The Fight to Repatriate African Skulls in European Museum Collections

Africans have been calling for the return of ancestors’ remains for decades, and at least one Western leader is now listening.

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Jan 25 2019, 9:42pm

Asmat ancestor skull recently auctioned in Europe. Photo via Lempertz

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Last year, France’s president Emmanuel Macron talked about the need to return stolen African artifacts housed in European museums back to their countries of origin. Then the Savoy Report, created by academics Bénédicte Savoy from France and Felwine Sarr from Senegal, was released. The report detailed the logistics of the proposed restitution along with statistics on how much African work is actually in Europe. It’s estimated that 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums, with France alone having of 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its national collections. Just North of France, in Germany, several museums are in possession of other African treasures. Only these are not objects, but human skeletons.

From 1881 to 1914, there was a division and colonization of African land by European powers. Known as the Scramble for Africa it saw Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, England, and Portugal section off pieces of Africa and claim ownership of not only resources but people. Only two countries were left relatively untouched with Liberia already a protected colony of the US, and Ethiopia which was able to defeat Italy’s armed forces. The steps European nations took to show not only their military superiority but the violent subjugation of African people, included taking the skulls and skeletons of deceased warriors, and transporting them to Europe for the purpose of study and exhibition in museums.

“In Berlin, there were two prominent scientific collectors, Rudolf Virchow and Felix von Luschan. Together they had thousands of human remains. When Virchow died and Luschan took over his collection. He claimed to have the biggest anthropological collection in the world comprising of remains of about 10,000 to 15,000 individuals,” Christian Kopp told VICE. Kopp is the project coordinator for Berlin Postkolonial, an organization that has been working on the restitution of African skeletal remains for over a decade. “Today there are still up to 8,000 bones in Berlin and maybe some few thousands in other German collections,” he said. “Luschan’s private collection with some 4,000 to 5,000 skulls and skeletons was sold after his death to the American Natural History Museum (AMNH) where, we believe, it is still used for research.” Requests sent to AMNH for comment went unanswered.

The life of Saartjie Baartman from South Africa is probably one of the most well-known examples of the European practice of treating African bodies and remains as products of not only “research” but exhibition and amusement. Baartman was a black woman who for about five years was exhibited in England, Ireland, and France as a freak attraction; mostly because of the size of her buttocks. When she died in 1815, her body was dissected by Georges Cuvier, who is revered as the founder of paleontology. Cuvier placed her genitalia and brains in jars and put her skeleton on display at France’s Museu de L’homme (Museum of Man). It would remain on display until 1976. In 1994, Nelson Mandela requested her remains be sent back to South Africa and the French government took years to acquiesce. After having arrived in Europe in the early 1800s, Baartman’s remains were finally sent back to her home in 2002.

The barbarity of displaying human bones seems simple and obvious, but when you factor in race and the historical and contemporary politics of anti-blackness nothing is ever simple. For centuries, African bones have laid in boxes all across Europe, placed under microscopes or displayed in some attempt to better understand the role of humans through scientific endeavors. Anti-blackness and Eurocentrism have made the dehumanizing of black people not only commonplace but unremarkable and only at this moment when European countries risk being publicly shamed, have steps begun to be taken to unravel how repatriation is going to happen, how long it will take and whether it is even possible.

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro a Tanzanian engineer who studied in Germany and co-founder of Berlin Postokolonial has spent over 40 years searching for the bones of Chief Mangi Meli. Chief Meli was one of the most well-known fighters against colonialism in Tanzania. In 1900 he was hung by the German military and his head was decapitated and sent to Germany for the purpose of phrenology, a now-debunked science that used head measurements to determine intelligence, beauty, and level of civilization. Last year it was revealed that Meli’s remains could be part of a large collection held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. “The institutions cannot anymore afford to keep us out and there is a growing number of friends in and outside Germany who support this quest. Though we need more support from the scientists, curators, and collections themselves,” said Mboro. “The German government should understand their responsibility to support this search.”

In 2014, England’s Natural Museum announced it may have Zimbabwean remains in their possession. A year later while commemorating Hero’s Day in Zimbabwe, former President Robert Mugabe asked the country to return the bones saying, "We will repatriate them, but with bitterness, questioning the rationale behind decapitating them." In 2017, descendants of Khoi and Nguni people in South Africa formed a coalition to demand the repatriation of their ancestors remains taken to Europe during colonization. And early this year poet, Lemn Sissay joined a coalition to repatriate the bones of Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, which have been in England for over a century.

In his novel Batouala, Martiniquais author Rene Maran wrote, “Civilization, civilization, pride of the Europeans, and charnel house of innocents... you build your kingdoms on corpses.” Currently, the Lempertz auction house in Germany, which has been around since 1845, has an ‘Asmat Ancestor Skull’ up for auction on their site. The Asmat are black people from New Guinea and the skull is marked as Lot 52. The going price is €3,000 to €5,000 [$3,424 to $5.707] and the winning bid seems to be €3,720 [$4,245].

It’s easy to look back at the slave trade and inquire with mock shock, “Who sells people?” Well, the answer seems to be a reputable auction house in Germany, which has been around since 1845.

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