Dealing with the colonial legacy: The Museum Association calls for a new ethical culture

It took four years to compile, and now the third edition of the German Museum Association’s guideline on “Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts” has finally been completed. There is also an e-reader, as well as translations into English and French. A unique offer in Europe, as the manager of the museum association David Vuillaume emphasizes.

The guide is aimed primarily at museums to give them practical help. Not only the ethnological collections, exhibition halls of every direction and even the local museums have a need for processing here. The Federal Ministry of Culture gave 300,000 euros for the publication, a clear commitment to the colonial past, according to Günter Winands, Head of Office at Monika Grütters.

The museums’ financial resources are insufficient

It could be a sign of new beginnings, as the will to change was felt yesterday in the digital presentation of the guidelines. But also the concern that the museums’ financial resources are insufficient for an investigation, or more precisely: the onlineization of the collections and the dialogue with the representatives of the interests: from the societies of origin.

This also includes travel options for colleagues: for example from Africa, visas and scholarships. Eckart Köhne, President of the Association of Museums, therefore called for “a new ethic for global cultural exchange”. This is the only way to give the process credibility. At the same time he let it be known that this new ethic has its costs.

Outstanding cult objects must be restituted more quickly

Experts from Tanzania, Namibia, Taiwan, Alaska, Bolivia, Turkey, Samoa and New Zealand were involved in the creation of the guide, which differs from its two predecessors in that it also seeks to answer legal questions and offers options for action. Wiebke Ahrendt, director of the Bremen Überseemuseum, emphasized that the confession that objects with outstanding cultic significance or grave goods can be returned more quickly, as is already the case with the return of human remains, is new.


At the same time, the head of the working group for the museum guide warned against distorting the discussion. Returns are not necessarily wanted in the society of origin. Rather, they want more collaboration, more insight into the collections of German museums and more joint exhibitions.

Return is not always the goal. More cooperation is desired

For example, Samoa wanted to focus on the dramatic climate change during a presentation of exhibits from the Bremen Überseemuseum and then send the objects back because there was no way of adequate storage in the country.

Other representatives: nnen from Alaska, for example, refused to send shamanistic exhibits anyway because they could cause damage if they were seen by the wrong people, Ahrndt cited as another example. In any case, she does not fear that systematic onlineization of the holdings in the societies of origin could trigger massive restitution claims.

In the Netherlands, which were much more progressive here in the 1990s, there was no corresponding reaction. Times may have changed though.

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