During a forum about cultural heritage held in Bogotá in December 2022, a representative for the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly declared that his country was — finally — requesting the return of 35 statues from the San Agustín culture, currently in the collections of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. This announcement, while generating hopes in Colombia, also raises many questions about the future of the statues and the very meaning of the current wave of restitutions of cultural heritage artifacts to their place of origin.

How did these statues end up in the collections of the Humboldt Forum? Also: At a time when  Western museums are critically examining the history of their collections, German museums are returning the so-called Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, and even the British Museum is negotiating the possible return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, why are these statues still in Germany?

San Agustín funerary statues have interested generations of European travelers and explorers since at least the mid-19th century. In 1913, German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss conducted archaeological fieldwork in San Agustín and surrounding areas in southern Colombia. He took away 35 statues, which left Colombia only after the end of the First World War and arrived in Berlin in 1923. They were never returned. At the time, a few voices in Colombia expressed concern about the removal of the statues. In a letter to the director of the national museum, the mayor of San Agustín wondered who had granted Preuss the authorization to take the statues (the landowner seems to have given his permission but national authorities remained silent at the time). In the Spanish translation of Preuss’s book on San Agustín, published in 1931, the translators added the following footnote: “In any other part of the world, not only would the exportation of the original statues have been prevented, but copies of the molds would have been requested.” However, it is only more than half a century later that a movement in favor of the return of the statues to Colombia really took shape.

Among those interested in the fate of the statues is David Dellenback, a US-Colombian citizen and a resident of San Agustín. Dellenback visited the warehouses of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin (to be later absorbed into the Humboldt Forum) in 1992, where he found some of the statues still unwrapped. Over the following years, he wrote to Colombian authorities and to Hermann Parzinger, the current president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation — a body that oversees the Humboldt Forum among some 27 museums, libraries, archives, and research institutions in Germany — asking for the return of the statues to San Agustín. He also garnered more than 2,000 signatures among local residents in support of his cause. However, Dellenback faced the indifference of Colombian national authorities, which showed no interest in fighting for the return of the statues. He also received a letter from Parzinger, who wrote back in 2013 that “a basis for downright repatriation does scarcely exist, given the lapse of time and the fact that the Columbian [sic] government has obviously known about the sculptures’ whereabouts in Berlin without having submitted any concrete claim for repatriation to the German government.” 

San Agustín statues at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 1992 (photo by David Dellenback, used with permission)
San Agustín statue at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 1992 (photo by David Dellenback, used with permission)

Recent developments, however, suggest that the return of the statues may now be a more realistic prospect than it seemed only a couple of years ago. In Germany, the controversy surrounding the opening of the Humboldt Forum, accused of retaining a largely imperialist and colonialist view of the world, has receded as the country became a leader in the process of returning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. The Bronzes in the Forum’s collection are set to return to Nigeria over the next few years; those to remain in Germany will do so on long-term loans. Over the past few years, the Forum has also agreed to return multiple artifacts to countries such as Cameroon and Namibia and to Native communities in North America, suggesting that the museum may respond favorably to a hypothetical claim from Colombia.

In Colombia, Dellenback and other residents of San Agustín — today incorporated as a veeduría (oversight committee) — sued the Colombian state in front of an administrative court for failing to defend the national heritage. In 2017, before the court could reach a verdict, entities of the executive branch, including the presidency, the ministries of culture and foreign affairs, and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), agreed to enter into an agreement with the plaintiffs, committing to act diligently in favor of the return of the statues. Since then, however, this agreement has remained without effect by lack of political will under the administrations of former Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque. The 2022 election of Gustavo Petro, the first left-wing president of the country, represented a political earthquake that also seems to have had immediate consequences on the country’s policy regarding the restitution of cultural heritage. As reaffirmed publicly during the December 2022 event in Botogá, Colombian diplomacy is currently negotiating the return of several high-profile cultural artifacts, such as the Quimbaya collection held in the Museo de América (Museum of the Americas) in Madrid, as well as Kogi masks and the San Agustín statues from Berlin.

While welcomed by advocates of the restitution of the country’s stolen or mishandled cultural heritage, these recent developments raise more questions than answers.

On the one hand, Colombian authorities continue to negotiate the return of the statues without involving the civil society actors who initiated the claim. If it weren’t for the advocacy of  Dellenback and veeduría group, Colombia might have not asked for the statues at all. As precursors in this dispute and as residents of the modern town of San Agustín — which makes them stakeholders in the safekeeping of the statues — they should be legitimate dialogue partners for Colombian national authorities, in this case the ICANH, which oversees archaeological heritage in the country, and the ministry of foreign affairs. However, the relations between local communities and government agencies such as the ICANH have been poor, to say the least, over the past decade. For example, in 2013, many in San Agustín opposed the temporary removal of statues from the archaeological area to be shown in Bogotá, a decision made without consulting the local community. In late 2022, the ICANH organized a first meeting with the members of the veeduría, but there is little indication so far that this may lead to a more meaningful dialogue with the local actors. That civil society activists feel overlooked by the authorities and resort to courts to be heard speaks poorly of the right to public debate in Colombia. That’s an issue that resonates throughout Latin America, a region where the quality of democracy, as measured by the responsiveness of executive authorities to the demands of civil society, is often put in doubt.

Monolith in the archaeological park of San Agustín in 2013 (photo by Diego Martínez Celis, used with permission)

On the other hand, and in great part because of the absence of dialogue with civil society actors, it is unclear what the fate of the statues will be upon their return to Colombia. Will some of the statues remain in Germany, maybe on long-term loan like the Benin Bronzes? If so, who would decide how many, which ones, and for how long? Where would the returned statues go? An unfortunate outcome would be sending the sculptures to the collection of a Bogotá museum. If that’s the route taken, they may end up in a warehouse rather than on display and soon be forgotten again, limiting the scientific, social, and cultural impact of their return. The example of the Machu Picchu collection, returned in 2011 to Peru only to remain under the tight control of the same curators who were in charge at Yale University, looms large in this case. But other options are possible. 

For one, the veeduría proposes the construction of a community museum in the contemporary town of San Agustín that could welcome the statues upon their return. Serving as an educational and cultural center, this new institution would facilitate the re-signifying of the statues for — thus increasing their impact on — the local community. It would serve as an alternative to the Archaeological Museum of San Agustín, located within the archaeological site, but not readily available to the town’s residents (one of the barriers is a $7 admission fee). And why not invite the German part to participate in the construction and management of this new center? This would represent a promising avenue for a future of more equal collaboration among partners. Decolonizing heritage and museums — of which the return of cultural heritage is only one small step — doesn’t only mean that formerly colonized countries find equal treatment and partnership with the former colonizers and imperial powers (Germany was not, of course, a colonial power in Latin America, but archaeology in the early 20th century served the country’s and other European and North American powers’ imperial ambitions). Decolonizing also requires that experts and institutions officially in charge of the museums and heritage sector allow alternative, grassroots, Indigenous voices to have a say in how and for whom this heritage is being valued and protected.

At a time when the decolonization of museums as institutions of knowledge is among the most discussed topics in the museum world, the possible return of the San Agustín statues to Colombia represents an opportunity to improve on the recent practice of returns by proposing a new model of collaboration between the holding institution, the national authorities of the claiming country, and local stakeholders. Can these actors hold up to these promises?

Pierre Losson is the author of The Return of Cultural Heritage to Latin America: Nationalism, Policy, and Politics in Colombia, Mexico, and Peru (Routledge, 2022). He is currently the Associate Director...