Only at second glance at the Humboldt Forum’s flyer on the new presentation of the Ethnological Museum’s collections does one notice a relevant aspect:
The German version of the flyer (aimed at the German audience) writes: “Viele Objekte verließen den afrikanischen Kontinent als Folge kolonialer Herrschaft.” (correct translation: Many objects left the African continent as a result of colonial rule.” So a passive act is described that has nothing to do with the reality of how these artworks came to Germany.
The English version of the flyer (aimed at the international audience) writes: “Many objects were taken from African continent as a consequence of colonial rule.” and writes of an active act of taking, taking away or stealing, which corresponds to the documented historical reality.
So the Humboldt Forum is ?deliberately? misrepresenting one, if not the most important aspect of this exhibition: The exhibited objects from Africa were stolen by Europeans and thus cultural identity in the countries of origin was clearly undermined, if not partially destroyed. A racist concept was thus actively enforced, in which the oppressed group is robbed of its identity. Moreover, the concept of racism includes denying the same thing that is happening through this distorted representation in the flyer.2
Anyone who considers this linguistic reinterpretation, which is also deliberately directed at two different user groups, to be insignificant: What if a police report, after an obvious burglary in one’s own home, were to state “the valuables left the house” and thus there would not have to be a perpetrator, since “left” as a passive act does not have to be an act either. Even worse, the homeowner is suspected of having taken the things away himself.
The question is whether the researchers involved from the countries of origin of the objects are aware of the statement from the German translation and whether this was discussed. One would expect that the English “were taken” rather than “were stolen” would have been discussed.
In addition to this faulty presentation in the flyer, a walk through the exhibition also reveals a clear lack of love in the presentation of the objects. The information content of the exhibits is clearly below what a history museum in a Bavarian village usually has to offer. There is generally a lack of historical classification, classification in the local context, exact dating, etc. For example, there are drums that were used in the past for communication between villages without a description of the exact purpose and function: What were the occasions? Was there an alphabet or only predefined rhythms? Over what distance were they used? etc.
In this light, the questions arise all the more:
- Why were the stolen objects not returned long ago?
- Why is so little energy put into an appropriate presentation?
- Why is a different reality presented to German-speaking visitors than to international visitors?
- Why is the same statement also found in more recent flyers and on their website (German version and the English version) – last checked at 27.02.2023?
Could this “mistake” be a direct result of Germany’s colonial history is not beeing taught well enough? What do you think?
- Enthonogical Museum & Museum of Asian Art (Flyer for the opening) – Humboldt Forum Sep 2021
- How to be an Antiracist – Ibrahim X. Kendi – 2017
- Ethnologische Sammlungen und Asiatische Kunst – Humboldt Forum August 2022
After pointing out the issue on social media (LinkedIn), I at least got a response from the Humboldt Forum (see screenshots and translation below).
Unfortunately, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin missed the opportunity to say “sorry we made a mistake”. Instead they falsely claimed that: “The formulation…was chosen at the time to cover the various colonial practices and contexts. These include not ‘only’ robbery, but also barter, trade, purchase, etc. – even though it is of course undisputed that these as a whole often came about within asymmetrical relations.”
There seems to be a bigger problem with the denial of history at the Humboldt Forum, because to say that a “barter, trade or purchase” in “asymmetrical relations” is not robbery is nonsense. There was no proper law(enforcement) to protect against the white man in Africa before we left at the time the items were taken. Imagine a mafia boss holding a gun to your head or even subtly telling you “feel free to sell” with a smile and buying your house or business for a symolic price of 1€. What would you call that?
In contrast to other injustices in German history, where people have been stripped of things well below their value, in the context of colonialism it is still difficult to provide recognition and thus also to come to terms with it.
Sadly the Humboldt Forum’s social media team missed the relevant word “act” in my explanation => “passive act” (German version) compared to an “active act” (English version) which is expressed by the words used, but claim that both the English and German versions are “passive constructs” (which they are from a grammatical point of view and is correct, as the discussed items have no feet), but again miss the point of why words are relevant here.
In essence, the feedback from the Humboldt Forum shows that there is still a long way to go before Germany (and the Humboldt Forum) fully accepts the wrongs of the colonial period. That is why I am asking you to help us by drawing attention to this issue.
Translations of Feedback from Humboldt Forum (translated with DeepL)
“Hello Jochen Baumeister,
Thank you very much for drawing attention to this vagueness in the brochure and on our website that you perceived.
The formulation, which incidentally is also a passive construction in English from a purely linguistic point of view, was chosen at the time to cover the various colonial practices and contexts. These include not “only” robbery, but also barter, trade, purchase, etc. – even though it is of course undisputed that these as a whole often came about within asymmetrical relations. We also saw this connection given with the following sentences. How exactly the difference between the German and English language variants came about is unfortunately no longer comprehensible.
However, we take your comment very seriously and are taking it as an opportunity to discuss with the departments and colleagues involved how we can formulate things more clearly in future without creating the feeling that we are trivialising colonial mechanisms. Because that is far from us.
“With regard to your blog article, we would be grateful if you could inform us at socialmedia(at)humboldtforum.org which objects you found inadequately presented, so that we can deal with them in detail. Further information on provenance research and restitution can be found on our website, as well as in thematic guided tours and events. Best regards from the Humboldt Forum!