A serious dilemma German museums face as they repatriate artefacts | Germany

The day Santi Hiturangi touches the human remains of his ancestors marked the beginning of the end of their 140-year period of enforced exile.

The UN representative in Polynesia, known to many Europeans as Easter Island, has spent the past four years in Leipzig, in the east of the country. Germanypreparing to bring back the 28 members of the Huki and Hitorangi clans from the Rapa Nui nation ancestral bones (skeletal remains) were taken from their original resting places by a German gunboat expedition in 1882 and ended up in the collections of the states of Saxony and Berlin.

The Grassi Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig, one of several German institutions taking steps to return illegally acquired objects from its collections, has installed a specially designated repatriation room, where Heturangi and colleagues Evelyn Hocke and Daniel Fabian to ceremoniously transfer the remains of their ancestors from the world of artifacts to the world of deceased humans.

The process, commonly described as “re-humanizing,” requires wrapping bones and skulls in a cloth made from mulberry paper fibers — and most importantly, a human touch. “Physical contact is the only way to humanize the remains of our ancestors,” Hiturangi said. “This is the only way to forget the pain.”

Four days before the ceremony, on Sept. 29, the museum called to provide Hiturangi and his colleague with a face mask, surgical gown, nitrile gloves, and a warning: the remains of his ancestors are potentially toxic.

The room in which they performed the re-humanization ceremony
The room in which they performed the re-humanization ceremony Photography: Tom Dax

As the movement to recover objects from ethnological collections accelerates across Europe and North America, museums are waking up to an ethical dilemma. The widespread historical use of pesticides means that the objects in their storage halls are not only toxic in terms of their problematic colonial heritage, but also in terms of their contamination with highly hazardous substances.

The idea that these museum objects could be used again in ceremonies and ritual performances, scientists warn, can be deceptive while posing a health risk to those who come into contact with them. Have repossessions completed by transfer of ownership, or does the duty of care extend beyond that point?

in pest control in museumsAnd A landmark study published last spring, Berlin-based researcher Helen Tello charts the way Germany’s burgeoning chemical industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries marketed products to museums struggling to protect their collections from pests like wood beetles. Clothes moths or silverfish.

“At the time, many of these museums were understaffed and completely overburdened with the task of dealing with the things they had collected during the colonial era,” said Tello, a former restorer at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

Wooden masks from the 15th century made by the Coje people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia.
Wooden masks from the 15th century made by the Coje people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. Photograph: Philip Oltermann/The Guardian

Organic materials such as wood, leather, fur, and feathers were sprayed with chemicals that were later found to be extremely hazardous. At the Rathgen Research Laboratory, a research institute attached to the state-owned museums in Berlin, analysis of the city’s collections in recent years has discovered traces of heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury, as well as chlorine-containing compounds such as pentachlorophenol (PCP). , which can cause harmful effects to the liver, kidneys, blood, lungs, and nervous system.

“We often come across objects in our collections with alarming levels of biopesticide contamination,” said Stefan Simon, director of the lab. Some pesticides used, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), have been found to potentially cause cancer.

In some cases, pesticide use has been thoroughly documented. A gray metal storage unit in the Ethnological Museum has a warning sign that reads: black stuff or “the black stuff”. Inside are two wooden masks that date back to the mid-15th century and were made by the Kogi, an indigenous group from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia.

German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss bought the masks, which were worn in religious ceremonies, in 1915 from the son of a deceased Kogi priest — a process the museum says should never have happened. “It is clear that these masks came to Berlin illegally,” said Manuela Fischer, curator of the Berlin State Museums.

Last September, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the city’s museums, announce It has been in talks with Columbia and the Kogi community to return the masks. A spokesperson for the Colombian Embassy in Berlin confirmed that it had submitted an official request for return.

But direct skin contact with these face masks, potentially during ceremonies of physical exertion, may have significant health risks. Records show that in the 1940s and 1950s, the container containing the two masks was repeatedly sprayed with 1,4-dichlorobenzene, a disinfectant that can cause breathing difficulties and is suspected to be carcinogenic.

Because surviving records of pesticide treatments in German museums are often full of holes, the scientific basis for assessing the health risks they pose can be shaky unless determined by chemical analysis.

In some cases, the fears proved unfounded. The curators of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a new museum, had originally planned a climbable museum display 1960s Reconstruction of Traditional Tonga Sailing boat from the city’s ethnological collection. Instead, they made the costly decision to commission boat builders in Fiji to build another replica instead. The museum said concerns about pesticides used in the old boat were one of the factors that led to this decision. A proper analysis has since found the boat’s contamination to be “below the thresholds currently in place”, however.

Cross-contamination through dust particles means that even things that have not been sprayed may be contaminated over time. Tello estimates that two-thirds of the 500,000 objects in Berlin’s ethnological collection are contaminated. Other museums are more pessimistic. “We assume that all our objects have been affected,” said a spokesperson for the Hamburg am Rothenbaum Museum – World Cultures and Arts.

While objects subject to refund claims are usually cleaned before they are delivered, scientists have yet to develop a method for fully extracting potential toxins.

“I don’t know of a single scientific procedure that would turn a contaminated object into something harmless,” Simon said. “There is still a great deal of naivety among museums and politicians about what science and technology can do in this regard. Even after a ‘successful’ decontamination procedure, safety rules must be adhered to when handling these things.”

To ensure these safety regulations are adequately highlighted, Tello said, museums should not only hand over their items, but also the toxic equivalent of a laundry label and safety protocol. “Most museums now have strict guidelines for what curators and conservators in archives should wear, but not for how these things should be handled outside of the museum.”

However, a very prescriptive set of user instructions would run counter to the spirit of recovery. “It has to be up to the local communities what they do with the returned objects,” said Leontine Meijer van Mensch, director of the Grassi Museum. “If they say, ‘We’re aware of the risks, but we want to touch these things anyway,’ we have to respect that.”

“Compensation is a complex process,” added Meijer van Menesch. “We want to bring these things back, so we can’t just say, ‘They’re all toxic,’ so we’re going to shut the door. The only way is to be as transparent as possible.”

Despite being informed of the danger of contamination at the last minute, Hiturangi and his colleagues said they were able to perform the ritual the way they wanted. As the so-called Repat.A-Take Team, they are trying to raise crowdfunding for the last leg of the trip back to Rapa Nui.

They said that their ancestors did not travel as museum objects, but as human remains.

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