What to do with the pedestal of a fallen statue? As the cultural infrastructure of “great man history” is increasingly removed from public institutions and city streets around the world, this question comes up with increasing regularity. In Bristol and Barcelona for example, the plinths of toppled slave traders Edward Colston and Antonio López have been left empty, becoming new monuments to these cities’ grassroots commitments to anti-colonialism and anti-racism. In other cases, the base has been removed alongside the statue, as communities reclaim their right to choose who is remembered, how remembrance takes place, and who does the remembering. Now at Leipzig’s Grassi Museum, a Tanzanian-German artist collaboration is reimagining the removal of a plinth as sculptural gesture in its own right. In doing so they are adding to an unfolding, radical, transnational series of experiments with the possibility of new, collective forms of monumentality.

The Grassi Museum of Völkerkunde was founded in 1892 to house Saxony’s burgeoning ethnological collections. It moved to its present purpose-built site in 1929 and was reconstructed in 1950s after wartime destruction. At some point thereafter, the German Democratic Republic’s administration installed a 1930s bronze bust of the second director Karl Weule on a museum staircase. Weule was, Terry Ranger showed 50 years ago, a key figure in the early use of anthropology as a tool for counterinsurgency. Within weeks of his promotion to museum director in 1906, Weule led an expedition to Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), during the massive anti-colonial uprising known as the Maji-Maji Rebellion. He detailed the outcomes of this research in his 1908 book Negerleben in Ostafrika, the opening pages of which reflected on the “struggle which the white race has waged for the supremacy over the earth.” African material culture, Weule wrote, “could only be obtained by cunning, decisiveness and perseverance.” With such enduring curatorial legacies of German colonial violence in mind, in 2016, under its former director Nanette Snoep, the museum board decided to remove the bust from its stone plinth.

Six years later, on March 3, 2022 the museum partially re-opened its gallery displays after almost a year of root-and-branch redisplay. This marked the first step for a major German Federal Cultural Foundation-funded project called Reinventing Grassi. SKD that embraces questions of restitution, decolonization, and repair. Commissioning African and European artists forms a central part of the new curatorial approach. After Berlin, Saxony holds the largest German collection of material looted from Benin City in the 1897 British expedition — 262 items in total. But the old displays of these looted objects are gone and instead visitors can see Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s work “At the Threshold” — an installation that displays photographs of the brass Benin heads so as to evoke a kind of unstable state, their history still unfolding in the present.

Detail from Emeka Ogboh “At the Threshold” (2021) at the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig

The unfinished nature of the Grassi’s imperial past is also addressed in an installation called “Berge Versetzen” (Moving Mountains), a collaboration between the leading Tanzanian artists Rehema Chachage and Valerie Asiimwe Amani and the Germany-based PARA collective. “Moving Mountains” addresses the strange story of the theft of the “summit-stone” of Mount Kilimanjaro. Hans Meyer was a close colleague of Weule, the wealthy heir to the Leipzig-based Meyers Konversations-Lexikon publishing fortune, and the source of 62 of the Grassi’s Benin 1897 items. Years before acquiring his Benin collection, during an expedition to Tanganyika in 1889, at age 31, Meyer became the first European to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro — the highest point on the continent of Africa, and at that time part of the recently founded colony of German East Africa. He named the peak Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze, and took the mountain’s highest stone as a trophy. Back in Berlin Meyer had this small basalt rock sawn in two, gifting half to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who mounted it in the Grotto Hall ballroom at Potsdam’s New Palace, retaining the other as a paperweight on his desk. In 1964, the newly-independent nation of Tanzania de-named the peak, which has since been known as Uhuru (meaning freedom in Swahili). The Kaiser’s half of the summit-stone was lost and a replacement (not from Kilimanjaro) from Meyer’s collection was installed. Today the Potsdam display, Tanzanian activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro argues, serves effectively to mask the history of colonial violence. Then in 2020 the other half, which had been in the Meyer family collection, was put up for sale by an Austrian antiques dealer for 35,000 Euros.

The stone plinth after the 2016 removal of the bust of Karl Weule, before the Moving Mountains project at Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig

“Moving Mountains” excavates this layered history of removal, commemoration, and de-naming by transforming the disused plinth of the removed bust of Weule. As the museum reopened, PARA broke up and pulverised this small porphyry pillar with jackhammers and chisels, mixing the resulting dust with clay to create 2,000 replicas of the Kilimanjaro stone. These are on sale online for 25 Euros each in a crowd-funded initiative to buy the original. Some of the group also climbed the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, removed the uppermost six centimetres of the peak, and placed it in temporary storage at Grassi — a gesture seeks to critique the museum’s claims to ownership of its collections.

The former Weule plinth after the intervention by PARA Collective as part of the Moving Mountains collaboration, and prior to its removal by the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig 

The centrepiece of this collaborative work is Chagage and Amani’s 15-minute sound installation “Avoid/Devoid.” The work reflects on the absences and erasures of colonial extraction through the loss of names across generations. Voices calling out to grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends are juxtaposed with racist microaggressions and a traditional Tanzanian children’s song that warns of a lion that has killed family members. Valerie Amani explained in a panel discussion how the work addresses a past emptied of inherited knowledge of all kinds as well as material heritage, creating a space for the remembrance of absence and the contemplation of loss, the kind of loss “when you don’t even know what you’ve lost.”

“Moving Mountains” advances what the artists call “participatory restitution,” re-examining questions of dispossession and memory through continual switches in position: from a stone plinth that has outlived its usefulness, to a basalt rock stolen from an African mountain; from the toxic monumentality of a bronze bust, to a geological formation used to commemorate a dead White colonialist male; from the ethnological museum as a legacy of empire to the discipline of anthropology. The message is clear: We must find new collective ways to reimagine the very fabric of the ruins of anthropology’s project of cultural whiteness and the museums that represent its public spaces. And not just as an inherited resource to be reinterpreted or recontextualized but — as PARA expressed it to me in a Zoom call — as “raw material.”

The PARA Collective “Museum under Demolition” warning sign made for the Moving Mountains collaboration (photograph courtesy Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, by Kevin Bress)

The reactions to this collaborative work are revealing. This is a “brutal destruction” claimed a message to the Museums-Themen email list. An article by Anette Rein for the online magazine Museum Aktuell was hastily circulated praising Weule’s legacy and raising questions of “monument protection and criminal law.” A statement circulated by the President and Vice-President of ICOM-Deutschland accused the curators of “a deliberate destruction of a museum-historical memorial stele in Leipzig.” It’s striking how shrill these voices sound, and how swiftly the rebuttal from other German ICOM board members came. After my book The Brutish Museums was published, the Victoria and Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt decried its suggestion that sometimes colonial legacies need to be taken apart with a pickaxe or a jack hammer. Just one year on, time’s up for the imperial-nostalgic caucacity of those wishing to prevent any changes to the dead, white infrastructure of museums that haunts the discipline of anthropology.

Today, defending its pale, male, stale, toxic coloniality is a marginal and extreme position. The risk of museums appropriating the language of decolonization as a means of artwashing their sustained inaction is ever present, as seen for example at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. But Chachage, Amani, PARA and the curatorial team led by Grassi’s director Léontine Meijer-van Mensch are demonstrating how the task of exorcising obsolete colonial-patriarchal structures of exclusion and prejudice can begin with new forms of collaborative monumentality.

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His latest book is The Brutish Museums, Twitter @ProfDanHicks and Instagram @ProfDanHicks