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From the file

Future of history | We consider what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest.

Germany’s game of thrones

Germany’s game of thrones

The spoils of empire are on display in the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Jacob Kushner reports on the debate that’s ensued: does decolonising Europe’s museums mean deconstructing them entirely?

When Hermann Baumann’s steamboat set sail to Angola, the future of the past had never looked brighter. 

The year was 1930. A decade had passed since Germany’s global ambitions were cut off at the knees. The First World War had ended in defeat, and the Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of its African colonies, distributing them among Europe’s other colonial powers. To pay its war debts, the Weimar Republic began printing money. Hyperinflation ensued.

And yet, at this austere moment, a German museum found cause to finance Baumann’s expedition to spend a small fortune on African artefacts. 

Baumann could not have imagined that almost a century later, in 2021, the inauguration of a new museum would thrust his acquisitions into the centre of a rising debate: whether the world should send some of the hundreds of thousands of artefacts that European powers stole or purchased from Africa during colonial times back. 

The Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Berlin Palace

With a price tag of €670 million, Berlin’s long-awaited, grand new museum, the Humboldt Forum, opened this year to display some of Baumann’s booty alongside hundreds of other artefacts from Africa, Asia and beyond. But the Forum’s inauguration comes at the worst possible time: its curators are facing a deluge of doubt about whether a European museum of African artefacts should even be allowed to exist. 

The former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, set out to position the Forum “to be in touch with as much of the world as possible” – a “Universal Museum for the 21st Century.” What he failed to anticipate was that 21st-century Europe might choose not to be universal. Might chose to close its borders, rather than open them. Deport foreigners, rather than embrace them. Today, most Africans couldn’t step foot in one of Europe’s so-called “Universal Museums” if their lives depended on it. 

But if Africans are to be kept out of Europe, their artefacts aren’t allowed to leave. Among the most coveted objects in the Forum’s inaugural displays are the Chokwe Thrones upon which the Soba, or kings, of present-day north-west Angola once sat. The wooden thrones are intricately engraved with symbols and stories that depict the Chokwe’s history. These thrones beguiled the German explorer, Baumann. He would haggle with kings to procure them. 

It was only in 2018 that Germany sent a delegation to Angola to inform the Chokwe that their forefathers’ thrones had for years sat in storage in Europe – and that they would soon be displayed in Europe’s newest museum. Not everyone was pleased. 

“The Germans have no right – they have no right over the pieces,” says King Mwadissengue Watembo Lukhasa João. “This is a dark business. You cannot sell a throne.”

This is not the same old controversy about colonial artefacts you’ve heard before. Today, the debate over Africa’s lost cultural heritage is transforming. No longer is it merely a question of whether certain African artefacts should be returned, some restitution activists say. It’s now a matter of whether museums like the Humboldt Forum have the right to display African artefacts at all.

Who are Europeans to decide which African objects are worthy of being exhibited for the world to see? Why should Europeans still be the curators of other people’s cultures, the writers of other people’s histories? What right do western museumgoers have to gaze and gawk at these “exotic” objects, the same way they did centuries ago when they belonged to Prussian kings? And in Berlin of all places, the same city where, 135 years ago, the colonial powers of the world convened to divvy up Africa for the plunder?

To the Chokwe king, Lukhasa, this is where the injustice lies: “If they took the pieces there, it was because they saw some value in them. And that value is represented by us,” says Lukhasa. “Our culture still lives, our people still live, our region still lives, our culture is still standing,” says Lukhasa. “Our history exists. We exist. So we must tell our own story.” 

“Nobody else can do it for us.”

Today, Germany is discovering that to decolonise a museum will require far more than putting a few pieces back in their original place. If restitution advocates have their way, the Humboldt Forum may mark the beginning of the end of an era in which Western museums served as humble custodians of other peoples’ things. 

To predict museums’ uncertain future, we must look to their unscrupulous past.

Into Africa

Hermann Baumann wasn’t yet a Nazi when he set sail to Angola in search of Chokwe treasure. 

It was 19 April 1930, and he did not savour the idea of African cuisine: his luggage consisted of crates upon crates of canned pork and sauerkraut. “It’s a very Bavarian thing,” says Leonie Emeka, who as a student of art history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich conducted provenance research into the artefacts Baumann was about to acquire. It’s through Baumann’s writings – his diary, his letters, and other documents from his expedition – that Emeka learned that, in addition to pork and kraut, Baumann also took with him two cameras, one tent, and an alarm clock, so he wouldn’t fall asleep on the job. 

Baumann’s boat was called the Watussi. It was built two years earlier for the purpose of ferrying Germans to an Africa that it no longer owned. ​​Nearly half a century had passed since Europe’s scramble for Africa took off, in November 1884, when Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, invited dozens of dignitaries to Berlin to formally divide up the continent. The German Emperor, “Wilhelm I, wanted to have colonies in Africa like the others,” says Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian restitution activist in Berlin. “It was to show power – how powerful you are in this world.” 

The event would become known as the Berlin Conference, and it attracted diplomats from every European power save for Switzerland. Even the Ottoman Empire and the United States were there. Having at last assembled all of Africa’s scramblers under one roof, King Wilhelm wanted a piece of the pie. 

He was lucky to get so much as a sliver. Germany was late to the colonial game. “In 1884, the Germans were not yet a colonial empire like the British or French or Portuguese,” who “were making a lot of wealth” from their African territories, explains Mboro – extracting coffee, exotic fruits, cocoa, rubber and, of course, slaves. Europeans also poached the ivory tusks of elephants and rhinos, whose populations would never recover. 

But the scramble for Africa was only just beginning. If the newspapers were to be believed, the British were about to embark on a madman’s race to colonise Africa’s east. They planned to build a railway from the port of Mombasa, at sea level, all the way into the mountains of central Kenya, more than a mile high.

Seen in this light, the Berlin Conference seemed like a win-win for everyone. There was plenty of Africa to go around. The continent was so large it could encompass all of Europe three times over. Inside the hall where it happened, a massive map of the continent “[drooped] down like a question mark” on a wall, as one Nigerian historian would later put it – though, of course, not a single African was there.

The Berlin conference of 1884-1885 laid the basis for the scramble for Africa

The delegates agreed to allow tariff-free trade across the continent, to ensure that no war be fought over its endless bounty. And they agreed that King Leopold II of Belgium should be allowed to turn Congo into his personal fiefdom, which he quickly proceeded to plunder. But despite its size, Africa proved too lucrative a place to easily concede, and the conference dragged on for months.

In the end, Germany, whose explorers had scarcely muddied their boots on African soil, got only the leftovers: three territories, scattered on completely different sides of the continent, which the rest of Europe had barely bothered to touch. 

Steamboats built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg – who would later build Baumann’s Watussi – began ferrying German colonisers to what today is Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. In West Africa, Germany received modern-day Cameroon and Togo, which were separated by a large land known as Niger. (The Germans tried to take Niger, too, but the locals outwitted the Germans, French and British by signing treaties with each over the very same land.) Finally, on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, Germany claimed Namibia. It was there that German soldiers slaughtered tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of Herero and Namaqua people in the first genocide of the 20th Century. 

Germans didn’t just kill their African foes – they also looted their treasures. Acquiring artefacts was not a mere byproduct of colonialism but an integral part. In the 19th and early 20th Century, “the museum developed this colonial idea – ‘the West and the rest’,” says Paola Ivanov, a curator of the Africa collection of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. Beforehand, “history and art museums were all dedicated to European art and history.” But as colonialism came into fashion, it became “a source of national pride to have the best collections” from places such as Africa as well.

German colonisers began shipping back African items by the thousands, with the intent of filling Germany’s museums. In 1907 alone, Germans sent back almost two tonnes of what they called “war booty” from German East Africa to the Ethnological museum in Berlin. 

At the time, virtually all African artefacts were taken by force – and the soldiers who looted them had little sense as to their cultural significance. The objects arrived in Europe with little or no context at all. Baumann would later object to the manner in which German travelers – whom he derogatorily referred to as “globetrotters” – collected touristy trinkets rather than artefacts that epitomised “true African culture”. So by the time of Baumann’s 1930 voyage, the idea had arisen “that museum curators should also travel and collect themselves, so that they can get information about the context of the objects,” says Ivanov. 

Europe’s colonial countries “were looking for authenticity – for old things which were not so much influenced by Western culture and by colonialism,” says Ivanov. “The colonisers erroneously believed the people belonged to a sort of past world. And the ethnologists tried to collect the culture of this past world.” 

And so, the director of what today is called the Ethnological Museum of Berlin – from which the Humboldt Forum draws many of its African artifacts – sent Baumann on a voyage to West Africa, tasking him not just with collecting but also contextualising Africa’s artefacts for generations of Europeans to come. It never occurred to Baumann that Africans might one day want them back. 

Watch the throne

Baumann had barely stepped foot in Angola when Germany’s plebian position in the colonial hierarchy became painfully clear. Promptly, the Portuguese authorities confiscated his rifle, his pork and his sauerkraut – probably in order to force him to buy expensive Portuguese provisions. There’s a Bavarian saying that “three beers equals a schnitzel,” but Baumann wasn’t convinced. He proceeded to purchase a pig.

“You have to keep in mind – we’re in between two world wars,” says Emeka of this time. “In Europe, there was a lot of nationalist tension,” which played out in Europe’s African colonies. Baumann had hoped to visit tribes along the Congo River basin, but Belgian authorities wouldn’t grant him access. And so it was that, long before Africans were turned away at European borders, Europeans were turned away at African ones that they themselves created. 

In Portuguese-controlled west Africa, Baumann’s fascination fell upon the Chokwe, a large ethnic group that spanned what is now Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia. Some were hunters, others farmers. But to Baumann, first and foremost, the Chokwe were artists. “The Chokwe were said to be good carvers,” says Emeka. They carved masks, sculptures and other wooden objects, literally engraving them with stories – the Chokwe’s founding myths, including “the most famous love story in central Africa,” says Ivanov. 

It goes like this: a hunter named Chibinda Ilunga was imprisoned for drinking wine intended for the powerful Lunda Empire’s queen. But her daughter, the princess Lweji, fell in love with the thief. The two married, and Chibinda chased Lweji’s brothers from the kingdom, effectively splitting the Lunda Empire in two. Chibinda and his followers became known as the Chokwe.

Chibinda wasn’t the only one with eyes on the throne. When Baumann arrived in Chokwe territory on 20 June 1930, his gaze quickly fell upon the thrones upon which the Chokwe kings or chiefs, known as Soba, sat. Some of these chairs, called Ngudja, were engraved with scenes from the legend of Chibinda and Lweji. Others depicted everyday people during the Lunda empire: dancers, drummers, scribes, even a king being carried by two servants. “More than just being richly adorned and masterly handcrafted, the chair is significant due to its social purpose within the Chokwe culture,” explains Emeka. It is “one of the major symbols of power”.

To the Chokwe who created them, these objects were not art – at least, not in the Western tradition of a Picasso or a Pollock, whose value derives from how much people are willing to pay for them. The thrones, the statue of Chibinda, were never designed to be put on a pedestal or displayed in a showcase. The thrones conveyed authority – but only when sat on by a king. Without a king to sit on it, it has no import, no power. Without a king, a throne is just a chair. 

One of the Chokwe thrones collected by Hermann Baumann

But to Baumann, the thrones were art: physical objects with monetary value that could be purchased and sold, transported, studied and displayed, gazed upon and admired by people of a completely different culture. He quickly set to work buying this bounty using salt that he had carried all the way from Europe. “Salt was very valuable in Angola,” says Emeka. “But, actually, the people wanted money.”

For Baumann, this presented a problem: German money was as good as garbage. Due to severe inflation after the war, “Reichsmarks were not a secure currency at the time,” explains Emeka. So before or during his journey, Baumann appears to have exchanged the 20,000 Reichsmarks he’d been given by the Baessler Stiftung – a foundation founded by the renowned 19th-century German anthropologist Arthur Baessler – for British pounds. Then, when he arrived in Africa, he likely traded the pounds for Portuguese Angolares. The Portuguese had introduced Angolares to their African territories as a tool of colonial control. By forcing to pay taxes in this currency, they ensured that the Chokwe desperately needed to acquire cash. Enter Baumann with coins by the fistful, who proceeded to profit from this colonial system.

Part of what makes the Chokwe Thrones so fascinating is that the circumstances of their acquisition are not so clean-cut as, say, the sacred drum that the British stole in Kenya at gunpoint. “In the case of Baumann, it was more complicated than just a European stealing the objects – Baumann never stole from the people,” says Emeka. Rather, he purchased their culture and “paid the people he photographed and the people who gave information to him”. 

But by purchasing artefacts he saw as beautiful, Baumann disrupted local power dynamics. “There was one chief who appeared to have lost everything – even his chair. According to Baumann’s diary, the Portuguese had acquired it,” says Emeka. Distraught, the fallen chief “went to Baumann and asked Baumann to give him another chair,” from the several that Baumann had already collected. Of course, Baumann refused, and the chief remained forever dethroned. So great was Europeans’ power over Africans’, on account of controlling their things.

Another time, Baumann encountered a Soba chief named Tšikusa who had converted to Christianity and even dressed in European style clothing. But Baumann did not offer to buy the man’s throne, because he “wasn’t traditional enough,” says Emeka. “Tšikusa did not represent his idea of an authentic or traditional indigenous culture.”

And so, a German anthropologist went about deciding which African artefacts were worthy or authentic, and which were not – a trend that continues to this day in the glass cases of German museums. 

A king called Kakoma

The throne that Baumann coveted most belonged to a king named Kakoma. “A richly adorned and masterly handcrafted [throne], it depicts the life of a Chokwe man – birth, circumcision, hunting, marrying – in such detail and precision that you can kind of read it,” says Emeka.

“In the 1930s, the Choke chairs, or thrones, were very popular with anthropologists and on the European art market,” says Emeka. “Europeans could connect with it somehow because it was a European chair” – not a stool or a cushion but a four-footed throne much like the western world was used to. 

“These chairs to everybody are extremely interesting, first because they mix the Portuguese chair… with these depictions of the whole Chokwe life,” says Ivanov. The Chokwe had been trading with Portuguese merchants since the 16th Century and, over time, different designs often merged. But “it’s not an African way of constructing chairs,” says Ivanov. The irony of Baumann’s acquisitions is that he collected some of the most un-African objects of them all. 

And the strange thing was that, to Kakoma himself, the throne was merely a chair. Indeed, he was mystified by Baumann’s obsession with it. “Baumann was impressed by the age of the throne,” says Emeka, but “Kakoma was not interested in the old chair. He preferred to purchase a new one.” 

“The notion of authenticity – that there is one work which cannot be replicated by another – is a very European ideal,” says Ivanov. “In Africa, if things are broken, they are replaced.” The authenticity that Baumann and other explorers yearned for – indeed, the very thing which they set out into Africa to find – turned out to be a theoretical, European construct. To King Kakoma, his throne wasn’t unique or irreplicable. A chair was just a chair. 

Which would one day raise the question: if Kakoma’s throne mattered more to Baumann than it did to Kakoma – matters more to Germans today that it does to Kakoma’s descendants – what right does Germany have to label it an epitome of Chokwe culture, or declare it a masterpiece of “art,” and display it on a pedestal for all the world to see?

Reading through Baumann’s diaries, Emeka discovered that, despite Baumann’s salt and Angolares, he didn’t always get his way. Kakoma persuaded Baumann that there weren’t many artists left capable of reconstructing such an elaborate chair as his. “Kakoma was very good in dealing. He got more money than Bauman wanted to pay.” 

But even more important,, “a lot of people denied Baumann [the permission] to purchase objects. For example, there was one man who didn’t want to sell his circumcision knife because it would be critical for the medical condition of the boys during [their] transition from boyhood to manhood,” says Emeka. 

To Emeka, this reveals something important. “One [manifestation] of racism is when you actually deny African people the ability to make rational choices,” says Emeka. “Even in colonial times, Chokwe still had agency to decide which of their tools and artefacts were precious – which ones could be sold and which ones were so sacred they must remain.”

Today, the Chokwe have no such agency: neither the Humboldt Forum nor the Ethnological Museum from whose collection it draws gave the Chokwe any say in deciding where these objects belong; who gets to gaze at them; and who gets to profit from their display. 

Chibinda Ilunga, a legendary hero from the Luba empire

It was only in 2018 that the Chokwe of north-eastern Angola learned that their forefathers’ thrones were in Europe at all. That year, the Prussian Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, sent Ivanov as part of a delegation to pay them a visit.

“We were not aware that Chokwe pieces of this quality existed in Berlin,” the Chokwe king at the time, Muatxissengue Watembo, told the delegation. In a video produced by the Goethe-Institut Angola as part of the exchange, a resident in the town of Dundo reacts to a picture of a wooden statute of Chibinda in the Ethnological Museum’s collection. “We want him back,” André Venâncio Tchakwiza tells the interviewer. “It’s our culture. What is it good for over there? White people have already studied its characteristics. We want him back.”

No longer at ease

Last year, when I had the chance to interview Ivanov, I asked her: on your visit to the Chokwe, did you ask King Watembo, or any of the Chokwe leaders, whether they’d like their artefacts returned?

“We didn’t ask directly,” she replied. “It’s not a very diplomatic way. One should build connections. I don’t question the idea of restitution. I [just] say it’s a little more complicated. It’s a political thing.”

Ivanov says that none of the Chokwe items in the Humboldt’s Forum’s inaugural display have officially been requested back. Rather, according to the Humboldt Forum, “the Angolan participants got to look at the Berlin collection, informed themselves about its history, visited the depot and the restoration workshops of the Ethnological Museum as well as various museums in Berlin”. They also signed an agreement “to interrogate their history” and collaborate towards a mutual understanding of the items from Angola and how they ended up in Berlin. 

But is cultural exchange a substitute for control? “I think the fact that Paola went to the Chokwe and asked questions – those people now know that the Humboldt Forum has these things,” says George Abungu, a Kenyan archaeologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya, who sits on the Humboldt Forum’s board of advisors. “That’s transparency. That’s good enough. I don’t think it’s Paola’s job to offer to return it back if no one is asking for it.”

Paola Ivanov, curator of the Africa collection, with Muatxissengue Watembo, then king of the Chokwe © SPK / Stefan Müchler

If the Chokwe wish to someday request their items back, the task will fall to another generation: one month after the delegation’s visit, the king of the Chokwe, Muatxissengue Watembo, was dead, and a new king took his place. As a child, Mwadissengue Watembo Lukhasa João was taught that the throne of the Chokwe king had been taken away long ago by a white man, and that the throne that his grandfather sat on on was a replica of one that had been taken to Europe. 

“This chair has been around for centuries,” says King Lukhasa. But after it was taken away, “another one was made that is now used. The throne is made of carved wood, upholstered with [lion] skins.” It is the throne that he sits upon today. 

King Lukhasa doesn’t object to Chokwe artefacts being displayed in museums. It would be just fine, he says, to display them at the Dundo Museum in the heart of Chokwe territory in north-eastern Angola. “It is good that these pieces are displayed here in our region and in our museums, so that we can give better information about our culture and our sculptures,” he says. “We need our artefacts to be seen, so that our history is not erased… so that other peoples can learn about our culture.” 

Álvaro Jorge and Ziva Domingos, directors of Angola’s national museums, show Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and Norbert Spitz of the Goethe-Institut around the National Museum of Anthropology © SPK / Stefan Müchler

The problem, says Lukhasa, arises when artefacts are exhibited in the wrong place – or by the wrong people. He recalled the 2018 visit by the delegation from Germany. They asked a lot of questions. “They told King Watembo that they ‘need our art a lot,’ because they liked it a lot.” 

“They give us this information that our art is very beautiful and that it is spread almost all over Europe.” But they never raised the possibility of its return. In fact, Lukhasa claims the German delegation didn’t even inform the Chokwe that their artefacts would soon be put on display at all. Nor did they invite him or any other Chokwe to the visit Forum, to view their own artefacts there.

“There is no logic for Europeans to exhibit these pieces. Who should explain the essence and importance of these pieces (better than) ourselves? We know how they came, why they were made, and what the meaning of these pieces is.”

“The ‘art’ is ours. The culture is ours,” says Lukhasa.

A Forum for the future

The Humboldt Forum was destined to disturb Germany’s past as well as its present. Situated at the heart of the city alongside other prominent institutions, it forages for attention. Imagined in 2001 as a home for prized artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceana, “the Humboldt Forum is concerned with nothing less than the history and culture of the world in all its complexity,” according to its website. It would prove to be an ambitious task. 

“The German Ethnological museums are like the losers of the museum world,” says Jörg Häntzschel, a journalist who writes about museums and anthropology for the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. They are “the poorer, third world countries of the museum world. Nobody goes there. Nobody cares.”

For years, the city’s African artefacts were on display in a museum in the Berlin outskirts of Dahlem. But “people didn’t really feel like trekking all the way out there. So the debate became, how can we make this more attractive?”

The answer Berlin lawmakers came up with was to build the Forum on the grounds of the former Prussian Palace – the literal throne of Germany’s global empire. The very place where King Wilhelm lived as he presided over the Berlin Conference that carved up Africa, and from which Germany ruled its African colonies through slavery, concentration camps, and genocide.

“They decided it would be a good idea to neutralise this Prussianism by bringing in things from Africa – to show that we’re not going to celebrate Prussia, we’re going to celebrate the world. To show everybody that Germany is now a different place – it’s cosmopolitan, it’s global,” says Häntzschel. 

Even the Forum’s name tried to serve that purpose. “The Humboldt brothers – Alexander and Wilhelm – they were basically explorers, scientists,” says Häntzschel of the 18th-century men. “Super-talented in all kinds of disciplines, they roamed the world and did scientific studies, wrote journals, collected plants and animals.”

Togolese men in traditional dress are recruited into the army in German-controlled Togoland, circa 1914

The Humboldt brothers never imagined that their curiosity about the world would pave the path for future German leaders to try and conquer it. So “the idea to name the Humboldt Forum after them was in a way to make the leap from one ‘good’ Germany,” before colonialism, “to another good Germany – which is now,” ignoring the brutal century in between. 

But history cannot be so easily erased.

“It’s not like art museums, like the Louvre. These museums were built to promote colonialism,” says Häntzschel. “They were built for propaganda – to familiarise the German population at home with this fascinating culture of the colonies. And to provide this justification of, and promote, colonialism.” 

“And now suddenly they’re in the spotlight.”

In 2015, everything changed. Before that, “Germany was very preoccupied and busy with remembering its Nazi past,” so much so that “the Second World War sort of blotted out what happened just before with colonialism,” says Häntzschel. But, in 2015, as hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children began fleeing war and economic hardship for Europe, Germans were forced to reckon with the consequences of their past. “We had at least four decades of colonies in Africa, and terrible things happened there. And now we want to pretend it was all harmless, in this Humboldt Forum?”

In his concept for the Forum, Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussia Heritage Foundation, envisioned “visitors from Asia or the descendants of indigenous Indian or African societies” flocking to Forum. But “in an era where people drown daily in the Mediterranean Sea because they have no other means to enter Europe, such an invitation can only be described as cynical,” wrote No Humboldt 21, a coalition of activists that opposed the Forum.

How, asks Simon Rittmeier, filmmaker and co-founder of the International Inventories Programme, “can the idea of the ‘Universal Museum’ work if the people who are from the culture, region, [or] country of origin cannot even travel to see their own objects?”

Baumann’s bequest

Nine months after he set out on his voyage, Baumann returned to Germany on the Watussi, towing 27 boxes containing 1,375 artefacts – three of which were thrones – seven maps, “and a lot of letters to his boss,” the head of the Germany’s Ethnological Museum, says Emeka. Today, “the Africa collection encompasses some 75,000 objects and is among the most significant of its kind in the world. It contains artifacts from across the entire African continent south of the Sahara,” according to the Humboldt Forum’s website. But the origins and acquisition of many of these artefacts remain largely unknown. 

As one of two curators of the African collection at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, “I tried to encourage provenance research,” Ivanov told me, referring to the process of tracing artefacts back to learn how and why they came into European hands. “So when Leonie [Emeka] reached out to me, I told her there is this Nachlass that has not yet been studied.” 

An eager student of art history, Emeka pored over Baumann’s Nachlass – his diary, maps, letters, lists and other materials from his voyage. It was a massive undertaking due to the sheer number of artefacts Baumann acquired. During ten weeks in Berlin, Emeka digitised as much material as she could. 

On 2 December 1939, Baumann’s boat was steaming around the tip of South Africa toward the Atlantic when it was spotted by the British Navy. The Watussi’s crew boarded small gunboats, then shot at their own ship until it sank into the sea, scuttling it to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Allies. For the second time in his life, Baumann watched his nation go to war not just for control of a continent, but for control of the world. This time, he would play an important role.  

A year after his return, Baumann joined the National Socialist party and soon became an advisor to the Nazi government, tasked with planning how to retake the African colonies that Europe had stripped from Germany after the First World War. But his dreams were dashed when Germany lost the war, and the same familiar European powers – the British, the French, the Belgians – continued to colonise Africa until the 1960s, when most African nations finally became free. 

After the war, Baumann became a professor, teaching anthropology and African studies in Munich and Vienna. In 1954, he returned to Angola to collect even more Chokwe artefacts. But his collection got stuck in Portuguese customs, much like his sauerkraut and pork had, decades before. A small museum was built in the town of Dundo, in Chokwe territory, to house them, and some are still on display there today. In 1972, Baumann returned to Angola one last time to continue working with the artefacts he was forced to leave behind. But while there he caught a case of malaria, was evacuated to Munich, and died. 

Hermann Baumann at work

Scouring back through Baumann’s diaries from his 1930 voyage, “at first, it’s very hard to find the Nazi in his theory,” says Emeka. “He hides it well.”

“The way he describes the indigenous sculptures, for example, as ‘masterly carved things’, seems at odds with Nazi assumptions about the inferiority of the lower races and their abilities. Baumann described Manuel Nuñes, the boy who became his translator, as “the most intelligent African he ever encountered,” says Emeka. “Which is at the same time a compliment and an insult.”

Baumann the anthropologist, the collector, the Nazi, believed he was on the right side of history. It would be easy to say that he was wrong. But to an outside observer – say, an African visitor to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin – the idea that we have rejected Baumann’s worldview might be anything but obvious. Today, in the year 2021, the colonial-era artefacts he acquired are being dusted off and displayed on Germany’s highest pedestal. And not for the enjoyment of Africans, but primarily, Europeans. If Baumann was on the wrong side of history, so, perhaps, are we. 

“If these objects become evidence of our own guilt,” asks Emeka, “Why are they here?”

Putting back the pieces 

In 2016, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum established a framework “to research the provenance of problematic holdings”. 

“The focus will initially be on objects which came to the museum through violent appropriation and colonial wars,” such as the genocide against the  Herero and Namaqua people in present day Namibia. In 2018, Germany’s culture minister published a 130-page report outlining the steps German museums should take to conduct provenance research into their artefacts from abroad. But some criticised the report for suggesting loans and “joint custody” agreements instead of outright returns. In 2019, Germany repatriated a bible and whip looted during a violent 1893 assault by German troops in which many women and children were killed.

Then, in March this year, the Humboldt Forum shocked the museum world by announcing it would not be displaying some of the Ethnological museum’s most famous items, the Benin Bronzes, after all. 

Looted by the British in 1897 during a brutal punitive raid of Benin City in present-day Nigeria, the Bronzes were sold and resold to some 160 museums across the world and have become symbols of the repatriation debate. In 2018, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, which holds some 580 Benin objects – the second largest collection in the world – joined a handful of other European museums in announcing it would loan back some of their Benin Bronzes for the opening of a new Nigerian museum. In November, bronzes were among some 26 artefacts that France sent back to Benin. 

Bronze sculptures looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 hang on display in Stuttgart, Germany

Until the Benin Bronze announcement this spring, Germany’s own steps towards repatriation had been small, slow, and deliberate. Some restitution activists believe Germany has a heightened responsibility to return its African artefacts, because it was in Germany, at the Berlin Conference, that the scramble for Africa was officially sealed.

“Berlin was the place where the imperialist powers of Europe met in 1885 and divided Africa among themselves and thus set in motion a system of government that brought untold suffering on the African peoples,” wrote the Ghanaian journalist, historian and restitution advocate Kwame Opoku. “If the Berlin museums were really conscious of their historical and political responsibility,” said Opoku, “they would not want to be seen arguing with Africans about the return of cultural artefacts that are undoubtedly African.”

“But are the Western states and their museums listening?”

Emeka believes that the Ethnological Museum “is [truly] interested in finding out about the provenance of the items.” Ivanov cautions that “the financial means are really very scarce to [perform] this sort of work, because it is very expensive”. But considering the Forum’s €670 million price tag, not everyone agrees.

“People who ask for stolen objects to be returned are told that history cannot be undone,” wrote Senegaleese scholar Felwine Sarr and former Humboldt Forum board member Benedicte Savoy who resigned in protest. “This is an unsolvable contradiction that will plague the Humboldt Forum forever.”

To save museums from extinction 

Even if the Humboldt Forum offered to return the estimated 10,000 artefacts in its inaugural display tomorrow, these represent just a fraction of the millions of artefacts that remain controlled by Western institutions across the globe. 

“Over 90 percent of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent,” write Starr and Savoy, “from the British Museum (69,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa) to the Weltmuseum of Vienna (37,000), to the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium (180,000) to the Future Humboldt Forum (75,000), to the Vatican Museums and those of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (70,000).”

Many more remain in private hands. As Covid-19 distracted the world, African artefacts were sold off through international auctions – few accompanied by any public record of how they were obtained. 

Others say it’s not enough to return items that were stolen: Europeans must front the bill to house African artefacts back where they belong, by funding the construction of museums in Africa. “No permanent historical African artefacts should be kept in Western museums and collections while Africans have none of their own,” wrote two African art historians in a recent essay. “Otherwise, Western museums will continue to condone the ongoing plunder of Africa of the past five hundred years.”

The problem is that African museum curators have virtually no way of knowing what artefacts Europe even has. “There’s often little known about its origin – what village it was taken from or where,” says Häntzschel. “If governments in Africa could say, ‘Here’s a list of all the things that were stolen from us, give them back,’ – that would make it easier to put the German museums under pressure.” 

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, 1927

This is precisely what one coalition of Kenyan and German artists, anthropologists and restitution activists is aiming to do. Launched in 2018, the International Inventories Programme – co-founded by Rittmeier, along with artists from Kenya and Europe, and to which Emeka contributes – seeks to catalogue all of Kenya’s artefacts that have been scattered across the globe. So far, they’ve identified 32,501. 

Still, sending back objects is only the beginning of Europe’s reckoning with its colonial past and present. “Restitution is part of decolonisation,” says Abungu, but “there are many ways of decolonising the museum,” such as inviting African scholars to co-curate exhibits, as the Ethnological Museum has begun doing with researchers from Tanzania. 

The fact that “the Humboldt Forum is willing to do that – to co-research before they put anything out there – that for me is the process of decolonisation. It’s a huge thing,” says Abungu. “The fact that the Humboldt Forum comes at this time and is confronting this, it has come a long way.” He says other institutions such as the British Museum – which has famously opposed sending any of them permanently back – should take heed.

Reexamining the past 

Why is it so hard for western museums to let go? Africa’s past, many of these museums like to argue, is not Africa’s alone. “These institutions are very conservative – ideologically, but also literally,” says Häntzschel. “Conserving things is what they’re about. They think, ‘No, we’re not giving anything away, because controlling them is our job.’”

That museums prefer not to hear Africans’ calls for control over their ancestors’ artefacts is no accident, but rather, “a manifestation of the abiding belief of many Westerners that they have a God-given duty and right to control forever Africans and their use of their resources including artefacts,” writes Opoku.

To some, like Opoku, returning a handful of artefacts or inviting African curators to Europe doesn’t go far enough. To decolonise the museum may require deconstructing it entirely. It’s not just the museum’s contents, they argue, but the museum itself that perpetuates Europe’s colonial gaze.

“The ethnological museum that we know started in the 1600s with this curiosity complex. The power for a king was in showing exotic objects – assembling them in one place as a sign of power. This European idea lingers. It’s still present today,” says Mboro. By showing off Germany’s colonial acquisitions at all, the Humboldt Forum is inherently perpetuating the white, European gaze that attracted Germans to these items in the first place. 

“The idea of putting things behind glass with labels is a European thing,” explains Häntzschel, and many “European museums are exhibiting things to the general public that are not supposed to be seen by everybody.”

A protester from Cameroon seeking the return of the Ngonnso statue stands outside the opening of the Humboldt’s Ethnological Museum

On a visit to the National Museum of Cameroon, Häntzschel was surprised to find that most of the museum’s artefacts were intentionally hidden in the basement, away from public view. “These objects still have a lot of power,” the museum staff told him. “Some people get sick when they see them. Some people faint.”

“The idea that you can show everything to everybody is really not shared there,” explains Häntzschel. “It’s like showing yourself nude in public or something. It’s kind of taboo.”

In Ivanov’s view, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum is already making strides toward decolonisation. “We try to criticise and to make transparent this European way of deciding what. We want to show that this is not the reality of Africa – it is a European ideological construction of Africa.”

But that doesn’t solve “the main problem, (which) is the way you look at them. The staring, the observing—looking at the other, staring at the other,” says Rittmeier. “These things have power,” and to look at them out of context, in a glass case in a Berlin museum, is to take that power away. 

“This is the fundamental question of the Humboldt Forum,” says Rittmeier. “How can you build, in the year 2020, in the heart of Berlin … a museum that’s still based on the fascination of the foreign?”

Cancel the museum

Walk inside one of the Forum’s inaugural exhibits today, and you’ll discover white and red “Provenienz” pull-outs, which few people dare to open, perhaps because they look like cubbies where fire extinguishers should be held. But their contents provide fascinating insights into how certain artefacts came into German hands. The room where school groups visit is filled with children’s books with titles like: How does art get into the museum?

Another exhibit, Terrible Beauty, is dedicated to ivory. It educates visitors about the deadly consequences of Europe’s fascination with African elephant and rhino tusks. And yet, the entire exhibit is built upon German stockpiles of this very blood-soaked contraband. White tusks and ivory jewelry are displayed in glass cases and described as beautiful. A friend I visited with remarked that “you can’t just say ‘Oh, this was once seen as beautiful,’ when you’re choosing to show it off today!” The exhibit is the perfect illustration of the paradox facing the Humboldt Forum: how is it possible to make a postcolonial museum out of colonial things? 

Ivory carvings in the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, Berlin

Some say that it isn’t. In June 2020, in Brussels, some 10,000 protestors took to the streets to demand that statues of King Leopold II, who oversaw the plunder of Congo, be torn down. In response, the current Belgian king expressed regret for his nation’s brutality, but stopped short of addressing protestors’ demands that Belgium return Congolese artefacts to Congo.

Similar protests have taken place outside the Humboldt Forum. “At this moment, as monuments to racist, colonial violence are being removed in very visible ways around the world… [we] publicly reject the regressive model… that the Humboldt Forum embodies,” said a coalition of activists who rallied outside the building in December.

Museums like the Humboldt Forum “are depicting others without others being a part of it,” says Abungu. “The question of who should represent us – museums do it for us, without us. [And] if you do it for me, without me – that is against me,” says Abungu. Until that changes, “we have not decolonised the concept of a museum.”

To those who harbour fond memories of childhood excursions to our local museums, the idea of cancelling the museum seems to contradict the worldly curiosity we were encouraged to acquire.

The problem is, “when you want to find information about another culture, you’re in danger of creating this hierarchy between the people of that culture and those who gaze, who look,” says Emeka. “If you look to Belgium, and you have this huge quantity of Congolese artefacts, you’re a witness,” says Rittmeier. “Like, if someone commits a crime and you see it—you’re a witness to this history.” When we send our children into colonial museums, they too become witnesses, extending the cycle of ‘othering’ for another generation.

If Emeka is right, Germany’s African artefacts may have less to teach Germans about Africans than to teach Germans about themselves. To save anthropological museums from extinction may require dismantling “African” exhibitions entirely, rebuilding them as “German colonial” exhibits instead. Imagine walking through an exhibit about Baumann complete with a replica of the Watussi and other objects that help visitors visualise Germans’ colonisation of Africans and their culture.

Or, rather than wandering around gazing at artefacts, what if all museum visits could take the form of tours led by African anthropologists? Just think of a Chokwe curator regaling museum visitors with the love story of Chibinda, then rolling out a Chokwe artefact of her choosing to demonstrate how it was made and used at the time. 

“These are not art pieces,” says Emeka, destined to be trapped behind glass and gawked at. It’s this gaze, she says, that museums of the future must disrupt. “It’s mostly Europeans looking at a chair, who have no information on anything. That’s a hierarchy I don’t like – the hierarchy of gaze.” It’s high time, says Emeka, to correct our colonial lens.

In an interview with the Paris Review, the famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe cited an African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” When it comes to colonial museums, the lion, says Abungu, is Africa. “We have not (yet) been given the opportunity to tell our stories.”

“This is the nature of museums. Museums are western created. They take things and they build stories around it. They came, they took everything, and they went and told their story,” says Abungu. 

In the Humboldt Forum and in hundreds of western museums like it, “these stories are being told from the other side.”

 “Now it is our time to tell our story.” 

Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Washington, DC.

Photographs courtesy Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Ethnological Museum Berlin, Stefan Müchler/SPK, Getty Images

Jacob Kushner is an international correspondent who writes about history and colonialism, migration and prejudice, terrorism and extremism in East/Central Africa, Germany and the Caribbean. A former Fulbright Fellow in Berlin, he is the author of the forthcoming book “White Terror,” which chronicles a plot by white extremists to rid Germany of immigrants (Grand Central Publishing, 2024).