A small sensation is taking place at the State Museums: after the spectacular return of the Cape Cross Column by the German Historical Museum, Henrik Witbooi’s Bible and whip by Baden-Württemberg and the bones of 82 Herero from the Charité and other collections scientific institutions in Germany, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is now taking this step. 23 objects from the Ethnological Museum are finally going back to Namibia. A few days before their departure for Windhoek, selected pieces will be briefly presented again in Dahlem, where they were in the depot.
What is unusual about this restitution, however, is the selection process. As part of the research project “Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures”, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation with 400,000 euros, scientists from Namibia were able to make their own choice from among the 1,400 objects that German anthropologists, military personnel or missionaries acquired during colonialism Berlin Ethnological Museum arrived.
“The objects do not look spectacular at first glance,” said Foundation President Hermann Parzinger at the presentation, “but they are!” The exhibits are of eminent importance for research in Namibia, especially those for the opening on June 1st Museum of Namibian Fashion in Ojiwarongo. Among them are two dolls, a child’s necklace, a turtle case with a bag for storing perfume, a drinking vessel made from an ornate ostrich egg, and a leather headdress with iron beads for women.
In Namibia, the objects should not only close a gap in the country’s cultural narrative and evoke memories within the framework of workshops, but also initiate a creative process. As was the case with the impressive dress by Namibian fashion designer Cynthia Schimming on display in the Humboldt Forum, which was inspired by one of the dolls that are now being returned, designers in the country should also be encouraged from now on.
Her designs go to the National Museum of Art in Windhoek. This second phase of the project is again being supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, this time with almost 300,000 euros, after the National Museum’s depot has already been renovated and a restorer and a museologist have been hired.
“In the future, there will be no other way than to work collaboratively,” emphasized Lars-Christian Koch, director of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art, and referred to other joint projects at the Humboldt Forum with researchers from Tanzania, Nigeria, Amazonia and Papua New Guinea. “The knowledge lies with the Namibians,” added project manager Julia Binter. It is essential for a new historiography.
Together with Esther Moombolah, the director of the National Museum in Windhoek, she presented the returning objects, including the doll that Queen Olugondo von Ondonga had given to her friend and missionary Anna Rautanen for their wedding. Her husband sold it to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology in 1909, the connection to Namibia was thus interrupted and can only now be resumed.
For the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the return does not mean a loss, but progress on the way to joint research work. At the same time, it sheds new light on the restitution of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria that has been announced for this year.
When asked, President Parzinger clearly stated the intention of the Prussian Foundation to “complete property restitution”, the processing is now up to the Foreign Office and the Minister of State for Culture, only the signatures were missing.
Nevertheless, individual exhibits are to remain in Berlin and be on view in the Humboldt Forum from autumn when the second part of the exhibition at the Ethnological Museum opens. The Nigerian partners decide which it will be – as is now the case with the current return to Namibia.