Monday, 29 October 2018, 9.15 am
Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte
Dear Professor Arndt,
Dear Professor Czech,
Ladies and gentlemen,
ten days ago, at a summit meeting on cultural policy, the Federal States and the Federal Government agreed that the Federal States, acting in conjunction with the Federal Government’s Commissioner for Culture and the Media, and with local government organizations, will institute a working group on ways in which we ought to approach collections that come from a colonial context.
In this committee we will be cooperating with the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the German Museums Association.
The stated aim is to define a common political position with regard to cultural artifacts that come from colonial contexts.
This is supposed to be an important political addition to your practical work in the museums. We need a clearly defined political framework for postcolonial discourse and action. A lot to be done.
The German Museums Association, which has drawn up the guidelines on how to deal with artifacts that come from a colonial context, has provided the groundwork and the requisite methodology.
This position paper is the first of its kind in the world, and deserves to be studied in detail. This is not because it represents the be-all and the end-all of the debate. In fact, it should be construed as an opening gambit which delineates the experiences and the general operating framework of German museums, and the questions they have been asking, and seeks to engender an international discourse on the subject.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You have come to Hamburg in order, in the course of the next two days, to scrutinize and indeed to criticize the guidelines in their present form, and to enhance and augment them on the basis of an international perspective. The outcome of these deliberations will be incorporated into a revised version of the guidelines that is due to be published early next year.
I would like to assure you, that this federal states want to provide you with the necessary time and the essential political independence in order to give good and sustainable advice.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to workshop participants from Namibia, Tanzania, Bolivia, Alaska, Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, France, Turkey, and the Netherlands.
You have agreed to contribute your knowledge, commitment and time to the ongoing development of these recommendations, which are of crucial importance for the long-term process of decolonizing our museums and collections.
Thank you so much for taking part in this project. And once more, welcome to Hamburg!
The process of coming to terms with colonialism is a central cultural policy task, and in point of fact it forms part of the coalition pact of the current German government.
The agreement that has now been reached by the Federal Government and the Federal States shows that there is a general desire to assume responsibility for these matters.
This augurs well for the future work of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Cultural Affairs.
In an age characterized by closer and indeed closely knit transcultural networking there is a need for new and sometimes politically coordinated ways of presenting museum collections and shaping the post-colonial culture of remembrance.
You have the opportunity, as free and independent institutions, to engage in testbed cooperations and explore the necessary common ground much faster and more agile than governments are able to.
We feel the obligation and the desire to lend support to the valuable work of museums and cultural institutions which are already moving in this direction.
The definition of new priorities at the German Lost Art Foundation, and these are designed to ascertain the provenance of cultural artifacts that come from colonial contexts, will make an important contribution to project funding from 2019 onwards.
In addition to the question of funding, there is the whole issue of the inclusion of individuals, interest groups and institutions in and from countries and societies with a colonial past, and this will become increasingly important with the passage of time.
An international exchange of ideas is the only way in which we can break the stranglehold of the eurocentric interpretations that are prevalent in our museums, and move towards a parity-based transnational dialogue.
By inviting experts and scholars from the southern hemisphere to attend that this can be done.
The promotion of international cooperation between the various institutions, collaboration on the ground in the country of origin, and, last but not least, the creation of a very high level of transparency that can be achieved by facilitating digital access to objects, data, and documents are similarly desirable.
However, participation can and indeed should begin right here in Germany.
In the course of the last two or three years a number of museums in Berlin, Bremen and Flensburg have begun to work together with members of the local black community and with people of color.
These initiation are especially valuable because in the postcolonial debate we are not simply concerned with the way in which we approach the artifacts themselves, but in a much broader sense with an all-embracing post-colonial strategy that we would like to infuse with life, and develop together with other stakeholders.
In Hamburg we are in the process of setting up a citywide participatory structure in the shape of an open forum and a round table that will network actors from civil society, institutions, the civil service and the political sphere in order to address the issue of the colonial past as a whole. This legacy casts a pall over the port city of Hamburg, which was once a centre of the colonial trade.
In order to ensure the emergence of a new post-colonial perspective, we have decided to set up a consultative committee which will help us in an advisory capacity to identify areas in which we need to redouble our efforts.
The aim of all this is to develop a new post-colonial culture of remembrance which, in conjunction with Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and the Americas, will help us all “to dwell upon the past in sorrow.”
The historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe said as much in his acceptance speech after receiving the Gerda Henkel award:
“If we want to share the beauty of the world with other people, we will have to learn to express solidarity with those who suffer. We should learn to remember the past together and in this way to mend the fabric of the world and its countenance divine.”
It is thus only right and proper that today and tomorrow you are not going to be talking about guidelines relating to the restitution of artifacts from colonial contexts, but about guidelines on how to deal with such artifacts.
This does not of course exclude the possibility of restitution where it seems apposite and appropriate. It explicity includes it!
In the case of human remains or sensitive objects of a cultural and spiritual kind restitution, as Professor Mbembe has pointed out, “is neither discretionary nor a sign of benevolence.” It is quite simply “obligatory.”
I am pleased to be able to tell you that in August, after difficult and protracted negotiations, it proved possible, at a ceremony in the French Cathedral in Berlin, to return a skull formerly in the Medical History Museum Hamburg, which quite clearly came from the context of the German Herero and Nama genocide campaign, to the people of Namibia.
And yet restitution in itself is not enough.
In this connection I should like to come back to something that Professor Mbembe said in May at an international workshop organized by the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe Institute at the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg.
“What would be the response,” he asked the attendees in the packed lecture theatre of the museum, “if we decided to turn down the offer of restitution?”
And he went on to say:
“Do we really want to live in a world in which everyone and everything is duty bound to go back home?”
The way in which we come to terms with our colonial past says a lot about how we wish to live in a globalized world. That is why this subject is so important in the realm of cultural policy and in sociopolitical terms.
Mbembe has said that the ultimate goal of decolonization is a world “in which people and things can circulate without let or hindrance.”
When it comes to objects from colonial contexts, Mbembe is in favour of “an unrestricted movement of works of art (...). Not only of the things purloined in Africa, but of the whole heritage of humanity.”
Multi-perspective guidelines on how to deal with cultural artifacts that come from colonial contexts constitute an important step towards the concrete realization of an ideal, the notion that there are things that belong to all of us and are part of our common heritage.
With this in mind I hope that today and tomorrow there will be constructive debates and a fruitful exchange of views on how to resolve these important and indeed pressing problems.