Steps toward decolonisation

The Saxon State Ethnographic Museums (SES) would like to contribute to addressing the colonial history of ethnological museums and actively position themselves in the context of the international debates. In collaboration with international partners, we research the collections - especially with regard to their histories of origin (provenance research). The critical reappraisal of the genesis of the collection and the history of the institution also play a central role. We understand restitution and repatriation as an important part of these processes, which are aimed at decolonizing the museum. The department "Wissenschaftliche Sammlungserschließung und -dokumentation" handles repatriation and restitution cases for the three ethnographic museums in Dresden, Leipzig, and Herrnhut.


What does decolonisation mean for us?

Decolonization describes a social process and a practice that seeks to identify and counteract historical and persisting colonial power relations. Our central aim is to reflect upon and deconstruct the repercussions of colonialism in today’s society and the racism in institutions and relationships. Based on this process, possibilities emerge for approaching common heritage differently and for encountering each other in new ways.

bild Dekolonisierung

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

provenance research

What does provenance research mean for us?

Provenance research means the investigation of the origin (= provenance) of an object or of human remains. This entails, first, finding out their antecedents and trajectories to the museum. In the context of the decolonization of ethnological collections, we aim at systematic postcolonial provenance research. We have the responsibility to work through the role played by the museum in the colonial context of injustice, taking into account the violent dimensions of the genesis of the collection. The collaboration in international research teams and with representatives of the societies of origin is key therein. The resulting findings constitute the basis for repatriations and restitutions..

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


What does restitution mean for us?

Restitution is the return of objects to individuals, communities or institutions. For ethnological museums, this means the return of identity-forming, cultural or sacred objects, among others, that were acquired in a colonial context, appropriated under unequal power relations or looted to their communities of origin. This usually takes place after systematic provenance research and is prepared and carried out together with the respective community of origin.


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 refers to the retrieval and return of prisoners of war or civilian prisoners to their country of origin. In the museum context, it refers to the return of human remains of ancestors to their societies of origin. They were brought to museums for research purposes in the context of colonial collecting. We have a responsibility to critically engage with this history and enable the repatriation of ancestors. For us, repatriations means initiating and carrying out these returns together with the descendants of the deceased.

Today, the use of the objectifying term human remains is being critiqued and replaced with more humanizing terms such as ancestors or people. This change in terminology is part of a process we call rehumanization. When we change our patterns of language around these sensitive issues, we also change our perspective. These family members, community leaders, and neighbors were considered objects of scientific study entering the collections. The goal of repatriation processes is to rehumanize them, i.e. to no longer view them as objects, but as people.

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

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


© Kimberley West, Goolarri Media Enterprises

internal links

Get in touch

Research Requests

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

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