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Germany to loan back 23 looted museum pieces to Namibia

A Berlin museum will on Friday send 23 ancient pieces of jewellery, tools and objects back to Namibia, a former German colony, on indefinite loan as part of a project to encourage rapprochement between the two nations.

The artefacts will be handed over to the National Museum of Namibia and made available to local artists and academics for research, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum said.

Chosen by Namibian experts, they include an ancient three-headed drinking vessel, a doll wearing traditional dress and various spears, hair pieces and other fashion accessories.

This is a step towards reassessing “the long, complex history that Namibia and Germans have”, Esther Moombolah, director of the National Museum of Namibia, told journalists in Berlin.

“We urge all future partners to follow suit like this institution,” she said, stressing that Namibians should not “have to get on a plane to see our cultural treasures which are kept in boxes in foreign institutions”.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which runs the Berlin museum, did not say why the objects were not simply restituted to Namibia rather than put on long-term loan.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK, said only that it was “a process of rapprochement and that’s the way that was decided for the objects to go back” to Namibia.

Nevertheless, he added that he “can say clearly that the objects that should stay in Namibia will also stay in Namibia”.

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has been working together with the National Museum of Namibia since 2019 to discuss the future of the hundreds of objects from the southern African country in its collections.

– ‘Joint reappraisal’ –

The move is one of a series of recent steps by Germany towards atoning for colonial-era crimes, including the official recognition last year that it committed genocide in Namibia, then known as German South West Africa.

German colonial settlers killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people in 1904-1908 massacres — labelled by historians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The atrocities have poisoned relations between Namibia and Germany for decades.

Though smaller than those of France and Britain, Germany’s colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries, including present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia and Cameroon.

Over the last years, Germany has returned skulls and other human remains to Namibia that it had sent to Berlin during the period for “scientific” experiments.

The Ethnological Museum also reached an agreement last year to begin returning its collection of Benin Bronzes, ancient sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, to Nigeria.

The 16th-18th century metal plaques and sculptures, among the most highly regarded works of African art, are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Parzinger said the aim of the partnership with Namibia was a “joint reappraisal” of history.

“The project is of great importance for the SPK, as it combines various aspects that are of great relevance for a contemporary handling of collections from colonial contexts,” he said.