DW Transtel | 36 4947
YOP: 2021
1 x 30 min

The Humboldt Forum in the capital Berlin is Germany’s biggest cultural project. Intended as a place of dialogue, it houses exhibitions on the history of the German capital, as well as the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. And indeed, the ethnological collections have been the focus of many controversial debates. Many of the objects, acquired during the colonial period, are tainted with blood. What does this mean for the Humboldt Forum exhibitions? How should such works be dealt with generally? Amidst the controversy surrounding looted art, the discussion about provenance research and how to curate sensitive exhibitions, we joined the head of the Ethnological
Museum, Jonathan Fine, at his workplace in Berlin and on an earlier trip to Cameroon.
In 2017, Fine conducted research into one of the collection’s most impressive objects, a royal throne from the Kingdom of Bamum. He was searching for answers: How did it come to be in Germany? Was it a diplomatic gift to the German Kaiser or a forced gesture of submission? Is it a case for restitution? If it were up to Cameroonian curator and art critic Bonaventure Ndikung, Germany would have to present Cameroon with an important artwork in return – as a true act of diplomacy. Another research project explores Germany’s colonial past in Namibia. Official German acknowledgement of the Herero genocide didn’t come until 2016. Many treasures looted during the colonial period are still in German museum collections. As part of the provenance project, researchers looked at the history, significance and artistic potential of 1,400 objects from Berlin’s collections in cooperation with the Museums Association of Namibia.
So far, 23 objects have been returned to Namibia, although only on loan. The renowned Namibian fashion and costume designer Cynthia Schimming, who was also involved in the project, has called for the works to be returned unconditionally.
Many have asked that the same be done with the Benin Bronzes, some of the most renowned and controversial pieces in the Berlin collection. These masterpieces, which once adorned the royal
palace in the Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria), were plundered by British troops as part of a punitive expedition in 1897. They were then sold on the international art market; many ended up in various European museums.
They have become a touchstone for whether the Humboldt Forum will really break new ground and dare to enter into a cultural exchange on a level playing field. It was recently decided that part of the collection would be restituted, but some of the Benin Bronzes will be displayed at the Humboldt Forum. The question is how to do this appropriately. For Jonathan Fine, ethnological museums today need to make it clear that Europe’s history is closely intertwined with colonialism: “I think it would be a success if we take the idea of a forum at its word and think of the Humboldt Forum, not as a place that will give us answers to our questions, but will enable us to pose questions about the past and the present and to bring in more voices, wider voices and different perspectives on what those questions mean. Only in that way, I think, can we come to an understanding and find answers for ourselves about what 500 years of European colonization has meant for the world we live in.”

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