Bronze head from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (photo by Thomas Hartmann, JGU Mainz; via Collections from Colonial Contexts)

Newly launched by the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library), the Collections from Colonial Contexts (CCC) portal tracks artifacts in German institutions acquired under conditions of colonialism. So far, over 8,000 objects from 25 institutions have been listed.

Back in June, Germany rolled out a separate digital database cataloguing all the Benin bronzes that are held in museums nationwide. The initiative resulted from ongoing conversations since 2010 that have taken place between European institutions and Nigerian governmental agencies under the auspices of the Benin Dialogue Group. This more expansive database strives to include not only the highly contested artifacts looted in 1897 by the British, but all items held in German museums originating “from a colonial context.”

CCC is one byproduct of a set of guidelines for the restitution of cultural and historical objects that German state authorities agreed to back in March of 2019. Those edicts represented a national commitment to return stolen objects back to their countries of origin. For the sake of transparency, they agreed that those items should be publicly compiled into a list and that further research should be done on where they came from and how they were obtained. In April of this year, Germany further announced that it would return all plundered Benin bronzes in its collections.

Germany is not the only country where museums have reconsidered the validity of their claims to objects in their collections. Earlier this year, the Netherlands approved a plan to return “unconditionally” any object stolen from a former Dutch colony. In June, the Met facilitated the return of two brass plaques and a brass head to Nigeria, and in October, France initiated the return of 26 objects to Benin. Evidently, years of activism and formal communication between cultural institutions have moved the needle on how museums think about what belongs to them.

CCC defines “colonial contexts” quite broadly. If an object came from or was used in an area of colonial rule — or an area that was “under the informal influence of colonial powers” — it qualifies for inclusion in the database. And if the object “reflects colonial thinking or conveys stereotypes based on colonial racism,” it is a good candidate for the database. 

Getting this database up and running is just the short-term objective for those working on this project. In the medium and long term, they want to digitize more collections; tag items multilingually to facilitate academic research; and update the database based on standards collaboratively agreed upon with countries which these objects originated from. They also hope to involve more groups than the initial 25 pilot institutions. For instance, Gerke Dunkhase, head of technology, development and service at Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, estimates that only about half of the Benin bronzes in Germany are logged on the CCC portal at the moment. He says that the current database is just a “prototype” of what’s to come.

The CCC is not the only database attempting to make knowledge about colonial objects more accessible — right now, the Benin bronze database has a more comprehensive list of Benin bronzes in Germany, and the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg is currently working on compiling a list of Benin objects in collections worldwide.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.