Decolonizing Museums in Europe and Africa

by Sebastian Pampuch on 24 May 2017

“The museum is not only an institution of modernity and ordered citizenship, but is the primary institutional form of empire. It was made and is being remade and adapted through both sides of empire’s history: by a rapacious and violent empire of plunder and pacification, and by empire as ‘benevolent colonisation’, humanitarianism and trusteeship over people and things”

– Ciraj Rassool


The establishment of CARMaH has brought an urgently needed think tank to the Humboldt-University’s Department of European Ethnology. One of its major research projects, Making Differences in Berlin: Transforming Museums and Heritage in the 21st Century”, stresses “the challenge of dealing with ethnographic collections and displaying ethnography in the current Berlin developments”, thereby questioning “divisions between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’” while emphasizing that “the collections and practices of the Ethnological Museum, and the move to the Humboldt-Forum, are an obvious and central focus here”. The latter is also publicly disputed by an international association of groups acting under the slogan No Humboldt 21, an initiative which, I would argue, makes a serious engagement with non-Eurocentric perspectives on Western museums and heritage mandatory. Having the opportunity to hear – and not only to read – positions, for instance, from African scholars in a lecture and being able to discuss these issues with them in person is still a rare event in German academia. Thus, further strengthening the ties between CARMaH and the Department of European Ethnology’s research laboratory, Critical Europeanisation Studies, I searched for a scholar who would offer such a perspective. My initial choice was Kwame Opoku, a prominent lawyer from Ghana with international expertise in Western museums, cultural goods from Africa, Asia and America, and all the corresponding – although widely ignored – UNESCO resolutions. Opoku has worked as an Ombudsman for the United Nations in Vienna and has repeatedly written about Berlin and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation with respect to the delicate case of Nofretete. However, the Berlin branch of Africavenir had tried several times in vain to invite Opoku to Germany. Fortunately, this omnipresent organisation could recommend another acclaimed scholar which CARMaH had already planned to invite.

Ciraj Rassool is a Professor of History and Director of the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape; he has served on the boards of several South African museums and wrote his dissertation about The Individual, Auto/biography and History in South Africa. His collaborative project on the South African Empire – South Africa replaced Germany in 1915 as colonizing power in Namibia – was published as a special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2015. Rassool is currently continuing his research on biography during a sabbatical in Germany as a fellow of the University of Cologne’s International Colleague Morphomata and his convenient location along with CARMaH’s Margareta von Oswald’s perseverance enabled CARMaH to successfully invite Professor Rassool to Berlin.

Together with the late Martin Legassick, in 2000 Rassool co-authored the book Skeletons in the cupboard: South African museums and the trade in human remains 1907-17. This publication is a striking example of what engaged science can achieve: it initiated the repatriation of human remains from an Austrian museum back to South African soil. The story of this repatriation in Rassool’s CARMaH lecture “Rehumanising the Dead of Anthropology” demonstrated how his interest in biography, empire/colonialism and museum/objects are linked. The lecture’s provocative title served as a reminder that there was an era in Western knowledge production when Physical Anthropology, and what is nowadays known as the sphere of Social or Cultural Anthropology (or Ethnology), were not as clearly distinguishable as they are today. It was the period at the beginning of the 20th century which Legassick once labeled “the South Africanization of science”. The term refers to the trade and collection of human remains from the plundered graves of the Khoisan community which were located in the Northern Cape border region. It was this specific region, Rassool states, “through which the flows of human remains and artefacts began to be directed to South African museums in the service of a special South African concentration on ‘living fossils’, as they competed with their European counterparts”. While some of these remains became founding collections of South African museums, others ended up in an Austrian museum in Vienna.

Rassool applied a narrative strategy tending towards empathy right from the beginning of the lecture when he asked the audience to stand up and commemorate the Soweto Uprising, as it happened to be the South African Youth Day. In the intriguing speech that followed, he narrated the odyssey of two corpses that were removed from African soil for Europe’s scientific purposes more than 100 years ago. It is crucial to note that Rassool remained faithful to an empathic approach: using the biographies of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar as the central theme, he gave life to these two corpses – a married couple with documented names. He outlined the complex colonial setting in which these two Khoisans had lived their lives as servants on a farm until they suddenly died from malarial fever. He described where they were buried, the posthumous objectification of their corpses by tomb raiders, how their corpses – or what was left of them after being shipped to Europe – were transformed into European museum artefacts, how they were finally “rehumanised” in an unprecedented process of negotiation between Austria and South Africa, and officially reburied in South Africa in 2012. This unusual form of scientific storytelling enthralled the listeners.

Several different groups were engaged in that process. The research conducted by Legassick and Rassool quasi-decolonized South African museums: collections there not only included skeletal remains of Khoisans with South African origin, but also such of Namibian provenience, hence indicating the ambiguous South African status of having been colonized and colonizer simultaneously. At the same time, activist scholars and civilian groups in Austria had already criticized the manner in which the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch (1870-1921) was being remembered and officially honoured in Austria. In their book, of course, Rassool and Legassick had also named Pöch as the person mainly responsible for the robbery of the Pienaars; however, they did not know of the Austrian critique of Pöch at that time. One of the Austrian organizations involved in that critique was the Southern Africa Documentation and Cooperation Centre in Vienna. In Rassool and Legassick’s book, the Austrian activists found more detailed evidence against Pöch. Strategic alliances were forged on an international level, crucially reinforced by the involvement of the local Khoisan community represented by Petrus Vaalbooi as well as the South African government on a state level. The latter clearly demonstrates the importance of a strong state when an African country makes repatriation claims.

The process of “rehumanisation” deserves particular consideration here, because the South Africans insisted the human remains be repatriated in coffins as deceased humans. At first, the Austrian authorities rejected such a demand, arguing that there is no juridical ground for such a manoeuvre, and that what was left of the corpses could only be returned as simple museum artefacts. But the pressure from the groups involved and eventually the support of the Austrian Museum for National History’s director, Maria Teschler-Nicola, finally led to success. This success is at least partly explicable by the combination of the political power of the South African government, as seen in the speech of Jacob Zuma at the reburial of the Pienaars, together with the proof in Rassool and Legassick’s book that the remains were identified as Khoisans, and more specifically, that there is an oral history of the Pienaars in South Africa. Archival records from South Africa as well as from Austria also played an important role: it was the Western preoccupation with the provenience of its museum objects which made the complete identification, and thus the rehumanisation, possible.

The lecture poignantly revealed the underlying Eurocentrism – or plain cynicism? – of concepts like “digital repatriation”, the much too often knee-jerk answer of Western museum directors when questions of repatriation are being raised. Also in the case of the Khoisan community, such practices had already been applied. What does “digital repatriation” mean for an African people who have not only a blatant history of violent colonial suppression but also an epistemological conception of the relationship between bodies and objects, one which totally differs from an European understanding? It reduces the whole idea to absurdity. In this context Rassool mentioned the term “Survivance” from Native American studies and its importance in that case. He questioned the Western concept of museums itself: for Rassool, “the modern evolutionary museum that emerged as part of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ is a primary site of the formation and reproduction of empire”.

In the following discussion, Rassool reminded the audience that instead of being obsessed with object biographies, we should rethink what a museum is – and what the relationship between museum, object and society is. With the latter, he answered a question raised by CARMaH’s director Sharon Macdonald of whether the rehumanisation debates had changed the way in which repatriation of objects was being approached. Rassool argued that the separation between objects and bodies is a concept which simply does not work in African contexts. Other questions addressed the idea of rehumanisation, and if this is originally a South African concept. Rassool reminded us of the twenty years of discussion about recreating humanity in post-Apartheid South Africa, about family members who were objectified in their life and are now rehumanised as citizens of a nation, not just as some “Bushmen”, and about the loaded term which “repatriation” is, because it so unidirectional and exclusively refers to the nation. The emergence of a South African nation takes on a very different meaning if you look at it from a Khoisan or an Afrikaner’s point of view. New museums, Rassool hence argued, need to be spaces which problematise the nation. An interesting moment was when he asked us to think about what rehumanisation means when you can no longer identify the body parts.

The last question was raised by Reinhart Kößler who just recently published a book titled Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past. This book not only broaches the issue of remembering the genocide perpetrated by Germans against the Herero and Nama in what is nowadays known as Namibia, but also the issue of human remains from there, remains that were brought to Germany for the grand cause of racial science. Some of them have already been given back to Namibia. Kößler pointed to competing narratives which exist in Namibia, one of the government which constructs the victims of the genocide as national heroes, and one articulated by the Herero and Nama – underrepresented in the Namibian government – which emphasizes them as ethnic heroes. Of the remains that were returned, Kößler stated, some were neither Herero nor Nama, and, as a German and thus a member of the perpetrator’s group, it gave him an uneasy feeling saying this to representatives of the victims. Rassool explained that these remains probably still lie in a Namibian ethnographic museum instead of having been given back to one specific group, and that the national structures in this country are just too different from those in Germany. By saying this, Rassool suggested that Kößler was applying a German perspective on Namibia in this case; according to an African understanding, bones can tell history – which makes questions of ethnicity secondary. He then ended even more pragmatically, museums make persons, and are thus a project of person formation which shall always be open to new forms.



Further reading

Ciraj Rassool: Re-storing the Skeletons of Empire: Return, Reburial and Rehumanisation in Southern Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 2015, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 653–670,


Sebastian Pampuch is currently research assistant and doctoral student at the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-University Berlin. His research project is about African exile in a divided Germany.