Decolonisation, restitution, and repatriation

The restitution of important cultural objects and repatriation of deceased community members is a vital component of decolonisation. The department "Wissenschaftliche Sammlungserschließung und -dokumentation" handles repatriation and restitution cases for the three ethnographic museums in Dresden, Leipzig, and Herrnhut.

what is decolonisation?

What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation describes a social movement and a practice that seeks to identify historical and continuing colonial power structures. Its central aims are to reflect upon and deconstruct continuing colonial historie(s) and racism present in today's institutions and interactions. Within decolonisation, new possibilities arise to differently handle shared heritage and encounter one another.

bild Dekolonisierung

© Miriam Hamburger, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 2019
Yawuru and Karajarri delegates lead a repatriation ceremony with members of German institutions that housed ancestral remains at the Australian embassy in 2019.

What is restitution?

What is restitution?

Restitution is the return of objects to individuals, communities or institutions. In the context of ethnographic collections, this means the return of identity-forming, cultural or sacred objects that were acquired in a colonial context, appropriated under unequal power relations, or looted. This is usually done after systematic provenance research.

The aim of this systematic provenance research is to actively identify the historical context of the collections. This leads to the possibility or sometimes necessity of repatriation or restitution. Provenance research requests can also be initiated by inquiries from interested societies, countries, or communities.

As a rule, restitutions and repatriations follow comprehensive joint provenance research which is prepared and executed together with the respective national or community representatives.

For information on provenance research at the SKD, click here.

bild restitution

Relief from the Kingdom of Benin showing a mud fish, unknown manufacturer, acquired 1901, inventary number: MAf 00286

Link Benin Bronze Online Collection

view in Online Collection



what is repatriation?

What is repatriation?

Repatriation describes the process of bringing and returning soldiers or civilians back to their home countries after their death. In a museum context, repatriation describes the return of human remains to the community from where they once came.
Today, the objectifying terminology of human remains is placed aside in favor of the humanising name ancestors. This change in regsiter is part of a process we call rehumanisation. We do this because we are talking about human beings. When we change language patterns and grammar around these sensitive issues, we also change our perspective in how we come in contact with other people. These family members, community leaders, and neighbors were considered as objects of scientific study after entering the collections.With this process of repatriation, human remains in the museum are rehumanized or considered not as objects, but as human beings.

bild repatriierung

© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Künstlerin: Maxine Charlie, 2019
"Walking on Country", black, red, and yellow acrylic paint on paper; originally these motoves have been used on sashes laid on the remains of the deceased. Given as a personal gift during the restitution on 15 April 2019. Artist: Maxine Charlie. The motives represent the country and its natural environment. Inventary number: Au 05051 a-d

Link Walking on Country Online Collection

view in Online Collection



internal links

© Gabriele Richter, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
© Miriam Hamburger, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden


© Kimberley West, Goolarri Media Enterprises

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Get in touch

Research Requests

Dr. Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider
Head of Provenance Research and Restitution
Curator Australia / Pacific
Tel. +49 341/97 31-915

Content & Curation

Miriam Hamburger
Research Assistant, Provenance Research and Ancestral Remains
Tel. +49 341/97 31-923

Jan Heidtmann
Freelancer in Public Relations
Transcultural Studies (M.A.)

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