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Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures

Colonialism, Art, and Culture: In a groundbreaking collaborative partnership between the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) and the Museums Association of Namibia, researchers from Berlin and Namibia are taking a renewed look at part of the museum’s collection.

In spring 2019 several researchers from Namibia visited the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in connection with a partnership between the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK). Together with the museum’s team of scholars they examined approximately 1,400 objects from the museum’s colonial Namibian collection with regard to their history, significance and artistic potential.

The Project Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures

As part of the project Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures, which was launched in August 2019 and generously made possible by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, 23 of these objects have traveled to Namibia, including jewellery, prestige objects and historically important artefacts. The objects were selected in close consultation with community representatives in Namibia and will initially be on loan to the National Museum of Namibia, where they will be further researched in the next few years and made available to contemporary artists for creative exploration. This is the first time this type of open-ended cooperative process, one largely determined by the Namibian partners, has been initiated in Germany.

In the further course of the project in Namibia, workshops are planned at the National Museum of Namibia with Namibian historians and oral historians, activists, those involved in the cultural field, heritage practitioners, and artists to reactivate and document knowledge associated with the objects and other forms of intangible cultural heritage such as historical techniques and materials. In addition, the Gerda Henkel Foundation will fund a restorer-conservator and a museologist at the National Museum of Namibia and support the museum with capacity building workshops and materials for the preventive conservation of the collection. The Gerda Henkel Foundation is also making possible the establishment of two scholarships at the University of Namibia that will allow postgraduates to transfer the research out of the museum and into the cultural heritage communities.

The inspiration offered by the objects from Berlin will also be incorporated into the Museum of Namibian Fashion, which recently opened in Otjiwarongo, eastern Namibia. In this context, further essential elements of the project include the production of artworks that relate to the historical collections, the appointment of a curator to design the fashion museum’s inaugural exhibition, and the museum itself. The aim is to build the capacities required for preserving and developing collections in Namibia.

The Namibia Collections of the Ethnologisches Museum

The historical collections from Namibia at the Ethnologisches Museum were mainly acquired during the German colonial period (1884–1919). The museum has been researching these provenances since the beginning of 2018, in recent months together with the Namibian visiting scholars. The collections reflect colonial, and in some cases extremely violent, processes of appropriation. They also show the creativity and ingenuity of the Namibian people. The collections are thus an important resource for historical research as well as an inspiration for contemporary artists and designers. A consequence of Germany’s colonisation of Namibia is that the vast majority of such objects are located in German and non-Namibian institutions, and therefore inaccessible to most Namibians. The project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is the first step in redressing this disparity, beginning with the objects’ journey to Namibia.

Institutions: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Project Coordination: Ndapewoshali Ashipala (Museums Association of Namibia), Dr. des. Julia Binter (Zentralarchiv, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Project Staff: Golda Ha-Eiros (Museums Association of Namibia), Nehoa Kautodonkwa (Museums Association of Namibia)
Scholarly Consulting: Dr. Larissa Förster (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste)
Project Partners: The Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Museums Association of Namibia, the National Museum of Namibia, the University of Namibia
Project Funding: Gerda Henkel Stiftung
Duration: since 2019