On the 9th and 10th of March 2020 the workshop „Provenance Research and Contested Heritage of Colonial Contexts“ was held in Nkongsamba at the Institute of Fine Arts (Institut des Beaux-Arts, IBA) of the University of Douala. The event was organised by Rachel Mariembe (lecturer of museum studies at the IBA) and the two PAESEi staff members Isabella Bozsa of the Städtische Museum Braunschweig and Bianca Baumann of the Landesmuseum Hannover. The focus of the two-day workshop, which was mainly aimed at students of museum studies, was the presentation of the two museums and the PAESE research project as well as the discussion of the research questions of the two doctoral students. Thus, the debate on how to deal with collections from colonial contexts, using the example of the Cameroonian objects in Hanover and Brunswick, was an important aspect of the workshop. On the other side, students of museum studies have a particular interest to learn about the process of documentation of the collections, the presentation of the inventory files and the management of objects, which is in accordance with the training programme of the IBA.
After Professor Annette Angoua, the director of the Institute, officially opened the workshop, the respective museum and exhibition histories, collection managements as well as the depot situations of the two museums were presented at the request of the Institute’s lecturers. The programme was prepared jointly by the organisers, so that the needs and wishes of both the Institute and the PAESE staff were met. More than 100 students of different disciplines (e.g. art history, architecture, museum studies, art and dramatic studies) and all lecturers of the institute participated. During the discussion, it was suggested, among other things, that the combination of Cameroonian and European conservation techniques could be a profitable approach.
In the afternoon of the first day a participatory exercise was conducted, for which the number of participants was reduced. About 20 Master students developed video statements on selected objects that are in the two collections in Lower Saxony. In small groups, the students chose objects – in the form of object images – and were first asked to describe them and to present their meaning. They were then supposed to reflect on how provenance research should be carried out on the object, who the actual owner is, from which environment the object comes, and what kind of culture of remembrance spans around the object. In the final analysis, the question of what should happen to the object in the future was also at the heart of the exercise. At the end of the day, a variety of statements were made, whereby the diversity of voices on the question of restitution became obvious. In Cameroon, this question seems to be viewed in a much more differentiated way than in the general European discourse. The exercise captured the opinions of people who will be the museum experts of tomorrow, but who are not represented in the current debate. An insight into selected video statements is available on the PAESE website that reflect different aspects and attitudes towards provenance research and restitution.
On the second day the focus was on the topic of provenance research. After an introduction to the debate and the research project PAESE, the two sub-projects in Brunswick and Hannover were presented. Following discussions on the meaning of the objects, the debate on restitution issues was intensified in the afternoon. This revealed diverging ideas and different positions in Europe and Cameroon. Likewise, the questions of whether there may have been legitimate acquisitions during the colonial period, to whom and where things should be restituted and how restitution could be implemented in Cameroon were discussed in detail.
The workshop offered the students insights into two German museums and the working methods in both, into the debates on how to deal with collections from colonial contexts in Europe as well as examples of possible career paths in museum work. The dialogue between the German researchers and the students of the Institute in Nkongsamba brought to light new aspects and questions that can only be developed in a bilateral dialogue. This is essential in order to address the shared history and to negotiate the handling of ethnographic objects from colonial contexts. Involving future museum employees in this negotiation process and taking them seriously can lead to a sustainable and enduring dialogue. A diversity of opinions has emerged that must be taken into consideration in order to promote the decolonisation of museums with ethnographic collections.
In conclusion of the workshop, the wish to establish a bilateral partnership as well as a research program proposal that involves students of the Institute and to think about an international exhibition was considered. The big question is how to implement the ideas? Thoughts to be continued…
Isabella Bozsa is a research associate at the Städtisches Museum Braunschweig and a member of the PAESE project.
Bianca Baumann is a research associate at the Landesmuseum Hannover and a member of the PAESE project.
i PAESE is a joint research project in Lower Saxony and stands for „Provenienzforschung in außereuropäischen Sammlungen und der Ethnologie in Niedersachsen“ (Provenance Research on Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony). For more information please visit: https://www.postcolonial-provenance-research.com/