23.12.2013 Feature Article

Germans Debate Legitimacy And Legality Of Looted Artefacts In Ethnology Museum, Berlin

Pwo Mask, Chokwe, Angola, Now In Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, GermanyPwo Mask, Chokwe, Angola, Now In Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
23.12.2013 LISTEN

“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause (1)

As readers may know, there has been a strong opposition in Germany to the proposed Humboldt Forum project which, inter alia, will, involve the transfer of looted African objects, including the Benin bronzes, from the Ethnology Museum, Dahlem, Berlin, to the centre of the city at the Museums Island.

A large group of German NGOs has formed a coalition movement, No Humboldt 21, to oppose this transfer and have brought the issue of the legitimacy of the African cultural objects in the Ethnology Museum. They consider the exhibition concept presented as Eurocentric and violating the dignity and the property rights of persons from many parts of the world. (2).

On Monday, 2 December 2013, a public hearing was held by the Cultural Committee of the Berlin Parliament to discuss the current status of the conception and development of the Humboldt-Forum and the future use of the museums at Dahlem. The German press reported widely the discussions on the issues involved, including the legitimacy of the looted artefacts at the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin and the proposed transfer of the artefacts to the proposed forum. (3)

The No Humboldt 21 group has argued persuasively that most of the 500,000 items in the museum were brought there on illegitimate ground, looted or forced from the inhabitants of the German colonies. They have pointed out that the Benin bronzes in particular were looted by the British in their notorious invasion of Benin in 1897 and sold to the Germans who knew they were buying stolen goods; three months after the invasion. They could thus not have had any bona fides. Indeed, one of the famous German ethnologists who were keen in collecting artefacts, Felix von Luschan had suggested approvingly that the way the British secured the Benin bronzes should be studied by others.(4)

In the present debate, supporters of transfer of the artefacts to the centre of Berlin, have offered the usual weak arguments which do no honour to German intellectual history and the solid reputations of German universities. Some have tried to avoid the main question of legitimacy by pointing out that bringing the objects to the centre of Berlin secures equality and respect for the African objects: “Moving the non-European collections from Dahlem to the centre of Berlin and displaying them in proximity to the Museumsinsel will reintegrate them into an ensemble in which they will be freed of the stigma of the exotic. This too is part of the equality of presentation and perception of world culture.”(5)

Much surprising is the attempt by some to make Post-Colonial critique responsible for the existence of distinctions and differences between the European States and other States: `”At the Humboldt Forum, the separation between Europe and “non-Europe” is lifted. Rather than being directed from Berlin exotic foreign worlds, the perspective of the exhibitions incorporates Europe. The challenge is to overcome the one sided post-colonial perceptions that place the European museum squarely in the tradition of colonialism and construe the non-European world as a victim of colonialism, thereby perpetuating the fragmentation of the world”. (6)

With all due respect to the learned professor, this is indeed a very remarkable statement coming from a scholar and former director of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. She is making those who comment on the persistence of disparity and contradictions between European countries and African and Asian countries, responsible for the existence of these differences. A well-known German scholar from the 19th century who also wrote decades ago from Berlin would have simply said that theses differences are reflections of the persistent socio-economic disparities between European and non-European States.

One can understand that Prof. König does not want the Humboldt Forum linked to colonialism. I am afraid that all things considered, this would be impossible so long as the objects acquired under colonialism from former colonies are kept in the Humboldt Forum. Moreover, the conduct of the German authorities and the Ethnology Museum with regard to the restitution of the looted objects has been close if not the same as those of the colonialists.

Members of the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects

It has also been stated that research into the ownership of the artefacts, the provenance would require a lot of resources and the lack of resources means that the research can only be done intermittently. The Humboldt-Forum Project is estimated to cost 590 million euros. But Germany has had many of these artefacts in its possession for more than hundred years. Besides Germans are known for keeping accurate records but when it comes to such artefacts, they have no reliable records.

In any case, as far as the Benin artefacts are concerned, there is no need for any provenance research. The museum knows, the German authorities know and we all know that the artefacts were looted in 1897 by the British from the Oba's Palace in their nefarious invasion of Benin. What else more does the museum or the German authorities require to know?

It has also been stated that one of the aims of the Humboldt-Forum is to bring curators and other scholars from the countries of origin to Berlin to discuss the problematic history of the artefacts and their interpretation. The German authorities have succeeded in recruiting some experts from Africa and Asia to be on the board of directors of the Humboldt-Forum; they count on artists, curators as well as communities in Berlin that are from the countries of origin of the artefacts to present their own views that would diminish the hitherto Eurocentric point of view:

“In the presentation of objects of cultural significance it is important to create a variety of points of access. It is no longer sufficient to accentuate the European view of the world. The interpretative prerogative of European academics in museums has long been called into question by post-colonial criticism. Now is the time to draw appropriate conclusions.

Tendencies to exoticise all that is foreign are diametrically opposed to the Humboldt-Forum's commitment to an egalitarian approach to the arts and cultures of the world. A wide variety of participants, and particularly indigenous

groups and artists from the various countries of origin are therefore to be included in the constant re-interpretation of objects and their narrative presentation. In a change of perspective of sorts their knowledge can enrich our approach to the collections because they add new points of view and different types of knowledge. In this way multiple perspectives and a variety of voices will become part of the Humboldt Forum's fundamental position with regard to its content, only thus can we objectify our own view of the world. There is no conflict in this self reflection of the museum's position but it provides instead tremendous potential for the further development of our traditional cultural institutions.”(7)

We are sure the members of the board of directors, curators and artists would be shocked to hear they will be enlisted to interpret the history of such looted artefacts and thereby be put in conflict with their home governments and authorities who may have a different view of the history of the looted objects.

However, the opposition and argument of the anti-Humboldt coalition relates not to the interpretation of the looted objects but to the legitimacy and legality of a German museum holding objects of others confiscated with violence. The insidious attempt to use the presence of the African and other diasporas in Berlin as justification for retention of the looted artefacts will not impress anyone. It would be seen by many as a cynical attempt to utilize persons who have been forced by circumstances to leave their original homes. Would anybody think of involving European communities in Africa to interpret European art and cultural objects?

It should be observed that the debate on the legitimacy of the German holding of the Benin Bronzes is taking place at the same time as the debate regarding the Nazi-looted artworks discovered in a private home in Munich. In the case of the Nazi loot, after initial reluctance, the German authorities have, under pressure from various groups, published part of the works. (8) Regarding the Benin works, the German authorities have admitted that the museum has some 507 Benin pieces. (9)

The German authorities have also asserted that no Nigerian authorities or the Benin Monarch has asked for the return of the Benin Bronzes. Up to now, the Nigerian authorities have not challenged the German assertion.

It is well-known that the Berlin Ethnology Museum has some of the best Benin pieces as well as artefacts from other African countries, former German colonies such as Cameroon and Tanzania. Yet no African government or authority has sought to provide a statement relating to the current debate on the legitimacy of the artefacts in the Berlin museum. The Director-General of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments (N.C.M.M) has issued recently several strong worded demands for the return of the Benin Bronzes and other Nigerian artefacts abroad but surprisingly the Commission has not challenged the German statement that Nigerian authorities have not requested the return of the Benin artefacts nor has the Commission sought to intervene in the Berlin discussions to correct erroneous views regarding the Bronzes.(10) Many African States have embassies in Berlin. Do they not report on such matters to their governments?

As far as the restitution of looted artefacts is concerned, No Humboldt 21 holds the same view as most Africans: these looted objects must be returned. However, we do not express any view of the Humboldt Forum itself since this is a matter best decided by the Germans themselves but the fate of the looted artefacts concerns us. If this particular occasion is not utilized, there may not be any other opportunity to raise the issue in a way that may bring the issue of the restitution of the looted artefacts to the attention of the public. The debate will go on so long as the African peoples have not recovered their precious national treasures that were looted in the colonial era.

When this idea of transferring the African artefacts to the centre of Berlin was raised in 2008, we pointed out that in our times, the essential question was not whether the artefacts should be transferred to the centre of Berlin but rather the legitimacy of German possession and the need to return the objects to their rightful owners:

“Ethical and legal considerations should lead German intellectuals to plead for the return of all these objects except those which the owners consent to leave in Europe. This should be considered as the minimum sign that the evils of the past are condemned by the present generation and that they are seeking to take new paths in their relations with Africa and Asia. They should abandon any belief that one can overcome the past without any effort and without any critical examination of the past. They should consider “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (“coming to terms with the past”) as relevant not only with regard to the Nazi past but also the colonialist past. Colonialism did not come to an end with the end of colonization any more than Nazism came to an end with the termination of Nazi domination in Europe.” (11)

During the celebrations concerning Nelson Mandela's passing away many Western leaders underlined his virtues of compassion and reconciliation. But these virtues do not appear to be part of the vocabulary of the West in the area of restitution of artefacts. Instead of seeking reconciliation with the African States that had been robbed of their national treasures, Western States have spent the last sixty years advancing all sorts of dubious theories, such as that the looted artefacts belong to the whole of mankind. Nobody has bothered to explain why Great Britain should loot from Benin the Benin Bronzes that allegedly belong to all of us. Time has also been wasted in developing the self-serving concept of “Universal Museums” which serves to justify the presence of looted artefacts in the big museums in the West. (12)

Will the Germans be willing and able to break away from this family that is prominently distinguished by its illegal holding of the looted cultural artefacts of other peoples? (13) Will they finally cease following those false prophets in the museum world in Berlin, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere who advise that the West has a duty to keep looted African artefacts in their museums?

Kwame Opoku. 21, December, 2013.


1. “Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystemverdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden“.

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, p.185, C.

Bertelsmann, München, 1984.
2. No Humboldt 21
No Humboldt 21 - AfricAvenir International
3. See No Humboldt 21 for references to the following reports;

Tagespiegel, 4 Dec. 2013,
"Showroom für Raubkunst"
RBB Kulturradio: 05.12.2013 "Müssen Museen Beutestücke aus der Kolonialzeit zurückgeben?"

Die Welt, 16.12.13 F
Berlins Stadtschloss hat ein Beutekunstproblem
TAZ, 18,Dec.2913 „Ein Koffer voll koloniales Erbe“
4. K.Opoku. “Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes Made in Berlin?”

5. Herman Parzinger, “The Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss: Expectations and Opportunities”, p.22, The Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss, published by the Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz. Hirmer, 2013

6. Viola König, “Worlds in Motion: The Ethnologisches Museum at the Humboldt-Forum”. Ibid, p.90. See also her contribution “Die Konzeptdebatte”, in Band 59, Bassler-Archiv Beiträge zur Völkerkunde Der Lange Weg 1999-2012, (eds.) Maria Gaida, Paola Ivanov and Viola König.`

Die Berliner Sammlungen als Ergebnis eines historischen Prozesses der Erschließung der Welt für Europa sind der Ausgangspunkt. Geschichte und Gegenwart der einzelnen Kontinente sind ohne dieses Prozeß nicht zu verstehen und nicht darstellbar. Doch gilt es, einseitige postkoloiniale Vorstellungen zu überwinden, die das Humboldt-Forum in der Nachfolge des Kolonialismus ansiedeln wollen. Das Humboldt-Forum wird nur dann erfolgreich sein, wenn es die Trennung von Europa und „ Ausser-Europa“ überwindet. Die Perspektive der Ausstellungen geht eben nicht von Berlin in exotisch fremde Welten, sondern gleichermaßen vice versa und bezieht Europa stets mit ein.“ p. 62

7. Herman Parzinger,”The Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss: Experiences and Opportunities”, The Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss, p.23

8. “Nazi loot Germany begins publishing list of 1,400 works found in Nazi art stash in Munich apartment”,

“Europe's dirty little art secret”, Anne-Marie O'Connor

Los Angeles Times 28 November 2013,0,6344299.story#axzz2lvYT4qaD ‎
9. Abgeordnetenhaus Berlin Drucksache 17 / 12 360 Kleine Anfrage 17. Wahlperiode Kleine Anfrage derAbgeordneten Clara Herrmann (GRÜNE) vom 28. Juni 2013 (Eingang beim Abgeordnetenhaus am 01. Juli 2013) und Antwort (Postkoloniale) Auseinandersetzung mit dem Humboldt Forum. The Federal Minister for Culture has also given answers to similar questions from the Green Party, confirming the views from the Berlin Government.

10. K. Opoku,” Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria's Demand for the Return of Looted Artefacts?”

11. K. Opoku, “Why Do Europeans, Even Intellectuals Have Difficulty in Contemplating the Restitution of Stolen African Cultural Objects? Wolf Lepenies and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin,” ›

12. K. Opoku, “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”, http://www.modernghana.coml

13. See annex below. See also K. Opoku, “Is the Stealing of the Cultural Objects of Others a Specific Cultural Heritage of Europe or is it a Universal Heritage?”

Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of where some of the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. The museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna (Now World Museum) has closed since 12 years and is not likely to re-open soon. The looted Benin artefacts are in the African Section. The German authorities still have to explain the disparity between 507 objects they now admit and the figure of 580 given by Prof. Felix van Luschan who was instrumental in “purchasing” the Benin Bronzes for the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Has the museum, like the British Museum also sold some of the Benin artefacts? See K, Opoku, Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria's Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?

See also, Felix von Luschan, Die Altertümer von Benin, hrsg. mit Untertstützung des Reichs-Kolonialministeriums, der Rudolf Virchow- und der Arthur Baessler-Stiftung, 1919.

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, - Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400

Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St. Mungo's Museum of Religious Life 22

Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.

Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.

Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.

Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde (World Museum) 167.




Throne Of The King Of Bamum, Cameroon, Now In The Ethnology Museum, Berlin, GermanyThrone Of The King Of Bamum, Cameroon, Now In The Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany