Calls for Repatriation in Postcolonial Discourse: The Restitution Policy of Ethnological Museums Since 1970

Although extensive restitutions of stolen cultural artefacts were made in Europe already in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, almost another century would pass before the seizure of works of art in time of war was outlawed internationally by the Hague Convention on the Rules of Land Warfare in 1907. But the notion of the unlawfulness of such actions and the need to restore stolen cultural artefacts actually became established in international law and private law only after World War II. With the beginning of decolonisation, the extended set of norms to protect cultural heritage established by the Hague Convention of 1954 was also applied to corresponding restitution procedures in the former European colonies in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Since that time, postcolonial states have made demands relating not only to the restitution of the material cultural artefacts stolen and exported during the colonial period, but to all objects of cultural-historical significance preserved in European collections. The restitution claims were generally connected with a revalidation of the corresponding objects. These objects now became symbolic bearers of ethnic and national identity (not unlike what had happened over a century earlier in the various European nation-states).

The goal of the project is to ask how ethnological and archaeological museums in the German-speaking world responded to repatriation claims by non-European countries: Which objects were actually repatriated? What justifications were offered for refusing restitutions? And what changes in meaning did the artefacts undergo in the course of their transfer and the debate surrounding them?

Concrete normative political and cultural conflicts between western and post-colonial countries can be illustrated with reference to the discourse and practice of restitution. The development of a set of transnational normative rules can be observed in statu nascendi in the codification of restitution claims under international law. A further conflict of normative orders arises in the practice of restitution, in which the legitimacy of the restitution must be balanced against the concern for the conservation of the cultural heritage and the artefacts involved.

Based on a prior literature survey, 18 interviews were conducted with senior museum staff and officials. The evaluation of these interviews is documented in a 50-page report on the findings. The central research questions of the project have been incorporated into University instruction, into events held by the Frobenius Institute, and into graduation theses and two dissertation projects. In addition, Professor Justin Richland (Chicago) was invited to report on restitution policy in the United States within the framework of the Jensen Memorial Lectures.

Although the legitimacy of claims for the restitution of cultural objects is generally recognized by the relevant decision-makers, to date only a small number of restitutions have been made in Germany (an exception being returns of human remains). There are doubts about whether the demands are being made exclusively by persons acting as legitimate representatives of their respective groups, especially because artefacts have resurfaced on the international art market shortly after their return. More important than the actual restitutions themselves are the public debates triggered by the demands, given that it is the associated discussions that raise public awareness of the injustice suffered by the indigenous peoples.

The most important publications of this project:

Kohl, Karl-Heinz: “Der ‘Ureinwohner’ kehrt zurück. Mit Hilfe europäischer Klischees über ‘Eingeborene’ haben sich Indigene gesonderte Rechte erstritten”, in: Welt-Sichten. Magazin für globale Entwicklung und ökumenische Zusammenarbeit, 3/2017, pp. 12–18.

Fründt, Sarah: "Return logistics – repatriation business. Managing the return of ancestral remains to New Zealand", in: L.V. Prott, B. Hauser-Schäublin (ed.): Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016.

Kohl, Karl-Heinz: “Malanggan: Abbild und doppelter Tod”, in: V. Lepper/P. Deuflhard/C. Markschies (eds.): Räume – Bilder – Kulturen (Forschungsberichte der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Bd. 36), Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2015, pp. 169–188.

*Kohl, Karl-Heinz: “The Future of Anthropology Lies in its Past”, in: Social Research. An international Quarterly, 81 (3), 2014, pp. 555–570.

Kohl, Karl-Heinz: “Muss die Ethnologie sich schämen? In Berlin werden Forderungen laut, bei der Gestaltung des Humboldtforums solle auf Artefakte aus indigenen Kulturen verzichtet werden“, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung vom 17. September 2014, p. N3.


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