27.12.2013 Feature Article

Colombian Objections To Lending Artefacts For Exhibition Honouring German Ethnologist: Lessons For Nigerians And Other Africans?

Stone Figure Of Man With Rice Teeth, San Agustin, Colombia, Now In Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, GermanyStone Figure Of Man With Rice Teeth, San Agustin, Colombia, Now In Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
27.12.2013 LISTEN

A recent article entitled “Colombia calls off exhibition of sculptures in face of protests”, reprinted by the Museum Security Network, seems to me to contain some lessons which may be useful for Nigerians and other Africans, often faced with requests to lend artefacts to the very Western museums that are illegally holding onto artefacts that had been looted in the colonial times or stolen/removed under dubious or unclarified circumstances.

What the people of San Agustin, a township in southern Colombia, have done was to prevent the removal of 20 monoliths from their town to Bogota that had already been packed and were to have been the centrepieces of an exhibition on San Agustin culture. The Colombian Minister of Culture therefore had to cancel the exhibition. The exhibition was to celebrate”100th anniversary of excavations in San Agustin by German ethnologist Konrad Preuss, who helped uncover many of the pieces now in the town's museum and archaeological park”.

In 1919 Konrad Preuss took 35 statues to Berlin and this has been a bone of contention ever since and the people want these artefacts returned. “Three are on view at the Ethnological Museum in the Dahlem suburb of Berlin, and the rest in the museum's storage”.

An official of the Colombian Ministry is reported to have said “The show would have exposed Colombian culture to a broader audience while boosting high-end tourism to the zone”. This may sound familiar to many readers.

But are there any lessons for Africans to learn or consider?

One point seems clear, namely that the interests of the township and those of the Ministry of Culture seem to diverge considerably. The town's people were worried by the probable loss of income which would occur if the monoliths, a tourist attraction, were removed and tourists stayed away. The officials in the ministry seemed more concerned about exposing Colombian culture to the world.

It is also obvious that the Germans do not need the rest of the monoliths they have been keeping in museum storage for some hundred years. One is reminded of the thousands of other people's artefacts that the British Museum, Louvre and the Berlin museums have kept for hundreds of years.

Perhaps one must be a Westerner to understand the need and logic for keeping other peoples cultural artefacts for hundred years even though one does not need or use them and still refuse to return them to the owners. The rest of the world is baffled by this sheer unbridled greed for the artefacts of others, especially when they are looted or stolen. It appears Westerners are not ashamed or bothered by this situation where they are constantly been criticised for holding onto looted/stolen artefacts of others.

The rules of morality, it seems, no longer apply when they are dealing with cultural property of others.

Of course, the Colombian Ministry of Culture is not to be put in the same position as a foreign museum but who knows who first suggested the idea of the celebration? It appears the Government of Colombia has not asked for the return of the statues from Berlin even though the people of Colombia have asked for their return. But the fact that the Government wants to celebrate the German ethnologist rather than ask for return of the artefacts may be a clear indication of the Government's position.

Some of the early Western anthropologists and archaeologist who studied the cultures of the peoples of Latin America and Africa should be praised for their undoubted contributions. But should they be allowed to keep many of the artefacts they found? Peru finally managed to secure, after legal process, the return of the Machu Pichu artefacts that Hiram Bingham took away to Yale University, USA.

Should we allow the countries of these great scholars to keep such artefacts? Have they not had enough time in all these years to study the objects?

German archaeologists and ethnologists seem prone to associations with stealing/stealthily transferring objects and refusing to return objects sent for repairs/study.

One needs only to recall the bust of Nefertiti which Ludwig Borchardt took away from Egypt under unclarified circumstances. Egypt has been requesting the return of the bust of the Egyptian queen since 1933 with no success.

We recall the accounts relating to Leo Frobenius and his dubious activities in Nigeria leading to the disappearance of the Olokun from Ife, Nigeria.

Again there is the history of German refusal to return Turkish objects sent to Germany for repairs. After some 70 years of dispute and international pressure Germany returned the sphinx to Turkey.

More recently, we have the dispute between researchers from Frankfurt University and Nigerian archaeologists accusing the Germans of stealing Nok sculptures from Nigeria.

Supposing the museums of the countries of these pioneers decide they want to celebrate the centenary of excavations by these great scholars in their countries, what should we say?

Nigeria, Ghana and many other African countries have been studied by great scholars some of whom were the first to carry excavations there, establish museums and institutes to study the respective cultures. Many spent a great part of their lives in particular African countries.

Should museums and governments decide to organize in their countries exhibitions in honour of the great scholars, we should carefully distinguish between the interests of the scholars, those of the museums and our own interests. Those scholars whose names are associated with countries like Nigeria or Ghana hardly need any more exhibitions in their honour. Their solid reputations have been established forever. However, should it be considered necessary to honour them again, such activities should be organized in the countries of their considerable achievements. This would not only allow those countries to pay honour where honour is due but also bring into those States persons who wish to admire the achievements of the pioneers.

Should however the foreign museums, mainly Western museums, decide to organise such celebrations in their own countries, we cannot object. After all, every country has the right to honour its illustrious citizens who have made success abroad. But it would be a different situation if in addition to the artefacts already in the Western countries that have been transferred there under dubious conditions and which they refuse to return, they asked the African or Latin American countries to lend them more cultural artefacts. For example, countries holding illegal Benin artefacts that ask for more Benin objects for an exhibition for whatever reason should not be treated as if there were no outstanding issues. They should be made to give account of the objects they now control illegally and provide grounds why more artefacts should be lent to them whilst they refuse to return the earlier objects. In this respect, one can consider the lending of artefacts by Nigeria to recent exhibitions to be a serious mistake in so far as no conditions were imposed relating to restitution of the thousands of Nigerian artefacts in the Western museums. This has led Western museums to be more audacious and disrespectful in refusing even to contemplate restitution.

What if the demands for loans of artefacts are made on behalf of the family, widow or friends of the scholar in question? Should we simply provide them with whatever they want? We should equally deny to these groups since the costs and risks involved are too much. If possible, we should offer to organize such celebrations in our own countries. Above all, it should be avoided that through the manipulation of NGOs, family and widow or friends, some of the notorious museums known for their devious tactics manage through such persons to avoid any possible denial.

No prudent banker or businessman/woman will consider a loan to a person without clarifying the status of existing loans or debts. Above all, one should avoid the situation where artefacts are lent without proper lists and insurance and then later wonder whether the objects would be returned.

Let there be no misunderstanding about this. Africans and Europeans are condemned to co-operate for after all, we are neighbours even though some European leaders continue to wonder where Africans come from. A look at the map would show that Africa is only 10 kilometres away from Europe. But should cooperation be under any conditions or always only conditions imposed by Europeans? Should Africans always be at the suppliers of material? What did we learn from slavery and colonialism?

Whether African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana would learn from the experience of Colombia, is an open question. The inhabitants of San Agustin have clearly demonstrated that the determination of peoples who care for their cultural artefacts cannot be overcome with false and vague promises of exhibitions that pretend to spread knowledge about their culture while removing away the very objects and basis that make the culture attractive to others.

K. Opoku, 25 December, 2013.

1.[MSN:15211] Colombia calls off exhibition of sculptures in face of protests See the original article by Chris Kraul at,0,6100675.story

2. For the history of the artefacts and how they came to Berlin, see David Dellenbach, The Statues in Berlin,‎

.The PDF is worth reading and sometimes has amusing statements as when Dellenbach reports on his visit to the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin:

“The German archaeologists are not jealous, not fearful; rather, they are sponges: they will welcome me sincerely, and in a month, in addition to all that they already know, they will know what I know about these statues. The Director of the museum is such a sponge. She gladly gives me free access to the entirety of the vast basement warehouses, which I reach each morning through a succession of 13 locked doors”.

Dellenbach who is one of the strongest supporters of the movement seeking the return of the sculptures from Berlin, has also written an interesting book, on the history and significance of the statutes entitled, Las Estatuas Del Pueblo Escultor / the Statues of the Pueblo Escultor (2012)

3. The notion solidly implanted in the minds of many that African cultural objects must be displayed in Western museums is surely a continuation of colonial practice and ideas that evidence the success of the colonial enterprise. It is this idea based on colonial assumption that African culture is inferior and somehow requires the approval or evaluation by the Europeans and other Westerners. Thus many officials in the culture area in Africa act as if their sole function is to preserve and prepare African cultural artefacts for display in London, Paris and New York. How else can one explain that they do not see or even think about the need to show European art to their African public? The continuation of the master-servant relationship is taken for granted and all seem to be working for the masters without any embarrassment. Thus many African cultural objects are shown in the West but not in their countries of origin. Let there be no misunderstanding here. We are not objecting to cultural exchange but this exchange should be in both ways and not one way.

4. On the dispute between Peru and Yale University, see

Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru

Last of Yale's Machu Picchu Artifacts Returned to Peru After Years of ...

Yale agrees to return Machu Picchu artefacts to Peru - Telegraph

5. K. Opoku, “Nefertiti in Absurdity: How often must Egyptians ask Germans for the Return of the Egyptian Queen?”
6. K. Opoku, “Benin Plan of Action for Restitution: Will this ensure the return of Looted Benin Artefacts?”

“Benin Plan of Action (2) Will this Miserable Project be the Last Word on the Looted Benin Artefacts?” http://www.modernghana.coml

Statues in Berlin -Statement by David Dellenbach,'author of the images at the website‎

In December of 1913 the German ethnologist Konrad Preuss, founder and at that time director of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, came to San Agustín for the purpose of studying the archaeology of the area. When he left, in April 1914, he took with him, unduly and very probably illegally, 35 stone statues from the Macizo Colombiano, as well as a good quantity of additional archaeological material, all of which he installed in his museum in Berlin.

He published illustrations of 21 of the statues in his book in 1929; in 1938 he died. In 1992 Davíd Dellenback, the author of the images on this webpage, travelled to Berlin and was able to study the statues, registering them and illustrating them with the drawings seen here. In 2008 he published his book Pueblo Escultor which includes illustrations of the statues transported by Preuss to Germany.

The 12th of December of 2012 served as the date of the inauguration of the campaign to bring about the return of these statues, in order to bring them, in the present year 2013, back to their original location, to their home in the Macizo Colombiano, via a petition directing the Colombian archaeological authorities to seek and facilitate their repatriation.

Please use whatever influence you yourself might have to support this campaign.

Thank you for your interest and support.