Benin bronzes in the permanent exhibition of the Übersee-Museum.


We provide information on the state of the debate on the restitution of cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts and present examples of the return and repatriation of human remains.

How Returns are Handled

There is currently no legal basis for the appropriate handling of Cultural Goods and Collections from Colonial Contexts, nor does any agreement exist that is comparable to the Washington Principles, though the subject is repeatedly discussed at various political levels, both in Germany and other countries.

Returns have been demanded by the countries and societies of origin concerned ever since the colonial era and increasingly since the 1960s, while at the same time there has been some debate on the creation of the relevant legal framework conditions. This resulted in the UNESCO Convention of 1970, for example, though the latter does not apply retrospectively, so it does not include the peak phase of colonialism. It was not until recent years that reappraisal of the colonial past in Germany started to become the subject of broader social debate. There is still no international consensus on how to deal with the colonial legacy, and in some cases there are significant differences between the various (European) countries regarding the state of the discussion on cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts.

What is more, a very large number of countries would need to be involved in any such agreement: ever since the 15th century, almost every region of the world has been part of colonial structures, at least for a certain period of time. As such, cultural objects and collections brought to Europe originate from a variety of different acquisition contexts, each of which potentially involve specific forms of handling. Appropriate action also depends on the nature of the collection: it makes a difference whether the items are of a day-to-day character, sacred objects or zoological specimens. In addition to returns, other solutions can potentially be considered such as permanent loans, legal transfer of ownership without physical relocation, financial compensation or joint handling and research of holdings. The mortal remains of human beings have a particularly sensitive status in this connection: nowadays, these are mainly to be found in anthropological and medical-anatomical collections. Here, return with subsequent burial is almost always the only possible form of appropriate handling, providing this is desired by the society of origin. 

In addition to the term “return”, the terms “restitution” and “repatriation” are also used in the debate. Given the multitude of cases and constellations, “return” has become accepted as a kind of generic term. The term “repatriation” emphasises the return of an item to its social or cultural context and is often used in the field of human remains, while the term “restitution” emphasises legal aspects such as ownership.

Prominent Examples of Returns

There has been a whole series of returns in recent years, and the projects on provenance research funded by the Foundation have also been able to contribute.

Further Content

Pustaha, a "Spell Book" from the island of Sumatra, which is now in the Greiz Collection of Books and Engravings.
Basics & Overview
Basic information on the colonial period, provenance research in colonial contexts and the actors involved
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”
Title of the Periodical “Provenance & Research”
Publications and events in the field of cultural goods and collections from colonial contexts