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Berlin Museum Head Calls for Global Art Restitution Guidelines

Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation president Herman Parzinger is urging international organizations to implement worldwide guidelines similar to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art to aid museums in researching the provenance of their collections, according to the Art Newspaper. Parzinger said that agencies like UNESCO or the International Council of Museums—which are on board with his proposal—should organize conferences to develop a strategy. Adopted by forty-four countries in 1998, the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art outline the process for restituting art in public collections to heirs of Jewish collectors whose works were allegedly looted by the Nazis.

Parzinger is a founding director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a museum slated to open in 2019 that will exhibit objects of non-European origin. The complex, which will comprise the ethnographic and Asian art collections of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, has sparked debate about the provenance of artifacts from former colonies. Last July, when art historian Bénédicte Savoy stepped down from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory committee, citing the museum’s deficient handling of provenance research, culture minister Monika Grütters said that the German government has “paid too little attention to the subject of colonialism” and guaranteed government funding for research.  

Last year, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation received funding to transcribe and digitize its acquisition paperwork for the Ethnological Museum from 1830 until after World War II. “This is an important step towards transparency,” Parzinger said. “The project has been approved for three years but it will take many more. Our collections of world cultures will keep us busy for many years to come.”

This recent reckoning with European colonial legacy is not limited to Berlin. Earlier this year, French president Emmanuel Macron promised a “temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” during the next five years. “I cannot accept that a large part of the heritage of certain African countries is in France,” he said. “There is no justification that is valid, sustainable, and unconditional.”