Several activists argue that the artefacts displayed at the centre were stolen from Africa by various European colonisers in the 20th century – and they should be returned to their true owners.
The development of a new cultural centre in Berlin has sparked a fiery debate surrounding illegally acquired artefacts from some of Germany’s ex-colonies in Africa.
Critics argue that before the new Humboldt Forum opens, the violent history of art acquired by German universities, museums and institutions must be known.
Cameroonian-born Gad Semaiy Shiynyuy tells TRT World about his personal campaign to have one particular statue returned to his home country.
"We still think about this loss every day," says Shiynyuy. "We believe that this object has divine powers and it’s the same object that our forefathers used to perform rituals to cleanse our land."
Shiynyuy, who is from the northwest of Cameroon and part of the Nso tribe, explains how in 1909, when the region was under German occupation, Ngonnso – a statue considered to be a goddess in his community – was stolen from them. "In my tradition, no one can give Ngonnso away, so people fought to take it," he says.
When Shiynyuy, who moved to Berlin around ten years ago to study, discovered that Ngonnso was in the possession of the city’s Ethnological Museum, he began his efforts to have the statue returned to his community.
Yet today, despite his campaign and a request by the King of Nso to have the statue sent back, the Ngonnso statue is still in Berlin and, in fact, waiting to be transferred to the Humboldt Forum.
Set to open in 2019, the forum will host international art collections, educational programmes and events on a wide range of topics, including European colonialism, religion and science.
Named after the 19th century German naturalist and geographer Alexander Von Humboldt, more than half a million objects will be transferred from the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Museum of Art. This includes collections from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia. One of the highlights will be the famous Benin Bronzes – ancient artefacts that belonged to the Kingdom of Benin (now modern-day Nigeria) – which are now primarily in Germany and the UK.
The centre is a reconstruction of the palace belonging to the last German emperor, the Prussian King Wilhelm II, and at a cost of over $ 721 million (600 million euros), will be the most expensive institute of its kind in the country. Humboldt’s planning committee are calling it "a base camp for the world" and are keen to promote the centre as a place where the visitor can “travel through the world and learn that all cultures are somehow equivalent.”
The story of Ngonnso though, suggests a much deeper problem sitting at the heart of the project, which critics say contradicts the centre’s vision. Like Ngonnso, many of the artefacts that will be exhibited were acquired during Europe’s colonial occupation of Africa. This has led critics to call on Humboldt’s planners to conduct an investigation into how these objects came to be in German hands, and in what manner they were taken from their countries of origin.
So far, these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Tahir Della, from the Initiative of Black People in Germany and one of the many members of the No Humboldt 21 campaign says, "the title of the Humboldt is ‘The Base Camp of the World.’ But that is just a cosmetic way of saying these are stolen objects that we are going to show to people in Germany.”
"They think they have the right to claim that these objects, which are from various countries and decades, have now become part of German cultural heritage. But by showing these objects in a German museum, and now in the Humboldt Forum, without telling people how these objects came, and in what circumstances they got here, is hugely problematic. It also shows the continuities of Germany’s colonial history." says Della.
Compared to other European countries, Germany’s colonial era isn’t considered nearly as bad, nor as long. However, even prior to German unification in 1871, many of its predecessor states were involved in colonial businesses including the transatlantic slave trade. Berlin even hosted the Africa Conference in 1884-85, where European nations carved up the continent between them.
And although Germany was forced to give up all its territory after its defeat in the Great War, for a 30-year period it enjoyed an empire that stretched across southwest and east Africa, including present-day Tanzania, Namibia, Rwanda and Burundi.
Germany’s colonial campaign was brutal. In 1905 German colonisers killed up to 75,000 Tanzanians over the course of two years in a series of local uprisings. King Wilhlem II also oversaw the establishment of concentration camps in Namibia; German colonisers killed around 65,000 Herero people and 10,000 during this time.
A strong grassroots movement and an international lawsuit filed by the Herero and Nama people, who are seeking reparations over the genocide, have pushed this part of German history into public debate over the last few years.
By rebuilding the palace of a former colonial king and not investing the required research into the colonial legacy of the objects, Humboldt has become another strand in the ongoing anti-colonial campaign.
Juergen Zimmerer, a prominent Hamburg-based historian who calls for more research, told TRT World, "for many years, particularly in West Germany, there is something that I call colonial amnesia. It’s not that colonialism wasn’t talked about, but the atrocities and the unjustness of colonialism were ignored or pushed aside, and there was a sort of nostalgic reflection of German colonialism as something that was insignificant, minor or benevolent,” says Zimmerer.
Hermann Parzinger, one of co-founding directors of the Humboldt project, refutes this argument and claims "this colonial legacy is inscribed in these collections, but it is not directly connected to colonialism in the sense of taking objects away, it’s also about the scientific discovery of the world. These expeditions left Berlin and other European centres to find out more about other continents, and it is very important, therefore, to understand better the history of the collections and how the objects came to Berlin. This is something which we are continuously doing."
On the way to Humboldt
"In 1897, Benin city was looted by the British and the soldiers sold things on," Zimmerer explains. "So if you say that all we need to do is explain to the world that we as a museum bought it, this is completely contrary to the meaning of the words provenance and research. It’s contrary to finding out the impact of the stealing and colonialism, with its completely unequal power relations, had on these communities."
"Humboldt and Germany forget to acknowledge the fact that, despite the wealth they get from keeping these artefacts, the people that they belong to desperately need these artefacts for other reasons which are irrespective of, but more valuable than money." Shiynyuy adds.
But German museum authorities disagree with this viewpoint. “Our research and our co-operation with the objects’ countries of origin has so far taught us that they have a differentiated view of this issue from post-colonial activists and what they want is co-operation and exchange," says Parzinger, who is also the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
"And why not send these objects back and make collections travel with the museums in these countries? At the very end, we are just the keepers, the curators of these collections. The collections are the property of man, the property of everybody."
But now with less than two years to go before the official opening, there are signs that pressure around this issue is gaining traction. One Humboldt board member has already resigned in protest, and last month, it was announced that the Ethnological Museum would be returning nine sacred objects that were taken from an indigenous community in Alaska more than 100 years ago. Parzinger said the objects were taken without the consent of the Alaska natives and therefore did not belong in Berlin’s museums. It’s a development that campaigners have welcomed at this crucial time.
Della said: "One journalist asked me, what would happen if all the objects were sent back – that would mean that the museums are empty. And I said, yes, that would happen. But this stuff is stolen. You can’t hold on to it and keep it in these museums and think this is going to last forever. This is where the Humboldt can take part in these discussions in a proactive way. At the moment, it doesn’t look like they will, but I don’t think it’s an issue they should continue to avoid in the future."
For Shiynyuy what’s at stake here is bigger than Humboldt – it’s about putting a real end to European rule over its former colonies. "If you are keeping artefacts that were taken during colonial times and not returning it to those who are desperate to see their objects returned, it shows that colonialism hasn’t finished." he says. "If we truly want to see the end to colonialism, then we need to go into its real history and the effects it had on the people who were colonised. And if we were to look at the impact, these objects would speak a lot."