German museums hold 40,000 objects from former colony Cameroon, 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 on Thursday by Bénédicte Savoy, a professor at the Technische Universität in Berlin, and Albert Gouaffo, a professor at the University of Dschang in Cameroon.

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

The state collections in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé comprise about 6,000 objects. Most of the 40,000 items in German museums are in depots and not on display, Savoy said, adding that this huge figure excludes, for example, items in natural history museums, archaeological finds in museums of prehistory, or any objects in private collections.

The new study, called Atlas der Abwesenheit (Atlas of Absence), which is publicly available via open access, is the result of two years’ work by researchers from Germany and Cameroon and was supported by curators at 45 German museums.

Driven by the desire to widen opportunities for trade, Germany claimed Cameroon as a colony in 1884 and used increasingly brutal means to suppress considerable resistance from the local people until the First World War, after which the territory was split between the French and the British. Over more than 30 years of German rule, colonial troops carried out at least 180 “punitive expeditions” to secure land, laying waste to villages and farms and looting or destroying cultural heritage.

Savoy observed that it was perhaps easier for Germany to first focus on restituting Benin bronzes to Nigeria because in that instance, the violent looting was perpetrated by British troops, not German. “Confronting one’s own acts of brutality requires more political and psychological work,” she said.

At a panel discussion in Berlin to present the study, Cameroonian embassy officials emphasised that restitution is on their agenda. “Germany is full,” said Maryse Nsangou Njikam, a culture advisor to the Cameroonian embassy in Germany. “Cameroon is empty. We must have these objects back. We need them to build the future. Restitution is the cherry on the cake, the goal we are heading for.”

The government of Cameroon has created a restitution commission with representatives of the foreign, education and culture ministries, the traditional royal rulers, civil society and academia, Nsangou Njikam said. “It has started work and meets regularly with museum directors in Germany,” she said, adding: “we are still a long way from restitution because several steps have to be taken first.”

The artefacts in German world culture museums include textiles, musical instruments, ritual masks, royal treasures such as stools and thrones, manuscripts, weapons and tools, “none of which were conceived as display objects for vitrines,” Savoy said.

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

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

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