In historic resolution, German culture ministers pledge to lay the groundwork for the return of colonial-era art

Months after a groundbreaking rendition report commissioned by French President Emanuel Macron set the conditions for the country’s approach to its grim colonial past, Germany is moving forward with its own repatriation plans.

Culture ministers from Germany’s 16 states met for the first time in Berlin on Wednesday to tackle the country’s treasure trove of potentially looted artifacts, which are in the collections of museums across the country.

Despite the fact that the ministers represent political parties from all ideological backgrounds, their inaugural meeting concluded with a “joint declaration on the management of colonial collections”. The ministers said the unprecedented document would lay the groundwork for establishing the conditions for the repatriation of artifacts from German public collections. “The return of cultural goods should not only be possible, but also actively pursued,” Carsten Brosda, culture senator for the city-state of Hamburg, told BR24.

“Germany missed the opportunity to make a big political gesture like France, but this document shows that it takes the subject very seriously,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of African history at the University of Hamburg . The arts journal.

Among the key points of the agreement is a call to return the human remains, which “do not belong to museums”, according to the document. The ministers also urge museums to digitize their collections so that countries of origin can better understand which objects remain abroad. They support the search for the provenance of works linked to the colonial era and plan to establish a single point of contact to centralize repatriation requests. (The full document is available in German here.)

The country’s senator for culture and Europe, Klaus Lederer, said the importance of the document “cannot be overstated”.

The resolution comes amid increasing pressure on the German government and its museums to take greater responsibility for the nation’s colonial heritage. This fall, the Humboldt Forum, built in the style of a Prussian-era palace, is due to open in Berlin with a vast collection of artefacts from Africa and Asia. But the project has been criticized as just another monument of colonial history. (We have reached out to the Berlin government to ask if the statement will have a direct impact on the museum’s plans, but had no response at press time.)

But the country has taken concrete steps to deal with its past. In February, the state of Baden-Württemberg initiated the return of a culturally significant whip and the “Witbooi Bible” to Namibia, which had once been brutalized as a German colony. “It is important that everyone is mobilized on this issue,” said Monika Grütters, German Minister of State for Culture, in a statement on the Bible. She said a “new dialogue” with countries of origin will take place in “a spirit of partnership and dignity”.

In the preamble to the new Berlin document, Brosda, the representative from Hamburg, wrote: this to future generations. The injustice that took place during the colonial period and its consequences, some of which still have effects today, must not be forgotten.

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