“We must face up to the past”
Ohiniko Mawussé Toffa wants to discover where artefacts in German museums come from and how they ended up in Germany.
Mr Toffa, why is it so important to clarify where cultural assets originated and in case of doubt to return them?
Restitution means not only returning objects from Germany to their cultures of origin. It means a great deal more: It means restoring history and perpetuating the truth. That’s why we must clarify the circumstances under which the objects were “acquired” and face up to the past. This period was suppressed for a long time, but to create a better future we need a critical and thriving culture of remembrance. We must overcome the traumas together.
As a research associate, you worked on the project “Provenance of colonial-era collections from Togo” at the museums of ethnology in Dresden and Leipzig. What was the objective of the project?
The project focused on around 700 ethnographic objects from the former German colony of Togo, which had been transported to the German Empire. These religious, everyday and ritual artefacts can be traced back to eight colonial “collectors”. My job was to clarify the exact circumstances under which these objects were “acquired” - in many cases they were in fact probably stolen.
German colonial history
Germany had colonies in Africa, Asia and Oceania from 1884 to 1919.
These included German South-West Africa, Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa, Kiautschou and German-New Guinea.
The German government has pledged to provide 1.1 billion euros to fund a critical examination of the country’s colonial past, and is supporting numerous international projects.
What have you found out?
We have in fact been able to clarify the historical circumstances. Three of the collectors were active in clear war-time contexts. During the colonial era, some populations in Togo declined the “protection” that the Germans were offering them. The German colonialists carried out military expeditions against them to punish them - these days we call them “punitive expeditions”.
What can Germany do to advance this critical engagement with the colonial era?
I believe it is important for museums and research institutions in Germany to recruit more people from the former colonies and to involve them in the discussion. They often know what the objects were used for and what they mean to people in the respective countries. Museums cannot shrug off any of their responsibility simply by employing people from the countries in question, however, and should not imagine that this step is enough in itself. But they can draw on their valuable expertise, thereby speeding up the process of critical engagement.
I came to Germany in 2015 on a DAAD scholarship to do my PhD at the University of Bremen. The time I have spent in Germany and engaging in exchange with academics from around the world has influenced the way I view my research work, and I have been able to contribute my experiences from Togo here in Germany. I hope that many other researchers will also have the same opportunity.
More information about Germany’s culture of remembrance and about Dr Mawussé Toffa can be found in German and English in the DAAD’s alumni magazine Letter.
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