The long-awaited return of artifacts to Namibia and Cameroon from the Ethnological Museum of the National Museums in Berlin has cleared its last hurdle.
The museum announced yesterday that the board of trustees of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a federal body that oversees the institution, along with 26 other museums and cultural organizations in and around Berlin, has authorized the agreements between SPK president Hermann Parzinger and Namibian and Cameroonian officials.
The collection, which includes everyday artifacts like jewelry, fashion, and tools, first returned to Namibia in May as part of “Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures,” a research project with the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN). Experts from both organizations worked together establish the provenance and cultural significance of some 1,400 objects. Twenty-three of the most historically significant pieces traveled back to their country of origin for further research.
“We know how important these objects are for Namibia,” Parzinger said in a statement. “These are very early pieces, of which comparison objects are no longer preserved in Namibia even because of violent colonization. If we restore these objects now, we will support our Namibian partners in reconstructing the history of their country.”
A years-long negotiation between Germany and Cameroon has also ended with an agreement to send back an Ngonnso’, a figure depicting a mother deity, stolen by colonial officer Curt von Pavel and donated to the Ethnological Museum in 1903.
“The decision makes it clear that the question of returning collection material from colonial contexts does not only depend on an injustice context,” Parzinger said. “The special—especially spiritual—meaning of an object for the society of origin can also justify a return.”
Additionally, the foundation’s board has authorized talks between Parzinger and the museum’s partners in Tanzania over the return of a group of artifacts looted during the Maji-Maji Rebellion, an unsuccessful challenge to the oppressive German occupation in 1905. The colonial-era context of the objects was established by a similar collaborative research project, “Tanzania/Germany: Shared Object Histories?”
In September, an exhibition examining the histories of the museum’s Tanzania collection will open at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. It is set to be followed by a large-scale 2024 show currently under development by the National Museum of Tanzania that will feature the Maji-Maji artifacts. At the conclusion of the exhibition, the artifacts will be repatriated to Tanzania.
Germany has been at the forefront of repatriation efforts that are underway in major institutions in Europe and the United States. Last April, Germany became the first country to announce plans to return its Benin Bronzes, which are part of a group of thousands of artifacts that were stolen by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, in 1897.