Unwanted Guests
Museum Practice in the
Post-Object, Post-Colonial Present

Outline: Mapping Mutual Spaces
Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee

- 2023

A sign greeting visitors to the first floor of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen reads:


From the get go, you can’t help but feel lied to.

By the time I visited the Übersee-Museum for the first time, in April of this year, I had already developed an idea of what I might find there. This idea was heavily informed by the accounts I had read of Herbert Ganslmayr, who was director of the museum from 1975 to 1991, in Africa’s Struggle for its Art – Bénédicte Savoy’s chronological survey of restitution claims and debates in Germany prior to reunification. Ganslmayr was an outlier. He used his position as the director of a major ethnographic museum in West Germany to campaign for the kind of change that would see contested objects in the possession of his institution returned to their rightful owners. For this he was made an outcast. Directors of other museums in West Germany such as the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin and the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart – the big players in (other) world cultures – not only failed to endorse Ganslmayr’s position on restitution but actively thwarted his efforts through legal and bureaucratic means, as well as through plain old, run-of-the-mill, public slander.

Despite Ganslmayr’s legacy as a proponent of restitution, a stroll through the Übersee-Museum today is a peculiar and, well, jarring experience. Certainly, for myself it was an experience that fell short of the expectation that I felt justified in forming prior to my visit, having read of the pioneering projects initiated by Ganslmayr to subvert the anti-restitution status quo of West Germany. Unlike, say, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which feels as though it was designed by an AI model trained on Google image search results for the word ‘museum’, the Übersee-Museum in Bremen feels clunky, outdated, and even a little kitsch. If it were a person, the Übersee-Museum would be an acquired taste, an extrovert, and a liability at parties. It has managed to resist the kind of bland and oppressive architectural uniformity adopted by so many other state museums in Germany. The displays here are loud (literally). Contemporary African pop music pumps out of a kind of juke-box-turned-listening-room on the first-floor. Indeed, from the moment you read the sign welcoming you to an entire continent, the permanent exhibition is unapologetically weird and surprisingly endearing. The alarming scene I discovered of two taxidermy horses standing erect under an opaque plastic sheet (as if recently found murdered) did nothing to subside this feeling.

Yet, simultaneously, the visitor experience here is made uncomfortable owing to, amongst other things, the questionable arrangement of trinkets and knick knacks into shrines, the various simulations of exotic environments both natural and urban, and the cringeworthy provenance-based descriptions of artefacts that are left suspended within dust-covered, finger-smudged, glass vitrines. Not least, it did not escape my notice that, for an overseas museum priding itself on showing Die Welt unter einem Dach, several continents are decidedly missing from the permanent exhibition, which is organised into the sections Asien, Afrika, and Amerika (Ozeanien is currently under construction, for all that it’s worth). Increasingly, I had the feeling that the Übersee-Museum was writing cheques it couldn’t cash.

Could this really be the same institution that underwent an expansive three-year renovation and decolonisation effort in the 1970s, during which numerous objects from its archive were deaccessioned and returned to countries across Africa? Did this spirit of reparations set no precedent for the future? The inclusion of three Benin bronze heads on display in the permanent exhibition, alongside what I can only describe as patchy historical descriptions of the massacre of Beninese people by the British army in 1897, told me that something had shifted since Ganslmayr’s days as director. And yet, as I walked between the various surreal displays of world cultures at the Übersee-Museum, from installations of flip-phones to a glistening red Toyota Celica ST Coupé in front of a blown-up, over-saturated Bollywood poster, I realised that what was creating my feeling of disassociation was not radical change at all (of the museum undoing the promising work of Ganslmayr) but, to the contrary, a complete lack of it. It was as if the museum had not been updated once since the 1990s or 2000s. Like it was stuck in a very particular style of exhibiting that we today find… ineffective, out of touch, and probably a little drab. Forty years of exposure to the extremes of the internet has left us unimpressed with taxidermy animals and hand-painted savannahs. Our taste for visceral experiences both inside and outside of museums has evolved, as has our understanding of how museums not only profited from but were instrumental to colonialism. The Übersee-Museum, quite simply, hasn’t caught up.

Perhaps it belongs in a museum itself.

Museums present a strange contradiction because, whilst we expect that they remain both technologically and culturally relevant to our changing societies, and that they are thus able to hold our attention long enough to survive multiple hours-long visits, there is little anticipation, except in rare cases, that new objects will arrive. No one is holding their breath for an updated bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin – Nefertiti Mk. 2 – or an undiscovered piece of the Parthenon Marbles to suddenly appear in the British Museum in London. Though travelling exhibitions certainly exist, what I mean here is that few people, I suspect, demand a replenished supply of curiosities – archaeological, cultural heritage or otherwise – inside museums. What we do expect, however, is for new stories to be told about the artefacts inside museums, and in ways that feel relatable, so that we can better understand our relationship with the past. In this sense, museums have endured remarkable transformation(s) over the past one hundred and fifty years in responding to world events – through colonialism, two world wars, the invention of the computer, and the invention of the internet, no less – and, as I see it, each of these tectonic shifts in society represents the entry of an unwanted guest through the museum doors.

This essay explores how two guests in particular – restitution and computer technology – have undermined the ethical authority of museums since 1960 and have thereby contributed to a weakening of public trust in museums overall. By examining interconnecting events within this period, in which the conflicting debates surrounding restitution and the computer have dominated international museum politics, I would like to trace the shifting status of the ethnographic museum model from that of a depository of colonial loot to one of institutional self-critique – what Dan Hicks refers to in The Brutish Museums as their current ‘dominant mode of reflexivity’ (Hicks, 2020). Increasingly, what these overlapping histories betray is the wilful perseverance of many museum directors in Europe and the USA to resist meaningful restitution of their ill-gotten gains to Africa.

Far from being a tool that is used to decolonise archives and collections, digital technology has become weaponised by museums in this same pursuit to serve their own needs (instead of those on the receiving end of restitution deals). The creation of digital archives, and in fact the employment of digitisation methods more broadly as a means for generating bad-faith quasi-returns, further bolsters the claim that museums have over the ownership of physical objects. Tangled questions therefore remain about what role museums should play in societies today, of the impact and scope of ongoing restitution claims for African nations stripped of their artefacts over hundreds of years, and of the relevance of new media technologies in offering a bridge between material and immaterial cultural heritage.

- The Post-Colonial Museum

In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his desire over the following five years to see “the conditions put in place so as to allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage returned to Africa” (Sarr, 2018). This speech set in motion a wave of energetic political and academic action across France to enact “a vast new system for returning cultural objects to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa” (Herman, 2021). Macron commissioned the help of the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art expert Bénédicte Savoy to assess the best strategies for returning an estimated 90,000 items removed during the French colonial period (c1885-1960). In their 2019 report, Sarr and Savoy raise the question of how to define restitution in the first place. They waste no time in asserting that restitution is rooted in a broader societal questioning of ethics:

“(…) the act of restitution attempts to put things back in order, into proper harmony. To openly speak of restitutions is to speak of justice, or a re-balancing, recognition, of restoration and reparation, but above all: it’s a way to open a pathway toward establishing new cultural relations based on a newly reflected upon ethical relation” (Sarr, 2018).

As demonstrated in Savoy’s more-recent book Africa’s Struggle for its Art, the morality of restitution is a theoretical realm in which European museum directors have typically not wished to dwell for too long. Yet, when the first major claims for the return of African cultural heritage began in the 1960s and 70s, following the Year of Africa (1960) when seventeen former African colonies gained their independence, morality was often at the forefront of arguments presented by leaders of newly-independent African nations. Tellingly, the once-dominant colonial powers of Britain, France and Belgium immediately began to put in place safeguards for the protection of their museum collections - both domestically and in their former African colonies. For example, in 1962, three hundred paintings were transferred from the Musée National Des Beaux Arts d’Alger in Algiers to Paris in a ‘cloak-and-dagger operation’ (Savoy, 2022). The following year, amendments to the British Museum Act (in place since 1902) were quickly rushed through parliament in order to lawfully forbid the deaccession of objects from the collections of the British Museum (Hicks, 2020). These actions highlight that, in the wake of many African nations gaining their sovereign independence in 1960, former colonial masters, often working in cahoots with the directors of their national museums, saw restitution as a direct threat to their power.

Also made evident here is the extent to which the museum is a political body. Within the context of restitution debates during this time, museums demonstrated their role as extensions of government. Yet, despite the legal, political, and physical safeguards created by European museums in these instances and others to thwart restitution efforts, the moral and ethical foundations of requests for restitution remained paramount to the logic of African leaders throughout the mid 20th century. The degree to which these arguments rested on such moral and ethical codes is epitomised by Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko’s passionate address to the UN in New York on 4th October 1973 (already over ten years after Zaire – formerly and currently the Democratic Republic of Congo – gained independence from France):

“During the colonial period we suffered not only from colonialism; slavery, economic exploitation, but also and above all from the barbarous, systematic pillaging of all our works of art. In this way the rich countries appropriated our best, our unique works of art, and we are therefore poor not only economically but also culturally. Those works of art, which are to be found in the museums of the rich countries, are not our primary commodities but the finished products of our ancestors. Those works, which were acquired for nothing, have increased in value so much that none of our countries has the material means to recover them” (Savoy, 2022).

Taking significant focus throughout Savoy’s chronological analysis of restitution debates from 1965 to 1985 are the private letters sent within and between West German museums – institutions such as the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart and Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, as well as private collection foundations such as the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz – which reveal how organised these institutions became in mounting their united defence against claims for restitution. Following relatively slow successes for African nations over the previous two decades, restitution in the 1980s then became characterised by the adoption of more technical, legal and bureaucratic strategies. This collective strategy surfaced in the 1980s as a ‘battle of lists’ (Savoy, 2022) between West German institutions that sought to conceal their permanent collection catalogues and claimants of restitution from Africa who sought transparency through their demands that the museums disclose their object lists and inventories. Evidenced by this switch in tactics is the changing currency of knowledge, for it is here that any insight into the contents of museum holdings gained significant value. Afterall, it was only with irrefutable evidence of the existence of specific items that claims for their return could reasonably be made. The bureaucratic battleground of list-making and list-concealing in the 1980s therefore signifies not only a step away from justifications for restitution resting primarily upon moral principles, but also the changing of a standard in museum practice: that collections should not be made public.

Defence against the requirements for transparency during this time rested rather weakly upon warnings from museum directors that the disclosure of such information would encourage inter-museum covetousness. However, in their internal communications, the directors of ethnological museums in West Germany reveal that the true threat they perceived in disclosing their inventories to the world and, ultimately, to those that sought their liberation, was the dismantling of the museum concept altogether. In response to a cutting-edge archival project at the beginning of the 1980s, which was jointly initiated by the Museum für Völkerkunde and Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde in Basel to compile microfilm data on holdings of African cultural heritage items across Switzerland, the chairman of the German ICOM committee, Hermann Auer, wrote that “not everything which is technically possible (is) therefore sensible and justifiable in terms of effort. Electronic data capture must not become an end in itself” (Savoy, 2022). The threat of having their archives exposed and emptied, whether through international legal campaigns rooted in historical injustices or as a result of modern data-compiling methods, generated a wave of fear that became tangible throughout many West German institutions in the 1980s. What would be left of their collections if ALL of the former African colonies began to ask for their stuff back?


However, as signalled by the Swiss project in 1980 to electronically compile national museum inventories, many cultural heritage initiatives beyond the borders of Germany were in fact embracing archival transparency at this time through the use of fancy new tools like microfilm and the computer. Furthermore, as early as 1970, the subject of new media technology had already become the focus of artists, thinkers and disrupters who could see the raw creative potential in the technologies that were being developed around them. Carrying the unambiguous title Information, MoMA’s ground-breaking, media-heavy exhibition of 1970 was amongst the first to explicitly query new forms of electronic information distribution. The exhibition presented young, international artists who were testing the boundaries of photography, film, and sound in their art projects. In doing so, they were not only traversing borders of mechanical, electronic and digital artistic production, but also borders of the material and immaterial. Amongst the artists was British photographer Keith Arnatt, who’s installation Self-Burial shows the artist ‘in a series of nine photographs depicting different stages of the action’ (MoMA, 1970). In looking back upon the experimental artworks championed by MoMA in Information, it is clear that a young generation of artists in the 1960s and 70s was probing the status of the physical art object. Implicit also in Arnatt’s Self-Burial is a teasing out of the theoretical construct of authenticity.

If a photograph shows a man being buried, does this mean that it actually happened?

- The Post-Object Museum

In Recoding the Museum – Ross Parry’s chronological analysis of the relationship between computer and museum from the 1960s to the early 2000s – the author puts forward his assessment of the museum sector as one that has both “struggled with the opportunities offered by new digital media” (Parry, 2007) and yet, contrastingly, one in which “any incompatibilities between museum and computer appear (…) resolved, and where new futures for the museum are made possible” (Parry, 2007). However, despite Parry urging the reader for a balanced critique of this history, it becomes evident that, from their very first point of contact in the 1960s, the computer and the museum collided frequently on the grounds of what were seen to be fundamentally opposed ideological differences. Furthermore, polarising categorisations during this time that framed the museum, on the one hand, as a “repository where the 'good' objects go in a kind of material heaven” (Pearce, 1995) and computers, on the other hand, as cheaply distilling the physical world “to an unambiguous string of 1s and 0s” (Parry, 2007), demonstrate the extent to which the two were perceived to be irreconcilably incompatible:

“That is, that digital media are intrinsically numerical. (…) Aided by its ability to see statements as true or false, to answer logical questions with logical answers of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and to set switches as either ‘on’ or ‘off’ within its circuit of semi-conductors, the processing at the very heart of the computer is of numbers. Figuratively speaking, at an ‘atomic level’ computing is a black and white world of binary oppositions” (Parry, 2007).

Beneath the surface of such debates was the breakdown of long-established principles that had for centuries defined what a museum is and should be within society. As Steven Conn highlights in Do Museums Still Need Objects?, the word museum is rooted in the Ancient Greek word mouseion, meaning seat of the muses: a place designated to philosophical contemplation. This understanding – that museums represent a coming together of place and knowledge – has been a cornerstone of the authority that the archival collections inside museums have commanded “since at least the Renaissance” (Conn, 2010). Accordingly, and faced with the growing potential that future computing technologies might threaten to supersede both of these tenets (place/thing/object as well as information/culture/memory), on the line during the computer revolution was seen to be nothing less than the museum’s core function in society as a space of knowledge, authority and trust. It is these same founding principles that were simultaneously being challenged and, to some degree, irreparably shattered through unanswered demands made of ethnographic museums in Europe and North America that they restitute their holdings of colonial loot to Africa. On both of these fronts – in response to demands for restitution and in the wake of the digital boom – the museum artefact was being rapidly redefined.

Chief amongst the concerns felt by museum workers in the 1970s, who suddenly faced the alarming possibility of having modern (read: inhuman, coded) computers fulfilling roles in their institutions for the first time, was that the computer age was the precursor to a kind of new and radical class of change that would someday strike at the very heart of the museum project. It was feared that computers and new media would therefore usher in a complete collapse of trust in museums: trust that their buildings contained authentic and original artefacts, trust that their curators and historians presented unbiased truth, and trust, ultimately, that the museum itself, as an ideology, would remain relevant within a society in which people could independently locate and weigh up sources of information remotely (via computers) instead of just locally (inside the atrium and exhibition hall).

Demonstrated by Parry and Conn in their respective books is that a stable foundation of societal trust in museums – one rooted in the authoritative power commanded by physical objects and the stories told about them by curators – was seen as paramount to the logic of Western cultural identity up until the mid-20th century. However, likely evolving in tandem with the identity politics of the 1960s, critique of the museum object emerged during this period and the “first accusations of elitism” (Conn, 2010) were subsequently raised. Underpinning widespread anxiety within the museum sector as a result of this criticism arose two conflicting lenses through which museum professionals came to view both the status of the objects inside their institutions and, to a greater extent, the defining purpose of museums alongside a society becoming increasingly exposed to the democratising influences of both the computer and post-colonial discourses. These two lenses reflect opposing schools of thought which have only become further entrenched, fortified and divided in the 21st century, although now masked by more contemporary versions of what Paulin Joachim referred to in her 1965 editorial Give Us Back Negro Art as the ‘dazzling dialectics’ (Savoy, 2022) of European museum directors. Each object-centred philosophy finds a parallel in museum practices today, and can be identified within the wildly contrasting strategies of museum directors toward how their institutions collect, curate and return cultural heritage (if they do so at all).

The first lens (which I will here refer to as the singular lens) views the art or historical object as a singularity that can only be assigned value in its relationship with authenticity. Authenticity in the case of the singular lens aligns with the ‘aura’ described by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1937 critique of art (and capitalism) in the age of mechanical reproduction. Jeopardised by reproduction, writes Benjamin, “is the authority of the object” (Benjamin, 1937). The aura of the object is therefore a condition of the object’s durational distance from its production. The greater the distance, the lesser the aura (and the authority) of the object. The singular lens aligns the societal purpose of the museum with the traditional museum concept that once reigned supreme from the Renaissance and through the 19th century. This concept is founded on the principle of organising objects scientifically inside curated exhibitions so as to reflect the scientific order of the world beyond the museum’s walls. Museums in this era “prided themselves on their rational organisation into categories and departments” (Conn, 2010). It is a category of museum, and thus also a category of archive-building and object-collecting, characterised by the historical period in which its objects were obtained – a category denoted by Dan Hicks in his assertion that “the colonial museum has failed” (Hicks, 2020).

The second lens (which I will refer to here as the modular lens) views the art object or historical artefact not in relation to its authenticity, but through its performance as a flexible and modular vehicle that can facilitate both co-authorship and collaboration through its distribution or interaction with an audience. The modular lens perspective on museum artefacts aligns with Marshall McLuhan’s locating of a ‘new scale’ (McLuhan, 1994) that becomes introduced into the relationship between object and social space through each extension of any new technology. McLuhan claimed, prophetically, that "we are moving out of the age of the visual into the age of the aural and tactile” (McLuhan, 1994). This modular lens diverts from the traditional, Victorian-era concept of the museum as a container of physical treasures and instead views the museum operating as a kind of mediator between society and narration through a far more reflexive and self-critical approach to information. This strategy reflects McLuhan’s assertion that, “if the nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist's couch” (McLuhan, 1994). I interpret McLuhan’s statement here to mean that, in the 20th and now 21st century, it is no longer enough to simply order things. We must analyse those things and also analyse the order in which they have been placed by our contemporaries. The modular lens views museum practice independently from any requirement to present or categorise objects themselves. This lens is therefore in line with Parry’s overview of media-focussed museums:

“(…) the information museum (recalibrating authenticity); the automated museum (disaggregating the collection); the multi-channel museum (rescripting the visit); the personal museum (rewriting the narrative); and the media museum (reorganising the modes of digital production)” (Parry, 2007).

- The Post-Trust Museum?

Alain Resnais’s controversial 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi declared that statues also die, and I think this can be true for museums as well. The moral integrity of ethnographic museums is certainly long dead and buried owing to at least a century of them refusing to give back the stolen items gathering dust inside their sealed archives. In demonstrating such fierce resistance to futures in which the objects kept between their walls either lose value, owing to the increasing ease of access to comparable online resources, or are simply no longer present, ethnographic museums have set a course headed neither forwards nor backwards. Their strategy is to flounder and filibuster. Consequently, and much like the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, they merely stagnate in their refusal to accept change. Museum projects such as this have proven themselves incapable of adapting, and have therefore become obsolete.

But what happens to museums once they die? And what role, if any, should contemporary museum projects play in shaping, informing, or reflecting societies around the world? My answer to these questions is simple and comes from a place of optimism: more variety (and less homogeneity) is surely needed. We must step away from museums that are based upon the archetype of the British Museum – upon the retroactively solidified universal museum concept that discusses world cultures through a Eurocentric lens, from a distance and with clinical delivery – and instead diversify what public institutions can offer to visitors that the internet alone cannot. It is no longer acceptable to reduce entire continents to floors inside the museum or pertain to presenting the whole world under one roof, thereby laying claim to a blueprint of humankind. In this respect, regrettably, The Humboldt Forum in Berlin comes immediately to mind as the best example of a worst-case scenario. This is not only owing to the architecture of The Humboldt Forum, of which one side is a near replica of the original façade of the Prussian palace that once stood there, thus signalling the imperial origins of the collection inside, but for the sake of numerous text disclaimers installed throughout the museum alongside its most controversial, stolen artefacts. Disclaimers whose subtext reads:

“We know that what we’re doing isn’t ok, so let’s talk about it.”

(Is it ok now?)

The colonial museum has indeed failed. We have no need for this type of museum any longer, which simplifies and standardises and orders and categorises and perpetuates. Having grown up in the UK and lived for several years in London, where there are more free state museums of this description than there are pubs, it is hard to imagine how the cultural landscape of this city might look without institutions like the British Museum and V&A operating as they do currently, stocked to the brim with items acquired through Britain’s violent colonial past. A concerted decolonisation process in these museums would not be straightforward, and perhaps after it is concluded there would be little remaining once every last necklace, bronze head, skeletal remains, and façade were returned. But what a rich opportunity this would present! An opportunity not only to finally return some of the most contested and coveted objects to their rightful owners (and thus to begin to repair fragile international relationships between the UK and its former colonies, as well as with Greece, for example) but also for museums and for the British people to be liberated from this great burden – from this toxic colonial debt that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Isn’t it time to let go, and to give making amends a real chance? To carve a pathway toward not only restitution but, perhaps more importantly, toward meaningful reparations?

Only then can we decide how to deal with the afterlife of ethnographic museums.

Up for debate then is not only who should have the right to tell stories about cultural heritage but also how, where, and by which means. The museum sector is still very much divided by the singular and modular lenses through which museum directors view both the objects in their collections and, more broadly, the role of their institutions in assigning meaning to those objects. In 1967, the Smithsonian Institution’s ground-breaking information retrieval project set in motion debates pertaining to the role of digital technology inside the museum – debates that then ricocheted and polarised throughout the last century and into this one. Even in its infancy, this technology demonstrated to museum professionals “what could be possible with automation” (Parry, 2007). Yet, as Parry and Conn evidence, digital technology presented the directors of museums with considerably more problems than solutions. Like restitution, the computer was seen as a direct threat to the authority of the museum. Challenged during this period was the museum’s ability to separate truth from fiction, fact from falsehood, reality from fantasy. Through the incremental breakdown of trust in museums and in the revaluing of the authenticity of the objects contained within their walls, it is clear that the 20th century saw witness to radically reformulated and renegotiated relationships between museum, artefact, narrative, and power. It is an order of power rooted, although at times masked, in the same racist principles that enabled colonialism in the first place.

Undoubtedly, and despite the social, political and ethical implications of restitution and digital technology, the role of objects in museums is still heavily nuanced by the legacies of stiff, Victorian-era European ideologies. Dan Hicks writes, and I agree with him on this point, that “every time the museum opens its doors and asserts a narrative of white supremacy, the violence of occupation is restated” (Hicks, 2020). Yet, as visitors to the museum, we are also implicated in this relationship when we step through the doors and accept the narrative. The price of admission to the ethnographic museum is therefore not only one of euros and cents, but of endorsement.

Can we still afford the cost?

This brings into question what Alexander Herman refers to as the restitution paradigm: "How do we engage with, or make amends for, actions that took place long ago?” (Herman, 2021). What Herman draws attention to in the restitution paradigm is that morality is a social construct undergoing continuous redevelopment. Can we therefore pass judgement upon the actions of people from previous centuries based solely upon contemporary definitions of ethics and morality? Absolutely. More urgently, in fact, we must call out those who stand by the same principles that once made ethnographic museums indispensable to colonialism. The British Museum act, unchanged now since 1963, must be scrapped. It is our responsibility to change precise legal and bureaucratic systems such as this, which enshrine modes of colonialism, just as it will be the responsibility of future generations to challenge our actions today.

However, on this note it is worth pointing out that the events addressed in this essay are hardly prehistoric. I haven’t laid judgement upon the morality of Neanderthals but modern humans whose words and actions over the last sixty years have set a pretty damning precedent for museums and museum practices today. Savoy describes this collective strategy from museum directors as one of delay: “The European men who tried to stem the tide against restitution requests from formerly colonised countries after 1960 left an enormous legacy of cultural debt to the following generations” (Savoy, 2022). The responsibility is now passed to this generation, to every future generation, to ensure that patterns are changed, histories are addressed and, first and foremost, that stolen cultural heritage is returned, whether the infrastructures for their safekeeping are currently in place or not. There are no more excuses left for the British Museums and Humboldt Forums of the world.

Their justifications have run dry.


Al-Badri, Nora. 2021. ‘The Post-Truth Museum. Open Secret’. https://opensecret.kw-berlin.de/essays/the-post-truth-museum/

Benjamin, Walter. 1936. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Chamberlin, E.R. 1983. ‘Loot! The Heritage of Plunder’. Thames and Hudson

Conn, Steven. 2010. 'Do museums still need objects?’. University of Pennsylvania Press

Herman, Alexander. 2021. ‘Restitution. The Return of Cultural Artefacts’. Land Humphreys

Hess, Mona. 2009. ‘Niabara, The Western Solomon Islands War Canoe at the British Museum’. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232632331_Niabara_-_The_Western_Solomon_Islands_War_Canoe_at_the_British_Museum_-_3D_Documentation_Virtual_Reconstruction_and_Digital_Repatriation#fullTextFileContent

Hicks, Dan. 2020. ‘The Brutish Museums’. Pluto Press

Kalibani, Mèhèza. 2021. ‘The less considered part: Contextualizing immaterial heritage from German colonial contexts in the restitution debate.’ International Journal of Cultural Property 28, no. 1: 43–53. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0940739120000296

Katyal, Sonia K. 2017. ‘Technoheritage’. California Law Review

Koch, Alexander (Host) and Renzo Martens. 2023. KOW Podcast 15 – ‘Words Between the Lines of Art – Renzo Martens and Alexander Koch (December 2022) – PART 1’ (Audio podcast episode). https://open.spotify.com/episode/0lmxwbSuUVoQIlh75LurmO?si=fcedce73e0244ca4

McLuhan, Marshall. 1994. 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’. MIT Press

Parry, Ross. 2007. ‘Recoding the Museum. Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change’. Routledge

Pearce, Susan M. 1995. ‘On Collecting. An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition’. Routledge

Sarr, Felwine, and Bénédicte Savoy. 2018. ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.’

Savoy, Bénédicte. 2022. ‘Africa’s Struggle for its Art’. Princeton University Press