Three bronzes from Benin, West Africa, on display at the MGK Museum in Hamburg. Photo: DPA.

German Museums Association Revises Guidelines on Handling Colonial-Era Artworks

The German Museums Association has released a revised version of its Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts. Originally published in 2013 and reworked in 2018, the guidelines have been updated to expand its focus on how to handle issues ranging from the restitution of human remains to how to sensitively engage with non-European perspectives.

“The topic of rehabilitation is not new for museums. What is new is the intensity driving the debate forward,” Eckart Köhne, the president of the German Museums Association, said in Bremen, Germany, during the presentation of the new guidelines.

The association consulted with curators, researchers, and specialists from various fields who hail from countries affected by German colonialism, including Australia, Namibia, and Samoa, before making modifications. “Representatives of the communities from where these objects originate want to discuss their issues on an equal footing with the museums,” reads the introductory text.

Unlike for Nazi-looted art, there is no legislation that deals with the restitution of colonial-era objects. The burden of reviewing ownership claims and determining whether artifacts should be returned to their nations of origin rests with German museums. He also credits the Washington Principles for the progress the country has made with returning arworks that were seized during World War II to their rightful owners. 

According to Köhne, the first step is for museums to recognize the importance of the guidelines and to prioritize the need to access collections of colonial-era art. Each museum should be alloted enough funds to hire a staff to create a digital inventory of their holdings. Countries tied to Germany’s colonial past must be able to easily learn where their cultural assets are located before they can start the complicated process of working toward bringing those objects home. 

The guidelines provide a “tremendous opportunity to learn more about the objects and their contexts,” Köhne said. They will also help shape the future of the German museum landscape.”