mention of her imminent release.
These melancholic museum displays represent a strange new type of nostalgic monument to enduring patriarchal imperialism. Here, reflexivity gives way to pure self-regard. The carved ivories and wooden clubs are arranged as if they were an auto-icon that memorializes the figure of the colonizer-curator, re-centered as sensitive and self-aware — and anything but fragile. Thus the anthropology museum’s primary role since the 19th century, as an infrastructure of cultural whiteness, is bolstered and reinforced. As you walk out of that cursed rebuilt colonial palace into Berlin’s humid July sunshine, the risk hangs in the air — that some modes of restitution will replicate this curatorial model, or even advance it.
The hope for restitution must be, as artist Kader Attia puts it in his Curatorial Statement for the Berlin Biennale, that it creates “a momentous opportunity in present time for reinvention, because like repair it is unpredictable.” Restitution, in other words, is always about what can happen next. It is an essential but insufficient first step in making the world’s museums fit for our times.
Thus while it was good to see UNESCO welcoming Friday’s news about the Benin returns, their reminder that the 1970 Convention on Cultural Property says that collections should be built up “in accordance with universally recognized moral principles” felt half a century behind the times. It is precisely those Euro-American claims to universalism that must be given up in a new, unpredictable, decentred mode of restitution, as well as just the ownership of stolen goods.
“The universal self has a locus in Europe, but this locus of enunciation is obscured,” Attia recently said in a conversation with Johannes Odenthal. This proposal is a central theme of the Biennale’s program. The clear risk then is that we allow those recent opportunistic converts to restitution as a gesture to become part of a cynical, superficial “Scramble for Decolonization” characterized by co-option, art-wash, counter-insurgency, neo-colonialism, and the same old defaults of cultural supremacy, self-interest, and self-regard. But there is hope as multiple routes to returns, and the many different forms of repair that might follow, are found. This includes the work of grassroots civil society movements like Bring Back Ngonnso!, Defund the Humboldt Forum, and Berlin Postkolonial. And above all, it is led by the tireless Nigerian, Cameroonian, Namibian, and Tanzanian campaigning that has led to these developments in Berlin, alongside the struggles of many other African nations and communities. Who knows, perhaps after Ngonnso, Nefertiti will be the next African figure to be returned.
“Of course, this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg or more appropriately, the beginning of the dig,” Yusef Tuggar, the Nigerian Ambassador to Germany tells me as we take stock of the events of last week. “There are many other stolen cultural properties hidden in the basements of museums that we intend to get back. It’s only a matter of time.”
As we collectively pass this tipping-point moment and the work of restitution expands, the challenge will be to ensure that each and every act of return is not a moment of closure or “disposal,” but the opening up of new possibilities for different forms of remembrance and repair, and for new equitable relationships in understanding and addressing the enduring nature of cultural dispossession and colonialism.