Ethno-colonial museums as places of punishment by Yann LeGall

Imagine, your job is to tell untold stories of colonial plunder departing from museum collections in Germany, but you don’t have access to museum databases or storage rooms. You need to start from somewhere though, so you first read military reports. There are more than 250 reports available publicly, but you and your team find out pretty quickly that these were largely censored by colonial propaganda.

So, you go to the archives and read the original reports, more than 400 of them alone for the colony of German Kamerun. As you progress, you find the passages that were censored, easily noticeable because they are strikethrough: here 1086 casualties on the local side, there 800 people killed, over there, more than 800 prisoners being taken, mostly women and children. On the German side, only a handful of porters and soldiers were wounded in those battles, more often Black soldiers than European officers. These events aren’t so-called ‘punitive’ expeditions, they’re massacres or at least, asymmetrical wars.

By now, the museums have sent you the databases you asked for. But there is little information on the conditions of acquisition of those collections in the spreadsheets you received. Besides, the photos are also heavily pixelated.

So, you order the archival documents linked to the thousands of African belongings you suspect were looted in the aftermath of these massacres. You feel that this is work that museums themselves should have done in the last fifty years, but the scanty literature that you found on those collections rather celebrated those officers for their collecting frenzy.

In the archives, however, many colonial officers unabashedly admit that they could lay their hands on these beautiful African carvings only because they conquered these kingdoms, slaughtered their people, or swindled their leaders. Sometimes even art dealers confess that what they were offering to museums was colonial loot.

In the margins of these documents, you find evidence of human remains taken directly from the battlefield or snatched from sacred groves. This brings you to anatomical collections, some abroad, for instance at the University of Strasbourg, France, and the AMNH in New York.

At some point, you look at your folders, at your blackboard listing military expeditions, at all this information, and ask yourself: am I also collecting? Am I reproducing the same logic than the one perpetuated by those ethno-colonial institutions? The only way to avoid becoming a gatekeeper is to share it and mean it. So you write long emails and messages to your friends and colleagues in Togo, Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania, telling them about the most shocking information that you garnered, putting trigger-warning after trigger-warning so that they know that this is not something they should open between watching a cat video and eating dinner. They are appalled by what they read… but encourage you to continue.

You try to draw a more empowering picture, finding the names of those anticolonial figures and foregrounding their stories – Biema Asabiè, Kanbon-nakpem Ziblim, or Nakelli Nw’embeli.

But the fact is: every shipment in museum collections, every photograph appears to you solely as evidence of racist violence.

Racist violence. what about gendered-based violence? If you are only able to consider these weapons, carving, doorbolts, as evidence of violence, are cultural assets that belonged to women evidence of rape? A colleague of yours, Bansoa, works on cultural matrimony from Cameroon (sheritage). You admire her: how does she do it? How does she cope with this dreadful his-story. In all those documents you read, the voices of women have been willingly and completely silenced.

So, in lack of proof of sexual violence, you write in your next article on colonial plunder this very vague statement:

“Beyond the seizure of cultural heritage, the colonialists imposed penalty charges in form of payments of ivory and rubber, they enslaved local men through what they called forced labour, they probably allowed and possibly participated in gendered-based violence against local women.”

Then, the man proofreading your article highlights the passage on rape and leaves a comment. A short, but very singular comment: ‘plausibel aber etwas spekulativ’ which translates loosely as ‘you’re getting ahead of yourself, it can’t be that bad’. To counter his dismissal, you need backup, so you plunge again in those archives and start reading satellite volumes.

And then you find them, a few lines that not only help you accuse colonists for racist violence, but blame men – including Black soldiers – for what is today considered a war crime.

This quote is from Hans Dominik, officer and head of station in German Kamerun. You colleague Lindiwe told you that he captured a living baby elephant after murdering his whole family, only to ship him to Berlin, the first elephant seen in a German zoo. What a sad story. You colleague Albert also explained that Dominik sent the remains of ten Cameroonian individuals killed by his troops to the University of Freiburg. Your colleagues Sebastian and Richard told you that there are more than a thousand museum items attributed to him in Berlin, Stuttgart, Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Göttingen and Mainz combined. This Dominik, once wrote [Trigger-Warning: sexual violence, colonial language, objectification of women]:

“[Under my command] Captain Marschner had to recruit auxiliary forces and thereby promised them a share of the female booty: on the one hand because local people would not risk their lives without a share of female booty and, on the other hand, because without the prospect of getting one or another of those women transferred [überwiesen] to them, they would never spare their lives […].

As an officer, I am always aware that I have to stand for my orders. As a human being, I have carried out in this campaign only deeds for which I am ready to take responsibility and answer to myself. In any case, regardless of the military sentence that a court martial may request against me after the expedition, I would hereby like to convince my superiors that I acted correctly when using those auxiliary warriors and leaving a certain number of female prisoners to them.”

I was supposed to write a provocation. Well, after inquiring into the context of acquisition of these belongings, shackled in storage rooms and drawers or exhibited in museums, the spoils looted by colonialists and the archives attached to them can never inspire anything else that horror, sadness, and at best, repentance. I hope that our research can pave the way for better futures for them, but I doubt it. Because better futures come with sincere acknowledgements and action, so that this kind of violence doesn’t happen again. It comes, in other words, with apologies and reparations, of former metropoles to former colonized people, but also of men to women, and especially of white men to the rest of the world, and this, it seems, is not the agenda behind restitution. It’s very clear for France and Britain, and many politicians in Germany are very good at faking it.

Finally, as radical as curatorial or artistic practice might be, it often preaches to the converted and seldom brings about concrete change in policy.