24.01.2018 Feature Article

Parzinger’s Cri De Coeur: Genuine Plea For Un/unesco Assistance Or Calculation To Delay Restitution Of Artefacts?

Ifa bowl, agere ifa, carried by a seated woman, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.Ifa bowl, agere ifa, carried by a seated woman, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.<
24.01.2018 LISTEN

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. (1)

We read in the well-known German newspaper, Salzburger Nachrichten (2) a statement from the president of the rich Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, responsible for the Humboldt Foundation, which seems to be his cri de coeur.

The president of the powerful German foundation that has spent 600million euros to re-build the Berlin City Castle which would house the Humboldt Foundation when it is ready in 2019 sees himself confronted with many criticisms in Germany and from abroad regarding the foundation's handling of the issue of the thousands of African human remains in German institutions and the question of the restitution of the thousands of cultural artefacts to be transferred from the Ethnology Museum, Berlin to the Humboldt Forum. Under these circumstances, Herman Parzinger, cries out for help from the politicians; they should not leave the museums alone to handle such issues. He calls out for '' an international agreement for treatment of the colonial legacy in museums and state institutions. As in the case of Nazi looted property, the international community should adopt binding principles. It would be decisive to reach a consensus with source countries''

He calls out for a conference to discuss the colonial legacy at the European level. Countries such as Great Britain, France or Spain have also through their history as colonial powers a large collection of artefacts that also need to be discussed;UNESCO could play an important role as the United Nations organization mandated to discuss and deal with cultural matters relating to heritage of mankind'

According to Herman Parzinger, 'the primary question here is not restitution or not. There is a moral duty to clarify the origin of the collections and to discuss them with source countries how` we display these objects and how we tell their histories.'

Parzinger promises that the Humboldt Forum will tell what it knows about the artefacts but emphasizes the need for more resources to do research on the artefacts. The increasing criticism in Germany about the unwillingness of the Humboldt Forum to talk about the shady past of the objects in the museum leads him to declare that 'It is incorrect to assert that ethnological objects are in principle illegally acquired'. One wonders on what evidence he seeks to reverse the general opinion of the majority of persons inside and outside Germany. The British invasion of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 which resulted in looting of some 3500 Benin artefacts that are spread in various Western countries comes to many minds in this context. Also known to many is the notorious French Dakar-Djibouti expedition (1931-1933) which resulted in the transfer of some 3500 pieces from the former French colonies. Michel Leiris, secretary and archivist of the expedition has reported on the methods used, including robbery, intimidation, stealing and blackmail, in his famous book, Phantom Africa. (3) That most Western ethnological museums hold looted/stolen objects is common knowledge.

What can one make out of Parzinger's plea to have a United Nations/ UNESCO conference to deal with the colonial legacy? Is this a genuine call for help in settling the issues relating to artefacts taken out of Africa during European colonization or is this a tactical move to gain time and thereby delay restitution of looted artefacts?


Commemorative head of an oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

The question of the continued presence of looted African artefacts in Western museums has gained additional momentum since the famous Ouagadougou Declaration of French President, Emmanuel Macron on 28 November 2017, that led a group of German and international intellectuals to petition German Chancellor Angela Merkel to adopt a similar position. (4) Parzinger, of course, does not refer to Macron nor to the petition to Merkel but it is obvious that his statements are prompted by Macron's declaration regarding the need to return African artefacts looted during the colonial era. It is also an indirect response to the letter to Chancellor Merkel which must have placed her in a difficult situation. She could hardly oppose Macron's stance but at the same time German officialdom is not ready to follow Macron.

German officials seem to have decided that the best way out this situation is to plead lack of knowledge and to argue that we need more information and knowledge about the artefacts in German museums. This approach falls in line with the approach adopted by the curators in the current exhibition at the Bode museum. (5) They call for more research on the provenance of the artefacts that have been in Germany for more than a hundred years. Those calling for more research emphasize that it takes time and resources. But should one not distinguish the question of restitution from questions of general knowledge. We must note that Parzinger is often not concerned with restitution. He thinks there is a moral duty to clarify the origin of the collections and to discuss them with source countries how` we display these objects and how we tell their histories.' Someone should tell him that the African States want their artefacts back and are not so much worried about how Germans interpret the objects and what stories they tell. For that, there is no need for any international conference or United Nations/UNESCO assistance.


Drinking bowl in the form of a head. musenge, Kanyok, Democratic Republic of Congo, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

It should be noted that there are artefacts about which all essential information and knowledge is available. For example, what more do the museums need to know about the Benin artefacts? The Humboldt Forum could send right now to Benin some of the 508 or more it holds. True though that some museums officials are suddenly saying that they do not know what the functions the Benin are. (6)


Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany.,

The failure to refer to Macron's Ouagadougou Declaration may be due to a desire not to draw attention to discrepancies between the positions of Germany and France. Whereas France seems to be ready to start the process of restitution, Germany is pleading ignorance about artefacts it had kept since more than a hundred years. But even in calling for a United Nation/UNESCO conference, Parzinger would prefer to limit the meeting to the European States, France, Germany, Britain and Spain. Those European countries would meet under the umbrella of the United Nations, work out some agreement and then sell it or impose it on the African countries. Although Parzinger does not expressly include the African countries in his call for UNESCO meeting, he realises the European States need agreement with the source countries.

So why does he not call a meeting involving all the parties concerned in the question of restitution? If the European States want to agree among themselves on certain principles, they do not need UNESCO's help for such a meeting. The scheme clearly seems to be to achieve a Western agreement and with UNESCO blessing, impose it on Africans. Even if Africans are later on invited to an international conference, they will be presented with an ostensible working document which incorporates the European agreed principles presenting it as work of a group of experts including African experts, who have prepared the document to facilitate the work of the conference. An International conference to discuss the issues of restitution of African artefacts would need much more time and resources than is usually accorded to conferences and the conference may have to be spread over years.


A priest with a gong, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

The call for UNESCO's assistance is misleading insofar as it creates the impression that the United Nations/ UNESCO have not dealt with the issues of restitution of artefacts looted under colonial regimes. The United Nations has since 1972, almost on a biennial basis, passed resolutions entitled, Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin (7) which contain sufficient principles for dealing with cultural property of others. Moreover, the Athens Conference of 2008 adopted decisions that would allow for solving problems arising from the holding of the property of others. (8)

Already in the 1973 resolution, the General Assembly recalled

'the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, stressed 'that cultural heritage of a people conditions the present and future flowering of its artistic values and its over- all development and,' deplored 'the wholesale removal virtually without payment, of objets d'art from one country to another, frequently as a result of colonial or foreign occupation.'

The Assembly also affirmed that 'the prompt restitution to a country of its objets d'art, monuments, museum pieces, manuscripts and documents by another country, without charge is calculated to strengthen international co-operation inasmuch as it constitutes just reparation for damage done.

The Assembly recognized the' special obligations in this connexion of those countries which had access to such valuable objects only as a result of colonial or foreign occupation.'

The General Assembly has reaffirmed in subsequent resolutions the duty and the need to return cultural property to their countries of origin, but Western States have ceased for long to pay much attention to United Nations/UNESCO recommendations in cultural matters. They have only done what suits them.

I was very surprised to see Parzinger refer to international agreement on compensation for victims of Nazi looting as an example that could be followed for victims of colonial looting and robbery. Everybody knows that the performance of States in this area is nothing for them to boast about. Several decades after the last world war, there are still victims and their successors who have received no compensation. (9) Indeed, most victims have already died without ever receiving any compensation. If this is the pattern to be followed in case of looted African artefacts, it might well take another 200 years to get the majority of cases settled.

Moreover, whenever parallels have been drawn in the past between the treatment of victims of Nazi spoliation and treatment of African victims of German colonial misappropriation, Germans have been quick to point out differences and to deny any racist differentiation. The close resemblances between German colonial oppression and Nazi practices are evident and indeed it can be said that the Nazis practised what had already been tried in the German colonies. (10)

Parzinger's suggestions are not simply a step back from the stand of Macron but ten steps backwards. Whereas under Macron's proposals we could well expect to experience soon some restitutions and in any case, theoretically within 5 years, Parzinger is clearly not thinking of any quick restitution. He is not envisaging Germany returning some African artefacts at all. He believes the issue is not restitution but dialogue: dialogue about how` we display these objects and how we tell their histories.' The President of the Prussian Foundation for German Cultural Heritage seems to be living in a world of his own. He is the only one who is not aware that the Africans are seeking restitution of their looted artefacts and not dialogue about the artefacts. He reminds one of the now discredited tactic of denying there has been any request for restitution at the very moment representatives of the source countries are crying out loudly for their artefacts. (11)


King's throne kuofo, Banka, Cameroon, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

A United Nations/UNESCO conference on restitution or any aspects of looted artefacts opens a whole range of issues and questions. So far, the focus of discussions in Germany has been on the artefacts in the Ethnology Museum, Berlin due to be transferred to the Humboldt-Forum. But the issues are much wider, embracing many museums in Germany and elsewhere. A UNESCO Conference on restitution of artefacts will have, by definition, to deal with questions relating to Nefertiti, Benin Bronzes, Rosetta Stone, Parthenon Marbles and others. Is that what the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation wants? The General Assembly's resolutions on restitution of cultural property to countries of origins covers a wide range of objects - objets d'art, monuments, museum pieces, manuscripts and documents. Nor is there any geographical limitation or racial or ethnic limitation. Objects taken from North Africa as well as from other parts of the world would be included and neither the United Nations/UNESCO nor the African States would accept a Hegelian s excision of parts of the continent.


King's throne, mandu yenu, Bamum, Cameroon, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

German officialdom is indeed at a loss; they do not realize that in this post Ouagadougou period, the old arguments and methods are no longer applicable. The only choice available is to keep up with Macron or to out-macron Macron; they can either follow the steps of the bold and imaginative French leader or take a step ahead of the Elysée: i.e. implement some of the implications of the Ouagadougou Declaration. They could do this, e.g. by returning without any further delay or discussion some of the 508 or more Benin artefacts they have been holding in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin since 1897.

German leadership does not seem to realize that present German youth, like youth everywhere in Europe, has a very strong sense of justice and fairness, different from that of the generation that seized thousands of artefacts from the rest of the world and refused to return any.

Clearly, Germany has more to gain by following Macron's path and returning some artefacts directly than by calling for United Nations/UNESCO conference, a more uncertain path.

Parzinger's cri de coeur therefore appears not to be a genuine call for United Nations/UNESCO help as regards the colonial legacy of looted artefacts in Western museums but a ploy to secure breathing space for an embattled Humboldt-Forum just on the eve of its opening in 2019.

Kwame Tua Opoku.

1. "Und denn, man muß das Wahre immer wiederholen, weil auch der Irrtum um uns her immer wieder gepredigt wird, und zwar nicht von einzelnen, sondern von der Masse. In Zeitungen und Enzyklopädien, auf Schulen und Universitäten, überall ist der Irrtum oben auf, und es ist ihm wohl und behaglich, im Gefühl der Majorität, die auf seiner Seite ist." Goethe am 16. Dezember 1828 Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzen Jahren seines Lebens, Seite 311, Reclams Universal Bibliothek, Nr.2002, Stuttgart, 2006.2.

3. Michel Leiris, Phantom Africa, translated into English by Brent Hayes Edwards, Seagull Books, 2017.

4. Mnyaka Sururu Mboro & Christian Kopp, Open Letter: Restitution of cultural objects and human remains from Africa,

5. Kwame Opoku, Humboldt Forum And Selective Amnesia: Research Instead of Restitution Artefacts.

6. Kwame Opoku, World Museum, Vienna, Re-Opens: Renovated Premises For Cultural ...

7. The United Nations General Assembly, like UNESCO, is also involved in this field. Indeed, since 1972, many resolutions on the Protection and the Return of Cultural Property, as part of the Preservation and Further Development of Cultural Values, have been adopted.

· Resolution 3026 A (XXVII) of 18 December 1972

· Resolution 3148 (XXVIII) of 14 December 1973

· Resolution 3187 (XXVIII) of 18 December 1973

· Resolution 3391 (XXX) of 19 November 1975

· Resolution 31/40 of 30 November 1976

· Resolution 32/18 of 11 November 1977

· Resolution 33/50 of 14 December 1978

· Resolution 34/64 of 29 November 1979

· Resolutions 35/127 and 35/128 of 11 December 1980

· Resolution 36/64 of 27 November 1981

· Resolution 38/34 of 25 November 1983

· Resolution 40/19 of 21 November 1985

· Resolution 42/7 of 22 October 1987

· Resolution 44/18 of 6 November 1989

· Resolution 46/10 of 22 October 1991

· Resolution 48/15 of 2 November 1993

· Resolution 50/56 of 11 December 1995

· Resolution 52/24 of 25 November 1997

· Resolution 54/190 of 17 December 1999

· Resolution 56/97 of 14 December 2001

· Resolution 1483 of 22 May 2003 by the Security Council of the UN concerning Iraq

· Resolution 58/17 of 3 December 2003

· Resolution 61/52 of 4 December 2006

· Resolution 64/78 of 7 December 2009

· Resolution A.67/L.34 of 5 December 2012

· Resolution A/RES/70/76 of 9 December 2015

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