A huge mural in Windhoek's Independence Memorial Museum, depicting members of the Namibian People's Liberation Army (PLAN) blowing their horns as they attack the colonial masters' troops, provided a celebratory backdrop as the Namibian-German delegation proudly announced the return of 23 objects from the collection of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin to Namibia.
"According to our records, the 23 pieces were obtained between 1860 and 1890," explained Nehao Kautondokwa, chairperson of the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN), as she presented the exhibits to the Namibian public for the first time, together with her colleagues from the Ethnological Museum, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the University of Namibia (UNAM), who were all part of the scientific cooperation project "Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures."
The pieces are everyday objects, including jewelry and clothes. There is even a children's doll. "Every Namibian is represented through these items. That was one of the selection criteria," adds Kautondokwa. Two people wearing plastic gloves holding the decorated piece of wood that is a 19th century doll, as they place it in a box. Two other men in suits watch them.
One of them was Ndapewoshali Ashipala, the acting Namibian Museums Association director. Taking part in the project was a wake-up call for her, she told DW: "You look at an object and they say it belongs to one of the communities in the country. But you've never seen anything like it before!" She said that these experiences motivated her to study history, specializing in previously unknown trade relations between the Namibian ethnic groups.
Preparing for future returns
Goodman Gwasira, a lecturer at UNAM, which is another project partner, takes pride in such stories. At the press conference, he explained how the colonial era incapacitated people in Africa. He added that the cooperation project will now help Namibia develop local specialists and training programs to deal with such historically valuable objects. The goal is also to prepare for future returns, Gwasira said.
Namibia may not yet be ready to accept the estimated 12,000 Namibian objects from European museums, but as Gwasira rhetorically asked, "How prepared were the Europeans when they looted the items in the first place?" He called on the project partners to continue working together to create the necessary structures in Namibia. "The colleagues in Namibia are just as interested in preserving the objects as we were," emphasized the director of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Lars-Christian Koch.
Restitution or just a loan?
It is more than a question of developing preservation capacities. The restitution of Namibian cultural assets has always been a highly emotional issue. A recent case was the restitution of the Bible and the whip of the Namibian folk hero Hendrik Witbooi in early 2019, which was accompanied by a dispute on which authorities in the country should be receiving them. Now the return of the 23 objects have also triggered criticism on social media, because strictly speaking, it's not a return, but just a loan.
However, according to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the term was chosen for purely bureaucratic reasons. A loan could be decided more quickly by the foundation, so the cooperation partners initially agreed on a "permanent loan." "The pieces that are supposed to stay here will stay here. And that definitely applies to the 23 objects," Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation President Hermann Parzinger told DW in Windhoek.
The board of trustees will meet in June, when they will establish the terms for an official return. "Then the Namibian side has to reclaim the items, but the process will be relatively simple since the objects are already in the country," added museum director Koch.
'Rewriting history from a Namibian perspective'
Meanwhile, Namibia is now about to begin the research process on the 23 exhibits currently housed in the National Museum of Namibia. According to the Namibian partners' wishes, the public should also be involved in the process to possibly uncover knowledge about Namibia's cultural heritage that has perhaps already been forgotten. "We want to rewrite the history surrounding the artifacts from a Namibian perspective, to explore the true origins and meaning of the pieces," explained Nehao Kautondokwa, chairperson of the Museums Association of Namibia.
The project will run until 2024. During the press conference in Windhoek, however, it became clear that other cultural assets from Germany should also be returned to Namibia in the future. And according to the wishes of Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the exhibits might one day travel back in the opposite direction again: "In many countries in the world, an exchange of items on loan is quite normal. Why shouldn't it be the same with Namibia?"
Author Jasko Rust (Windhoek)
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