Home Arts German museums hold 40,000 artefacts from former Cameroon colony, study finds

German museums hold 40,000 artefacts from former Cameroon colony, study finds

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German museums of world cultures hold 40,000 objects from Cameroon, more than the entire African collection of the British Museum, according to a new study presented Thursday by Bénédicte Savoy, professor at the Technische Universität Berlin, and Albert Gouaffo, professor at the University of Dschang in Cameroon.

“It’s a lot,” Savoy said. “A huge number. There is no country that has more objects belonging to Cameroonian heritage – certainly not Cameroon.

The state collections in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, include around 6,000 objects. Most of the 40,000 objects in German museums are in repositories and not on display, Savoy said, adding that this huge figure excludes, for example, objects in natural history museums, archaeological finds in prehistoric museums or any subject of private collections.

The new study, called Abwesenheit Atlas (Atlas of Absence), available to the public in open access, is the result of two years of work by German and Cameroonian researchers and has been supported by the curators of 45 German museums.

Driven by a desire to expand trading opportunities, Germany claimed Cameroon as a colony in 1884 and used increasingly brutal means to suppress considerable resistance from the local population until World War I, after whereupon the territory was divided between the French and the British. During more than 30 years of German rule, colonial troops conducted at least 180 “punitive expeditions” to secure land, devastating villages and farms and looting or destroying cultural heritage.

Savoy observed that it was perhaps easier for Germany to focus first on returning the Beninese bronzes to Nigeria because in this case the violent looting was perpetrated by British and not German troops. “Confronting your own acts of brutality requires more political and psychological work,” she said.

At a roundtable in Berlin to present the study, Cameroonian embassy officials stressed that restitution was on their agenda. “Germany is full,” said Maryse Nsangou Njikam, cultural adviser at the Cameroonian embassy in Germany. “Cameroon is empty. We need to retrieve these items. We need them to build the future. Restitution is the icing on the cake, the goal towards which we are heading.

The government of Cameroon has created a restitution commission made up of representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs, education and culture, traditional royal leaders, civil society and academia, Nsangou Njikam said. “He has started working and meets regularly with museum directors in Germany,” she said, adding, “we are still a long way from restitution because there are several steps that need to be taken first.”

Artifacts in German museums of world culture include textiles, musical instruments, ritual masks, royal treasures such as stools and thrones, manuscripts, weapons and tools, “none of which were designed as an exhibit for window displays,” Savoy said.

Among a selection of objects listed in the study are a Bagam beaded stool looted from a punitive exhibition and brought back by an army officer which is now in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart; a carved wooden drum, also a war trophy, in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and a beaded cap belonging to a Cameroonian chief, now in the Linden Museum, which was one of 237 items looted over two and a half years by a German officer .

Museums with the largest collections of Cameroonian objects include the Linden Museum with more than 8,000 and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and the Grassi Museum in Leipzig, each with more than 5,000. For Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, director of the museum Grassi, the new study shows that German museums “have a lot of homework to do,” she told the panel.

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