Pustaha, a "Spell Book" from the island of Sumatra, which is now in the Greiz Collection of Books and Engravings.

Colonial Contexts: Basics & Overview

What is meant by “colonial contexts” and what happened in the colonial history of Germany? How has postcolonial provenance research developed and who are the key actors involved? The Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts department provides an overview of its subject area.

What is Meant by “Colonial Contexts”?

The term colonial contexts” encompasses the circumstances and consequences of colonialism since European expansionism in the 15th century. It refers not only to formal colonial rule, such as that exercised by Germany, England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands in Asia, Oceania and Africa, but also to colonial structures and thought patterns that continue to have an impact to this day. After all, “colonial contexts” can persist long after a former colony has achieved state independence, for example as a result of exploitative relations or the marginalisation of minorities.

Colonial contexts are typified by an imbalance of power: “Colonial contexts are characterised by unequal power relationships and a self-image of the cultural superiority of those in power,” as is stated in the German Museums Association’s guide to handling cultural goods and collections in this field (“Guidelines for German Museums – Care of Collections from Colonial Contexts”). Colonialism can take on many forms and is described in general terms in the aforementioned guide as a “relationship marked by domination, in which the colonised are limited in their self-determination, are subject to heteronomy, and forced to adapt to the needs and interests of the colonisers, especially as far as politics and economic aspects are concerned.”

Colonisation often began with missionary work or the establishment of trading posts. It frequently involved brutal conquest and oppression. Most formal European colonial rule ended in the second half of the 20th century, but “colonial contexts” continue to have an impact in many forms to this day.

Germany’s Colonial Past

The German Reich, founded in 1871, became a colonial power relatively late compared to other European nations. Partly because Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was initially critical of colonial endeavours, the first German colonies emerged from acquisitions made by private individuals and trading companies, which were subsequently placed under the “protection” of the Reich. From the mid-1880s, the German Reich established the colonies of Cameroon, Togo, German South West Africa (now Namibia) and German East Africa, as well as German Samoa and German New Guinea in the Pacific region and Kiautschou Bay Leased Territory in China.

The German Reich exercised its colonial power with enormous cruelty at times. In German South West Africa, the resisting Herero and Nama suffered genocide in 1904-1908. In the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa in 1905-07, German troops waged a war against the population with the help of mercenaries that claimed hundreds of thousands of victims. The resistance on Ponape in the Pacific saw bloody suppression, as did that of the Boxer movement in China.

Defeat in the First World War meant that German colonial rule came to an end earlier than that of other European nations: the Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of its colonies.

The German Lost Art Foundation has published two studies on colonial violence in Africa and Oceania in its series “Working Paper Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste”.

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Here you will also find studies on colonial violence in Africa and Oceania.
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Key Events

Postcolonial Provenance Research

Postcolonial provenance research looks into the origin of collections and objects acquired under colonial conditions. The aim is to find out which objects European actors appropriated by force in order to enable them to be returned to the countries or societies of origin. In the process, light is also shed on the ambiguous changes of ownership that occurred and the extent to which local actors were free in their actions. One aspect that is of key importance to postcolonial provenance research is cooperation with experts, interest groups and collection or research institutions in or from the countries and societies from where the objects or human remains originate.

The focus is on research into the provenance of individual objects, while also seeking to uncover colonial structures – such as the connection between colonial expansion and the establishment of “ethnological museums” in the 19th century. As such, postcolonial provenance research not only investigates the origin of objects, it also asks the question: what influence did colonial rule and racist ideology have on the emergence of collections and museums in Europe? And to what extent are institutions, culture and scholarship still shaped by this history to this day?

In addition to cultural property, one focus is on researching the origin of human remains, especially in anthropological, natural history and archaeological collections. Among other things, skulls and bones from colonised areas were collected in Europe for the purpose of so-called “race research”, a branch of research that attempted to prove the existence of “human races”; many of these are still kept in German collections to this day.

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„Zahlung an den Häuptling von ... für die Vorführung des heiligen Krokodils", aus Schomburgks Fotobuch

Background and Development of the Research Field

On a political level, two of the most important policy documents for the development of postcolonial provenance research are the commitment of the German federal government coalition for the period 2018-21 to the “Aufarbeitung der Provenienzen von Kulturgut aus kolonialem Erbe” (re-appraisal of the provenance of cultural property from colonial heritage) (2018) and the voluntary commitment of the federal, state and local governments in the position paper “Erste Eckpunkte zum Umgang mit Sammlungsgut aus kolonialen Kontexten” (Initial key points for handling collections from colonial contexts) (2019). Both were key factors in the establishment of the Department of Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts.

The position paper identified six fields of action and goals in 2019. This included the establishment of the “German Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts” and the implementation of the “3-pronged strategy”, from which the so-called CCC portal emerged.

Through these three bodies, dedicated funding is now provided for the first time for research into provenance in colonial contexts which is documented in the research database Proveana, as well as a central point of contact for persons and institutions from the countries of origin of the objects (especially with regard to possible returns), and also a central digital platform through which, in the medium term, it will be possible to view collection items from colonial contexts from all over the world.

Various factors contributed to these developments, in particular from the 2000s onwards. These include the debate about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, negotiations between the German and Namibian governments regarding reparations for the consequences of the genocide committed against Herero and Nama, and the increasing number of enquiries and demands for the return of collection items from colonial contexts, especially human remains. With its Recommendations for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and Collections issued as long ago as 2013, the German Museums Association already responded to many of the issues raised in public debate. This was followed in 2018 by a second set of guidelines that dealt generally with collections from colonial contexts. In 2017, the Working Group Colonial Provenances was founded as an association of scholars who sought to influence political developments.

The debate gained fresh impetus with the publication of the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy entitled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethic” in November 2018, in which the authors formulated recommendations for the restitution of African cultural heritage from public museums and collections in France. This followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) in which he announced the return of cultural property. The report also influenced other European states.

Key Actors and Structures

Further Content

Writings collection of Museum Fünf Kontinente München
Funding & Proposals
Information and documents on the funding of provenance research in the area of “Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts”
Benin bronzes in the permanent exhibition of the Übersee-Museum.
The situation regarding the return of cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts – including prominent examples
Title of the Periodical “Provenance & Research”
Publications and events in the field of cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts