[Translate to English:] FAQ

Restitution describes the deaccessioning of cultural or religious objects from their current museal contexts. By means of collaboration between communities and institutions, these objects can return to those for whom they were or are meaningful, or those who used them before they were made part of museum collections. The return of cultural heritage is both material and immaterial and simply returning objects is not the only goal: no object is without context.

The State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony (SES) form part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) and are, as such, subordinated to the ministery of science, culture and tourism. In case of restitution requests, the ministery will decide according to valid law as well as softlaw agreements or political intentions and statements. Particularly valuable objects may only be released for restitution research by decision of the State parliament of Saxony. If restitution and repatriation claims are confirmed, the deaccession takes place by way of ceremony, which will be developed in close cooperation between the museum and the soource community.

The goal of systematic provenance research is to actively identify the historical context of a collection. This research makes repatriations and restitutions of collection holdings possible or even necessary. Provenance research is also conducted on objects that were not acquired in colonial contexts. For information on provenance research in the SKD, please click here.

Provenance research can be initiated by inquiries from societies where objects were made or used before arriving in the collection. Representatives of the society concerning the object or collection are involved in the decision-making processes of the research. If repatriation or restitution claims are confirmed, the museums and representatives of the community or countries of origin determine together the appropriate framework for repatriation. This may include a ceremony. Additionally, restitutions and repatriations are as much material as immaterial; the results of provenance research are also restituted.

In recent years, SES museums have conducted provenance research on their collections and objects. More and more, a decolonial methodology has become established in this discipline, where museum staff and researchers re-evaluate power hierarchies of the colonial period and reconsider ethics of object acquisition. Among the topics addressed are colonial contexts, antiracist language, as well as ethics concerning research documentation and publication.

In the nineteenth century, scientists across Europe sought evidence to prove new theories of evolution concerning the origin of human beings, including a theory of a hierarchy of races. This popular, now refuted theory among scientists categorized human beings into a hierarchy of races based on their physical features, for example using skeletons and skulls. For this reason, scientists compared human bones and hair from different parts of the world. They were often collected on commission by colonial officers, outgoing missions, military expeditions, scientists, or average travelers.

All the while, colonised communities struggled with explorers and settlers for their existence. Local politics, cultural practices, languages, and familial relationships were destroyed from the wave of new diseases, violence, and fight for resources. Funeral rituals were disrupted, and graves were unearthed and robbed. In other cases, local people who died in enslavement were not buried, but rather, were taken directly to Europe to be displayed, their bones being immediately removed from their bodies.

Once the remains were in Europe, they entered a growing market where museums and scientific institutions could expand their collections of human ‘’samples.’’ Museums such as the Zoological Museum in Dresden, today, the Museum for Ethnology in Dresden, and the Grassi Museum for Ethnology had an anthropology department with skeletal examples. The Museum for Zoology in Dresden also had research departments in the field of anthropology, and in many cases, accepted collections of bones as gifts or donations, putting some on display.

This practice went on for roughly a century. During the Second World War, the collections in Dresden where brought into storage to save them from the destruction of war. The collections in Leipzig did not survive the bombings. In Dresden, however, many remains that have been sitting in storage since the mid twentieth century are still present.

Today, in the twenty-first century, many museum and institution circles are well aware of the violent history that disturbed the dead and brought them into exhibition halls. The prevailing discussion centers on next steps in solving the problem of human remains in museums.

One solution to begin to heal the wounds of colonisation is via repatriation.

Although repatriation and restitution describes the deaccessioning of collections, much is to be gained by letting go. Via provenance research toward claims of cultural patrimony, historical contexts important to both ethnographic collections and communities of implication are established. Gifts are exchanged, which continue to tell the stories of the artefact, object, photograph, or ancestor. Shared histories, bound by objects or ancestors, are reconstructed. Decolonising projects encompass a multitude of exchanges, which leave museums not empty, but more perhaps more enriched than before.

Decolonisation describes the social movement to identify and undo colonial power structures. The ultimate goal of this movement is towards community self-determination, especially among previously colonised communities.

German colonial activities were not limited to the boundaries its colonial empire: German institutions were involved in international markets that spanned world colonial networks, of which there is evidence of brutality and violence. For this reason, the museum holds objects of multiple countries and colonial histories.

The colonial period cannot be undone. With historical knowledge and the privelage of hindsight, we can ask ourselves: how do we move forward?

To become more involved in the decolonise movement, you can attend the GRASSI TALKS lectures, get in touch with your local post colonial organisation, or find your university’s post-colonial chapter.

The Saxon State Ethnographic Collections (SES) are part of the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD) and as such a subordinate authority of the Saxon State Ministry of Science, Culture and Tourism. The Ministry makes decisions concerning applications about the collections within the framework of the applicable legal regulations, including corresponding so-called soft law agreements or other political declarations of intent. For some objects, the decision of the Saxon Parliament may also be necessary. If the repatriation or restitution claims are confirmed, the museum and representatives of the society of origin jointly determine the appropriate framework for the repatriation. This sometimes includes a ceremony.

Further information on the process of a collection inquiry can be found here.

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