Scholars call for a Berlin centre to research and reform colonial-era heritage

Scholars call for a Berlin centre to research and reform colonial-era heritage

A group of scholars ranging in academic focus from art history, ethnology and anthropology are calling on the German government to put in place an institute in Berlin to conduct research and policy in addressing colonial history and the enforced approach to colonial-era heritage in public collections. Originally initiated by five German scholars, the plea was signed by academics in the UK, the US, the Netherlands and Togo.

The international debate over colonial-era artefacts has recently escalated since the publication of a report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron in November, which suggested full repatriation by French institutions of works looted from African nations during colonial times. In the scholars’ plea, published by the German newspaper Die Zeit, they welcome the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy but make a case for more work than simple demands for restitution.  

“This debate should not be limited to demands for restitution or reparations,” the scholars wrote. “We should seize the opportunity the discussion over these objects offers to rescue from oblivion a centuries-old common history, one that is in many ways brutal and violent, and to take responsibility for this entangled history in the present and future… It presents a unique opportunity to redefine and create a sustainable basis for relationships with countries and societies in Africa, Oceania, Asia, Australia and the Americas, founded on a new view of common colonial history.”

The plea called on the German government to offer ample support for local initiatives in different German cities who are actively working to address local colonial pasts, such as Postcolonial Cologne and Postcolonial Berlin and to increase support for research and museum projects in the countries of origin.

This comes at a sensitive time for European nations whose public collections have long housed invaluable works of art acquired during colonial times. Pablo Picasso’s “Seated Nude drying her feet”, for instance, was stolen during the Nazi era. Returned after the war, it can be appreciated today in Berlin’s Berggruen Museum. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg is also working to return a marble panel from Afghanistan that is also considered looted art. These recent incidents represent two formal cases of restitution, both relating to Nazi-era confiscation.

In 1998, 44 nations united to formalize an agreement to track stolen art in public collections and organize settlements for the heirs of the Nazi victims. However, this does not apply to private collections. According to Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish World Congress, Germany has “done far too little” to rectify these matters in the past two decades.

The debate surrounding colonial-era heritage is still at the beginning of its fruition and the policies it will naturally give birth to are yet to be seen.