A bronze head from the Kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria, from the collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Photo: MKG Hamburg.

German Culture Ministers Pledge to Return Looted Colonial-Era Artifacts

German culture ministers from all sixteen states met on Wednesday, March 13, and agreed to establish protocols for repatriating colonial-era objects from public collections across the country that were acquired “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today.”

They released an eight-page document that declares their intention to address their colonial history and outlines the first steps they will take to do so. The states will work with museums and institutions to conduct research, digitize and publicize provenance information, and potentially establish a central information and help center to process repatriation claims. The ministers also declared that they will prioritize the return of human remains, which they say “do not belong in museums.”

The meeting follows French President Emanuel Macron’s decision to commission a groundbreaking report that recommends the permanent restitution of thousands of colonial-era artworks looted from Africa. Macron declared that restitution of looted artifacts would be a “top priority” for the government while he was traveling throughout Africa in 2017.

“Germany has missed the chance to make a big political gesture like France, but this document shows it is taking the subject very seriously,” Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor of African history at Hamburg University, told the Art Newspaper.

Germany’s federal culture minister, Monika Grütters, called Wednesday’s meeting a “statement of historical responsibility.” In February, Grütters announced that $2.17 million in government funds had been secured for researching artifacts that entered museum collections during the colonial era. The funds are to be administered by the German Lost Art Foundation—founded by the German federal government in 2015 to assist with the restoration of Nazi-looted artworks after World War II—and grant recipients will be selected by an eight-person committee.

The French art historian Bénédicte Savoy—cowriter of the 108-page report released by France last November—will sit on the committee, as will Albert Gouaffo of the University of Dschang in Cameroon, Barbara Plankensteiner of the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology, and Ulrike Lindner of Cologne University.