Mon, 08 Feb 2021 Feature Article

Traces Of Colonialism In Humboldt Forum? Reading Humboldt Forum Short Guide

Traces Of Colonialism In Humboldt Forum? Reading Humboldt Forum Short Guide

‘And the museums of which M. Caillois is so proud, not for one minute does it cross his mind that, all things considered, it would have been better not to have needed them; that Europe would have done better to tolerate the non-European civilizations at its side, leaving them alive, dynamic and prosperous, whole and not mutilated; to let them develop and fulfil themselves than to present for our admiration, duly labelled, their dead and scattered parts; that anyway, the museum by itself is nothing; that it means nothing, that it can say nothing, when smug self-satisfaction tots the eyes, when a secret contempt for others withers the heart, when racism, admitted or not, dries up sympathy; that it means nothing if its only purpose is to feed the delights of vanity; that after all, the honest contemporary of Saint Louis, who fought Islam but respected it, had a better chance of knowing it than do our contemporaries( even if they have a smattering of ethnographic literature), who despise it.’

Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, (1)

Many new publications came out in 2020 when we were all expecting the opening of the Humboldt Forum which had been postponed several times. As it turned out, only a virtual opening was possible, the C-Pandemic having prevented a formal grand opening as the proponents of the very expensive cultural centre would have wished and indeed, had planned. (2) We bought a few of these publications and started reading them.

I looked through the Humboldt Forum Guide (3) which is intended to inform and direct the visitor to the Forum and was impressed by the various images displayed but was surprised there was not a single image of an African artefact, not even of the famous Benin artefacts that had engendered heated debates in connection with the Humboldt Forum since 2013 and were said to constitute the very centre of future display of African art in the new building. Incidentally, the virtual opening of 16 December also did not show any African artefacts. Have the proponents of the Forum taking to heart an advice not to display or talk about African artefacts that inevitably raise controversies relating to restitution of looted colonial artefacts? Not showing controversial objects may secure a short period of respite but, the problem will not go away.

After wading through pages on the history of the site and the building, I reached a chapter entitled Bridges to the World,the Non-European Collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin which referred to collections of objects from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas. There I read:

’More than ever, these objects are involved in debates as various regions of the world engage in discourse concerning their status. To an increasing degree these works represent bridges to the world; they generate fresh contacts rather than simply symbolizing their respective places of origin. They receive new attributions,while at the same time disclosing new details concerning the history of their collection and their provenance. (4)

This short text does what we have come to expect of some Western writings: tell half-truths and in any case avoid presenting, in straighforward language, the simple truth. Disputes relating to the legality and ownership of looted artefacts are presented as’ discourse concerning their status’. Issues of restitution are thus removed from the first impression of the visitor. The artefacts generate fresh contacts rather than simply symbolizing their respective places of origin. Fresh contacts are rated over ‘simple symbolization of places of origin, new attributions, details of their history, and provenance cleverly provide a solid justitication for provenance research that may take years and effectively postpone, if not prevent, restitution. The visitor to the Forum can thus save her thoughts on restitution for herself.

The next page in the Guide provides an apparently solid justification for the retention of looted colonial artefacts:

The exceptional status enjoyed so often in our culture by older or original objects is not necessarily as pronounced in other regions of the world’. (5)

This is pure primitive propaganda, the sort that previous generations of ethnologists produced but which is no longer found in modern texts or discussions. The kind we thougt we had left behind us long ago with Felix Luschan and company who thought they were saving African cultures from disappearance through the attacks of Europeans presented as civilization. The argumentation underlying the statement is that the ethnologists have saved African and other artefacts from eternal perdition. Without their intervention, so the argument goes, there would be no artefacts left. It is true that in certain societies, artefacts were produced for certain specific ceremonies, e.g., puberty rites or other religious feasts and hidden until the next occasion when they would be brought out or new ones produced. However, the bulk of looted artefacts that were brought to Europe, especially those made of metal or bronze, gold, or silver were clearly not thrown away. Many artefacts, such as the Benin bronzes had been kept for centuries before they were looted by Europeans and brought to the West. If there were no respect for old objects, these would not have been kept until looters came who stole them, then turned around and proclaimed there was no evidence of the existence of any African civilization. They stole the evidence and declared there was none. It is interesting how a writer on a guide for an ‘international’ culture centre adopts a nationalistic tone –‘our culture’. Humboldt Forum should remove immediately such primitive racist texts from its publications.

Humboldt Forum and the German authorities cannot pretend to be seriously discussing issues related to looted African artefacts with African representatives and at the same time present Africans as peoples with no particular interests in guarding old artefacts.

The next sentence on the same page reveals the real intention of such attacks on other cultures by the Humboldt Forum Short Guide:

‘Besides the restitution of objects, there is a multiplicity of alternative paths towards cooperation: these include jointly organized travelling exhibitions participation in the development of exhibition and conservation projects, as well as forms of access to collection documentation and data bases. Especially,with regard to the multifarious collections of everyday items, our partners are often less concerned with the return of objects than with access to information about techniques, aesthetic languages, coloration and materiality of historical pieces.’

It is by now known that Humboldt Forum is not really interested in restitution which it declared to be the concern of the Prussian Foundation for Cultural Heritage. Paradoxically, all concerned with this most expensive Eu750M, project keep saying that the Foundation was the place for discussing the German colonial past and the related issue of restitution of looted artefacts. (6)

I was about to throw aside the Guide, when I saw on page 83 an object that appeared to me as one of the objects that one usually finds in basements of large buildings. I realised later that I had failed to recognize a piece of artistic work by Kang Sunkoo, entitled Statue of Limitations in the Humboldt Foundation.

The black bronze flagpole has two sections with a flag at half-mast,each section measuring 11meters. The lower section entitled Statue of Limitations is in the staircase hall of the Humboldt Forum. The upper part will be displayed at Nachtigalplatz,in the so-called Afrikanisches Viertel where there used to be shows exhibiting Africans,Volkschau. Nachtigalplatz was named after one of the worst muderous colonialists, ‘’der übleren Sorte’.

We learn that a ‘jury found the work convincing as a’ metaphor of the memory of colonialism’ and as a permanent challenge to engage in a critical confrontation with German colonial history. Its title alludes to the legal concept of the statute of limitations restricting the time within which court proceedings may be initiated’. (7)

I must confess that I was somewhat surprised by the claims that are made for this statue. I am not here concerned about its artistic qualities. I am concerned with the potential of a half-mast flag pole to cause us to engage critically with German colonial history and the title, Statue of Limitations.

Is the statue of a flag at half-mast an adequate symbol for German colonialism in Africa? Can this piece of art encompass symbolically the genocides and massacres against the Hereros and Nama, the cruel Maji-Maji wars? What about the forced labour and confiscations of cattle and other properties of Africans, not to mention the humiliating punishments meeted by German colonialists in places like Togo and Cameroon? (8)

No doubt flags played an important role in the acquisition and recognition of colonialist presence at International Law, dominated by colonialist Europe but this was only an inter-European device, warning other Europeans that the area had been already visited and claimed by a particular European State. Africans were not bound to recognize this European act of aggression and robbery. African laws and traditions did not accord any legality to adventurers and robbers planting a flag or other symbol on their lands following the notorious 1844-45 Berlin Conference where Africans were not invited. German aggression and brutality were more clearly signified by weapons, military devices and forms of oppression such as concentration camps, forced labour and confiscations of land and other property.

The name of the flag sculpture, Statue of Limitations is an obvious reference to the legal concept of statute of limitations which imperialist States and museums have been relying on as a legal obstacle to claims for restitution by African peoples and States. Briefly, the statute of limitations which is a concept of European law bars complainants who wait for too long before filing a complaint. The basic idea here is that those whose rights have been violated should bring their claims to the courts as soon as they are aware of this violation and have the possibility to initiate legal action. A reasonable concept but was it envisaged for situations in which a European State steals property from an African people or State and turns around to say that the action is barred by the statute of limitations decreed by the same European State that stole the object or which bought it from the original robber, knowing fully well that they were dealing with stolen property?

We have often argued that the statute of limitations cannot be applied to questions of restitution of looted African artefacts now in Europe. Proper consideration of a request for restitution must begin by resolving the preliminary question of the applicable law. Should it be the law of the people who made the artefact and of the place where it was looted, or should the applicable law be the law of those who stole the object and are still keeping it?

For example, in the case of the Benin artefacts, there is no reason not to apply the law of the Kingdom of Benin. Obviously, Benin law which regarded the Oba as sacrosanct monarch would not accept that objects belonging to him and made for him by the guild of bronze casters employed by him and who worked only for the monarch could be acquired by others.

Even if it is decided to apply European law, it must be determined whether the conditions necessary for the application of the statute of limitations have been fulfilled. Could the Benin monarch have sued in German courts as soon as the Germans bought the looted artefacts from the British in 1897? Did the people of Benin delay unnecessarily in bringing a claim? Did they know precisely where their objects were in Europe? Even up to now, we do not know the exact numbers of artefacts stolen by European States from Africa and their exact locations since Europeans refuse to supply the necessary information. The defence based on a statute of limitations has not been squarely brought before any judicial authority for decision.

In any case, the application of statute of limitations has been made questionable by the United Nations Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,1968

Many of the thousands of African artefacts stolen by Europeans in the colonial period, such as the Benin artefacts, involved wars, destruction of human lives and civilizations.

This then is the state of affairs as regards the dubious reliance on the statute of limitations by the European State and museums to fight off any possible claims for restitution by Africans.

Will those who see this flag and learn about the name, Statue of Limitations and what it means, remember that the statue commemorates German colonialism or are they more likely to remember the statue in connection with the powerlessness of Africans to recover their loooted artefacts?

The the statue may recall the ambiguous position of Germans and the devious tactics to hinder actual restitution of looted African artefacts. They try to appear as going along with modern trends towards restitution but in reality they do not accept restitution. Their position is close to that of a person who, when finally obliged to render apology, declares: If I have offended anybody, I apologize. There is no evidence of any regret or clear will to apologize.

Kang Sukoo has explained in an interview his own position as regards restitution of looted artefacts by the Humboldt Forum. (9) Kang considers his sculpture as a contradiction to the anachronism in the Humboldt Forum that fills its hall with so-called non-European art collections in the present day Federal Republic. He did not see any sign in the digital opening of the Humboldt Forum that the Forum was leaning towards restitution of the Benin bronzes but he hopes the Forum would do the right thing. He does not want his work to be misused as pretext for mere lipservice. His work, Statue of Limitations is no figleaf, Feigenblatt. It is a Damoclessword. Since the 1968 UN Convention made provisions of statue of limitations not applicable to war crimes and crimes against humanity, Germany must start by admitting its responsibility for genocide and make corresponding apologies.Kang hopes that ‘Humboldt Forum will soon send a positive signal by a recommendation of complete and unconditional restitution.

Kang’s views are no doubt shared by many but has an artist any control of what interpretation others will put on his work? Whatever interpretation one may put on the flagpole at half-mast in the Humboldt Forum, I believe we still need a monument that will fully express the extent of German involvement in slavery and colonialism, the genocides, confiscations and state a clear apology to the victims of German colonization and their successors.

Germany has as yet not apologized for the genocide of the Herero and Nama and other massacres in the colonial period. Germany is willing to apologize to Russians, Poles and other Europeans but not to Africans. The German State is not yet ready to pay compensation for the illegal confiscation of African lands or cattle and other properties it illegally confiscated during the colonial period..

As readers may know, German NGO’s have been waging a vigourous campaign against the persistence of street names, squares, and statues celebrating German colonial adventurers, mostly criminals, in many German cities whereas there is hardly any statue or memorial remembering the thousands of victims of German colonial aggression. (10).The statue of a flag at half-mast may, stave off some criticisms from German NGO’s that there is no statue in memoriam of the victims of slavery and colonialism.

It must be observed that the half-mast flag statue will be in a building and not outside,visible for all to see. Only those who enter the Humboldt Forum will see the statue. By placing the flag statue in the Humbold Forum, one ensures that it will not become well-known to visitors and other persons in Berlin who are not already informed. By placing a colonial memorial in the most imperialist and colonialist building in Germany at present, you ensure that the statue is swallowed or dwarfed by the gigantic imperial structure.

We must also remember that the Humboldt Forum is not willing to restitute any of the 580 looted Benin artefacts it holds presently and has within the Benin Dialogue Group with other European members expressed willingness to consider only temporary loans of some of the looted artefacts to Nigeria. Many former European colonialist States and their museums have expressed no regrets for the looting or holding of looted African artefacts. Their arrogant positions appear to be the natural conduct of former colonialists who in effect do not condemn the cruel colonial rule. They do not see anything wrong with colonial oppressions, massacres and genocides. We recall the wave of hostile criticisms in Germany against Heidemarie Wieczoreck-Zeul, then Minister of Cooperation and Development when she tried to apologize for German colonial atrocities. (11)

Aimé Césaire has correctly stated that Germans, like most Europeans, objected to Nazi methods only when they were applied to Europeans. Before Europeans became victims, they tolerated them because those colonialist methods had been applied mainly to non-Europeans. (12) Germans do not see German colonialism as wicked and inhumane as the crimes of the Nazi regime.

If Hermann Parzinger and others really want a symbol of remembrance of German slavery and colonial crimes, they should build in the city-centre of Berlin, preferably on the Museum Island, in front of the Humboldt Forum, and not in some outlying district, a spectacular monument, such as that built for the victims of Nazi atrocities. Africans also want a spectacular monument that is visible to all and cannot be missed or ignored by any visitor to Berlin. A monument in a hall or in a place, not always accessible to pedestrians, will not be useful in educating that barbarous regimes such as the colonial system or the Nazi regime should not be repeated. After all, Berlin was the place where Africa’s colonization and partition by the European powers were finalized in 1844-45 and it would be proper and fitting if Berlin were to set an example by repenting and offering the necessary apologies.

As shown by the determination and decision to put a Christian cross on the Humboldt Forum even though this is plainly contrary to the declared aims of the Forum to be a place for diverse cultures and traditions and the half-hearted attempt at remembrance of slavery and German colonial rule, the ruling elite in Germany are confident they can do whatever they want even in the face of opposition from their own people and do not think they need to apologise for the crimes and genocide committed during the cruel German colonial rule in Africa.

The Humboldt Forum Short Guide does not contain any indications that the German authorities are moving away from colonial thinking towards recognition of German atrocities in Africa and recognition of a need to apologize and make amends through, for example, restitution of looted African artefacts. They have not radically moved away from the views and positions of the previous colonial masters despite statements and actions appearing to move away from the racist colonialists.

‘Truth must be repeated constantly, because error is being repeatedly preached round about all the time, and not just by a few, but by the masses. In the periodicals and encyclopaedias, in schools and universities, everywhere error prevails, being confident and comfortable in the feeling that it has the majority on its side.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (13)

Kwame Opoku.


1.Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme’, Éditions Présence Africaine, 1955, p. 65 Paris. Discourse on Colonialism, English text, ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, translation by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 2000, New York, p. 71.

2. Digital Preview

Berlin's Humboldt Forum to Celebrate Opening Online ..Opening of Humboldt Forum delayed again as coronavirus lockdown extended—

3. Humboldt Forum Short Guide, Prestel, Edited by Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, 2020. German version, Humboldt Forum Kurzführer.4. Ibid., p. 57.

5. Ibid., p. 59.

6. K. Opoku, ‘Golden Cross on Humboldt Forum: Arrogance, Stubbornness, Provocation and Defiance’.

Golden Cross on Humboldt Forum: Arrogance, Stubbornness, Provocation and Defiance. (

7. Short Guide, p. 85.

Sculpture confronting Germany's colonial past installed at ...

Bronze-Skulptur im Humboldt Forum erinnert an ... -

Statue of Limitations erected in the Humboldt Forum

Cover Image: Statue of Limitations - Research Online – UOW

8. K. Opoku, ’Revised Guidelines on Colonial Collections: Germany Not Advanced with Restitution of Looted African Artefacts’.


10. See Annex below

11. Return of stolen skulls by Germany to Namibia: Closure of a ...

12.Discours sur le colonialisme’, Éditions Présence Africaine, 1955, Paris, p.13; English text, ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, Joan Pinkham, p. 65.

13. "Und denn, man muß das Wahre immer wiederholen, weil auch der Irrtum um uns her immer wieder gepredigt wird, und zwar nicht von der Masse. In Zeitungen und Enzyklopädien, auf Schulen und Universitäten, überall ist der Irrtum oben auf, und es ist ihm wohl und behag Majorität, die auf seiner Seite ist."

Goethe am 16. Dezember 1828 Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, Seite 311, Reclams Universal Bibliothek, Nr.2002, Stuttgart, 2006.



Protests regarding street names, monuments and places glorifying colonial adventurers and criminals as well as the absence of memorials for the victims of colonial aggression are too many to mention here. Ignorance about the colonial period is widespread.

Readers may consult the following with profit:

DW Germany's colonial era brought to light amid global protest. Germany's Nazi symbols, imperial statues on display in Berlin museum

Boaventura de Sousa Santos,’ Why we tear down statues’..

Jennifer Neal, How Berlin Is Reckoning with Germany’s Colonial Past

Dossier: (

Most former colonialist powers have thousands of statues, street names, squares, places etc honouring colonialist adventurers and criminals that they have considered deserving honour and remembrance. One needs to take the underground in a place like Paris to recognize how colonialists and their exploits are still honoured in France. Slavery and colonialist statues have come recently under attacks, especially under the impulse of Black Lives Matter. Can one have decolonization and still keep these indicators of evil times and persons? One must make a choice. We do not believe in any destruction of statues, not even of the most evil racist and colonialist but do we have to see them every day in main public spaces where our children also pass by? These objects must be collected and put in a museum or park of controversy that will be open to the public. Mayor of London (

@MayorofLondon Jun 9, 2020

The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan is being removed from West India Quay. Whilst it’s a sad truth that much of our city and nation’s wealth was derived from the slave trade - this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces.

After the recent protests against such statues, some authorities established procedures for selecting statues to be removed The Mayor of London set up a committee to make a list and proposals for removals. However, the British Government has introduced rules and regulations that will make the procedures adopted in Bristol and London unworkable. We believe that the earlier procedures in Bristol and London would solve the problem of destruction of statues and other public monuments. The contrary position, such as those introduced later in Britain by the British Government will only encourage spontaneous protests and possibly lead to destruction. This position is likely to provoke many African activists and their supporters.

Comment | Tearing down troubling statues is not lying about our history—

UK government announces new laws to protect controversial historic monuments from 'wok

See also Topple the Racists Map - text only (

Belgium has removed some statues of the hateful and cruel King Leopold II who cut off hands of African children whose parents did not produce enough rubber in a day for the Belgian imperialists- See Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold's Ghost,1999 .DW ‘Belgium: King Leopold II statue removed in Antwerp after anti-racism protests

K. Opoku, ‘Will Belgium Hear the Call for Restitution of Looted African Artefacts? Are Western Museums the Last Bastions of Colonialism and Imperialism?

Could it be that the more reluctant a State is to restitute, the more likely it is that it would keep many colonialist statues?

Paradoxically, in France, President Macron who is for restitution of looted African artefacts seems to be against removing any colonialist statues: Macron would not even consider removing the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, that stands in front of the French National Assembly. Colbert drafted the Code Noire that established the legal framework for slavery in the French colonies.

But how do we explain Macron’s different positions on restitution and removal of colonial statues? Macron’s position is all the more remarkable since he has not only called for restitution of African artefacts but has also described colonialism as a crime contre l’humanité a crime against humanity. ‘‘Emmanuel Macron : "La colonisation est un crime contre l'humanité"

Can one condemn crimes against humanity and accept that statues glorifying those who committed crimes against humanity continue in public squares, underground stations, circles, and public buildings, praising those criminals? Macron’s contradictory position can only be explained on the basis of the shifting French political conjunctures. Like most Liberals when facing difficult, forthcoming elections, Macron abandons Liberal positions and falls back on old established positions of the nationalistic Ultra-right and fascist factions.

Even Switzerland which never had directly a colony but profited from slavery and colonialism has joined the discussion on removing statues of slave masters. ‘Switzerland joins debate about removing controversial memorials’.

Netherlands protesters call for removal of colonial-era statue Most Dutch want statues to remain untouched: survey’ It should be remembered that the Dutch have recently made enormous progress in restitution and the government has accepted recommendations of a recent committee that would place Netherlands ahead of European States in matters of restitution of looted colonial artefacts. The Dutch Minister for Culture, Ingrid van Engelshoven has declared: “We must treat colonial collections with great sensitivity. There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft.” How many European Ministers of Culture could make such a statement?

It would be interesting to have the numbers of colonialist/imperialist monuments each European State has on its territory in Europe. One could then determine whether Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, or Portugal has the highest number. The extent of these colonialist monuments show us how much work there is to be done in order to achieve decolonization of Europe. Portuguese authorities have not been keen to enter discussions on removal of colonialist statues.

‘President Marcello comments on Portugal’s BLM racism protests :vandalizing statues is imbecilic’

Portugal, being the first European State to have started the colonization of territories outside Europe, is obviously not interested in dismantling the many colonialist monuments spread over its territory. Portugal has every reason to be cautious about discussions on the removal of statues. Lisbon seems to be full of many historical statues and monuments. Along the banks of the Tagus, are the famous Torre de Belém, Belem Gate, as well as the huge monument glorifying the discoveries, Padrão dos descobrimentos. Some have gone as far as to suggest that these two monuments should also be removed in so far as they testify to the beginning of the colonization process.

A statue of Christopher Columbus, the navigator was knocked down and vandalized in Santa Catarina Park in Funchal on 26 July 2020.

The Portuguese who glorify explorers and navigators are surprised that their African and Black population do not share the national narrative that these navigators are heroes and the myth that there is no racism in Portugal despite all the United Nations reports on racism in Portugal. Portuguese have great difficulty with their collective colonial memory.Quem tem medo das marcas do colonialismo no espaço público?

K. Opoku, Will Portugal be the last former colonialist State to restitute looted African artefacts?

Portuguese Africans and Africans in Portugal have succeeded in making the Lisbon City Council agree to erecting a memorial statue in remembrance of the millions who died in slavery and colonialism. A site has been chosen near the City Hall, but no plan has yet been revealed. The site, Ribeira das Naus, facing river Tejo, is near to the City Council which is built on the site of a former prison where African slaves brought to Portugal were kept until the future owners paid the requisite tax

Kang Sunkoo, Statue of Limitations, bronze sculpture of a flag at half-mast in the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.

Surviving Herero returning from Omaheke Desert where they had been driven by German troops after the Battle at Waterberg; two women in front were unable to stand.

The Bismarck Monument in Hamburg (1906). Total height: 34.3 m. Height of statue: 14.8 m.

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, of nonprofit Berlin Postkolonial, holds a sign for a street renamed to commemorate a rebellion in German East Africa. TAHIR DELLA


Bismarck Memorial,Berlin,Germany.


Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, Germany.


Joacine Katar Moreira Beatriz Gomez Dias Romualda Fernandes

These are the activists leading in Portugal the struggle against racism and the demand for a memorial to the millions of victims who died in 400 years of slavery and colonialism. They are all members of the Portuguese Parliament.