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  • Camille Basso

The German Church launches an inventory of colonial objects in its monasteries

During the German colonial period (1884-1919), missionaries collected numerous objects from Africa, Asia and South America. For over a century, these works have been kept in monasteries and convents across Germany. However, the Church now wishes to draw up an inventory of these objects, determine their exact provenance and, if necessary, return them to their country of origin.

Photographie du monastère franciscain de Bardel Bad Bentheim
Photographie du monastère franciscain de Bardel Bad Bentheim

Initiated by the Institute for Mission Research at the Sankt Georgen School of Theology and Philosophy, the Historic Mission Collections project aims to list all the objects from the colonial period held by German convents and monasteries. This nationwide project stems from a wider debate on objects from this period and their potential return to their country of origin. The Historic Mission Collections will have to draw up an inventory of the objects collected by the German missionaries, as well as carrying out research into their provenance. Ultimately, these objects could be returned to their country of origin.

However, anthropologist and historian Markus Scholz points out that the very maintenance of these objects is an issue in itself for the project. "Some [collections] are well preserved and displayed in museums, but there are also collections in storage. Religious communities are facing a reduction in their resources, both financial and in terms of staff. It's difficult to look after the collections," he told The Art Newspaper. An initial study by Historic Mission Collections into the collections of German Catholic communities highlights the fact that no precise inventory of colonial objects has been drawn up.

Historic power relations

According to Markus Scholz, most of the objects come from German colonies. However, German missionaries were also active in independent countries and in the colonies of other European powers. The initial study of the project shows that the works come mainly from Asia, Africa and South America. Nevertheless, the missionaries all collected these objects in extremely different ways. "The objects were found, given, exchanged, bought and sometimes acquired in circumstances where the missionaries took advantage of the asymmetrical power relations that characterised the colonial context. The missionaries also commissioned objects from local craftsmen", explains Markus Scholz.

"Some collections date back to the eighteenth century, when missionaries brought back natural specimens in order to explain to future missionaries what they should expect in the countries when they arrived. At the end of the 19th century, the objects had a more promotional function: religious communities displayed them so that interested visitors could marvel at objects from faraway lands, and exhibitions multiplied," he explained to The Art Newspaper at the end of October. Despite the complexity of the Historic Mission Collections project, Markus Scholz remains optimistic about the possibility of determining the provenance of the objects and restoring them. "There are a lot of written sources. The missionaries corresponded a lot and kept mission diaries."

An initiative supported by religious communities

In north-west Germany, the Franciscan monastery of Bardel Bad Bentheim is one of the religious communities cooperating in the project. The Bardel building contains almost 600 objects brought back from Brazil, displayed in a museum dedicated to the 1922 mission. Today, the Bardel monks are still present in Brazil and the Amazon region. One of the monastery's most prized objects is a feather decoration from the Munduruku people of the Amazon basin. With the help of Historic Mission Collections, Bardel Bad Bentheim hopes to "create a professional inventory and documentation" of these colonial objects.

"We still don't know much about the provenance of individual objects," says Father Wilhem Ruhe, who lives in the monastery. "When we have the results, we can think about what to do with the objects. We'd like to keep the museum here and perhaps create a new exhibition with outside help, but if there's interest in Brazil for specific objects, it might be a good opportunity to discuss these things as part of a dialogue between world churches, and possibly send pieces back to Brazil," he adds.

For Markus Luber, Director of the Sankt Georgen Research Institute, the priority is to ensure the financial viability of the Historic Mission Collections project. So far, funding has been provided by religious orders and communities, as well as the Catholic organization Justitia et Pax. However, this funding is only expected to carry the project for another year. "We're looking at how we can continue this project. Everyone agrees it's very important, but when it comes to long-term funding, it's difficult. Long-term financing is not assured," he told The Art Newspaper.


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