Art repatriation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums

The return of art and treasures taken from African countries during their colonisation by European powers is a recurring and controversial debate, including in Germany. Should countries give the art back?

Art repatriation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums
Three bronzes from Benin, West Africa, on display at the MGK Museum in Hamburg during an exhibition. Photo: DPA

A UNESCO convention against the export of illicit cultural goods adopted in 1970 called for the return of cultural property taken from a country but it did not address historic cases, including from the colonial era.

With museums fearing they could be forced to return artefacts, former colonial powers have been slow to ratify the convention: France only did so 1997, Britain in 2002, Germany in 2007 and Belgium in 2009.

As experts advise France to return thousands of African artworks held in its museums, here is an overview of plans and disputes over artefacts in Europe looted from former African colonies.


Germany is considering what to do with the items stolen from its colonial-era African empire, which ran from 1884 to the end of the First World War. It included countries such as Cameroon and Namibia.

In September 2017, Culture Minister Monika Grütters suggested a model similar to that used by the German Centre for Lost Cultural Property. The centre seeks out owners of art plundered by Nazis in order to return the items.

Grütters has also said that colonial heritage has for too long been a “blind spot” in Germany and has pledged additional funding for provenance research.

The debate is likely to ignite again in 2019 when a major new ethnological museum, the Humboldt Forum, opens its doors. Its collection includes artefacts taken from former German colonies.

SEE ALSO: Rebuild of Kaiser's Palace in central Berlin on schedule to open next year

The institution director Hartmut Dorgerloh has said that the roots of objects is a “very important subject for the Humboldt Forum”.

“If we are going to present these objects, we must also tell the story of their provenance,” he told the Art Newspaper. “We are working with the communities of origin, with international experts and with a critical public to consciously address this subject.”

A planned exhibition that includes materials from the the West African country Benin will include descriptions of their origins and link them to the current debates, for example.

Other museums in Germany have also tried to tackle the issue. At the Museum for Kunst und Gewerbe or MKG (arts and crafts) in Hamburg, an exhibition featuring art from other countries discussed Germany's colonial past.

But many still argue that European countries should be doing more to return the art to the country it was stolen from.

SEE ALSO: Berlin to change street names which honour brutal colonial past

In 2016 Benin demanded the repatriation of a part of its treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey.

They include totems, sceptres and sacred doors from the Royal Palaces of Aboma, which French troops took between 1892 and 1894 and are exhibited in the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

While that request was initially denied, it has since found a more sympathetic hearing from French President Emmanuel Macron.

In November 2016 Macron promised to “return African heritage to Africa” in a speech in Burkina Faso. He tasked French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to draw up the conditions.

Their report, to be presented to Macron on Friday and of which AFP has seen a copy, proposes modifying France's heritage law to allow the restitution of cultural works if bilateral accords are struck between France and African

French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to return “African heritage to Africa”. Photo: DPA


The British Museum holds a major collection of bronzes from the African Kingdom of Benin that were seized by the British army in 1897.

Nigeria, which today covers the ancient territory, wants them returned. The museum says it is ready to send them back but only on loan.

London's Victoria and Albert Museum has also said it is open to the long-term loan to Ethiopia of jewellery and manuscripts looted by British soldiers in 1868 when they stormed the Fortress of Magdala during the reign of
Emperor Tewodros II.

Ethiopia is demanding the return some of the most significant “treasures of Magdala”, including a royal crown.

Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has promised to return stolen art to its countries of origin should he become prime minister.


Belgium's debates over its colonial past have coalesced around the vast transformation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels. It was built in the 19th century under King Leopold II to showcase
Belgium's presence in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

The renovated museum will reopen in December after five years and promises to offer a “critical view” on colonialism.

But in September a collective of associations, universities and Congolese personalities published an open letter demanding the restitution of its works of art.

“We can not base intercultural dialogue on former pillaging by colonial murderers: stolen cultural goods must be repatriated,” they said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021

With tougher Covid-19 restrictions now in place in Germany, travelling and socialising have become increasingly limited. So we’ve compiled a list of fun events for you to enjoy from the comfort of your own home!

Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021
The entrance to Berlin's Alte Nationalgallerie. Photo: DPA

Here are some events and ongoing activities to look out for in February.

Berlin Philharmonic returns to the 1920s, Saturday, February 13th 2021 at 6:45pm

Berliner Philharmoniker is streaming the 1920s First Symphony Opera, one of German composer Kurt Weill’s early performances. 

As described by the orchestra, this piece’s music is “captivating and triumphant”. The music was composed in 1927 and its story takes place in ancient Greece. 

Final Girls Film Festival, February 4th at 1pm to February 8th at 11:59pm

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival showcases horror cinema that’s directed, written, or produced by women and non-binary filmmakers. 

The festival is committed to creating space for female voices and visions, whether monstrous, heroic or some messy combination of the two, in the horror genre.

Berliner Festspiele, Strong Pieces Stream, Until March 

Berliner Festspiele is showing two of their top picks.

“The Misanthrope” is a Molière’s classic staged by Anne Lenk, and translated by Jürgen Gosch and Wolfgang Wiens. It’s been called a straightforward delight with an exceptional concentration of language and wit. 

And “Man appears in the Holocene” is staged by Alexander Giesches after Max Frisch’s novella about mankind’s Sisyphus-struggle against their own doom.

König Gallerie, 'Dreaming of Alligator Head' by Claudia Comte, January 21st 2021- January 12th 2022

With her digital solo exhibition Dreaming of Alligator Head, Comte creates a scenario that is impossible in reality: She plants her underwater sculpture park in the König Gallerie app. The digital visitors inside experience a fascinating underwater world without having to go on a physical journey. 

Comte also seeks to raise awareness of marine environments and ask how an artistic object can change the world. Check out the exhibition on the König Gallerie app. 

Galerie Tanja Wagner, How to be human, until February 13th 2021 

Celebrating 10 years of the opening of her contemporary art gallery, Tanja Wagner’s exhibition, How to Be Human showcases her personal favourite works of artists she has collaborated with.

It includes Grit Richter’s famous work, Das Letzte Wort, as well as other works that in Wagner’s opinion, seek to explore the question ’How to Be Human’. 

Alte Nationalgalerie Online, until further notice

The Alte Nationalgalerie was set up as a “sanctuary for art and science”. The idea for a national gallery was realised after the donation of a collection of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to the Prussian state. 

Since Covid-19 has made it difficult to visit the otherwise very popular museum, the gallery has made its collection available online until further notice. 

Naturkundemuseum Berlin, Beats and Bones Podcast and Livestream, Mondays at 7pm, until further notice 

Berlin’s Naturkundemuseum is offering a podcast series where nature experts from the museum answer questions about the diversity of nature, evolution, the formation of the earth, climate change and insect death.

They explore questions such as “Who knows our earliest ancestors were 480 million-year-old jawless fish?” Or, ‘What is the Achilles heel of Tyrannosaurus rex’? 

Catch new episodes every Monday on Instagram, along with a live stream through the museum with experts accompanying you through the collection and exhibition. The previous episodes are available on Spotify as well as Youtube. 

Anne Frank Zentrum, All about Anne, until further notice 

The Anne Frank Zentrum's exhibition “All about Anne” is normally presented at Hackescher Markt in Berlin-Mitte. Since lockdown, the exhibition has been made available online. 

Its exhibition tells the story of Anne Frank's life and the time in which she lived. It also explains why her diary is so well-known today and shows that her thoughts are still relevant.