Restoring History: German museums hold 40,000 Cameroonian objects

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In a groundbreaking study presented by Bénédicte Savoy, a professor at the Technische Universität in Berlin, and Albert Gouaffo, a professor at the University of Dschang in Cameroon, it has been revealed that German museums hold 40,000 objects from Cameroon. This number surpasses the entirety of the African collection housed at the British Museum. The study, called “Atlas der Abwesenheit”, was a collaborative effort between researchers from Germany and Cameroon and received support from curators at 45 German museums.

The study sheds light on the extensive cultural heritage from Cameroon that is currently held in German museums. Prof. Savoy emphasized that this collection is unparalleled, with no other country possessing more objects related to Cameroonian heritage, including Cameroon itself. The state collections in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, consist of approximately 6,000 objects.

The Path to Restitution

Driven by the desire to expand trade opportunities, Germany claimed Cameroon as a colony in 1884. Addressing this historical injustice, the discussion surrounding restitution has gained momentum. While Germany has made efforts to restitute the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, Prof. Savoy noted that further political and psychological work needed to be done. Restitution, however, remains a priority for Cameroon. The Cameroonian embassy in Germany has established a restitution commission, consisting of representatives from various ministries, traditional rulers, civil society, and academia, to oversee the process. While restitution is still a long way off, regular meetings between the commission and German museum directors are taking place.

The extensive collection of Cameroonian objects in German museums includes textiles, musical instruments, ritual masks, royal treasures, manuscripts, weapons, and tools. Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, director of the Grassi Museum, emphasized that the study highlights the need for German museums to take responsibility and address this issue. The research serves as a reminder that there is much work to be done in terms of restitution and preserving cultural heritage.

The study not only raises awareness about the extensive collection of Cameroonian objects in German museums but also serves as a catalyst for dialogue and action. The government of Cameroon, along with international partners, is committed to the restitution process, recognizing the importance of these objects. This study will spark further efforts towards restitution and contribute to cultural heritage preservation.