Jan Czekanowski had an assignment.
In 1907, he had traveled all the way from Europe to German East Africa as a member of an expedition led by the Duke of Mecklenburg. Czekanowski was an anthropologist by training, and the Mecklenburg Expedition’s mission was scientific; in addition to Czekanowski, there was a botanist, a zoologist, a topographer, and other Europeans—all dependent on the labor of hundreds of Africans.1Christine Stelzig and Katrin Adler, “On the Preconditions, Circumstances and Consequences of Collecting: Jan Czekanowski and the Duke of Mecklenburg’s Expedition to Central Africa, 1907–8,” Journal of the History of Collections 12, no. 2 (2000): 161–176. Czekanowski’s inclusion in the Duke’s expedition had been “engineered” by another anthropologist: the director of the department of Africa and Oceania at Berlin’s Museum of Ethnology, Felix von Luschan.2Stelzig and Adler, “On the Preconditions, Circumstances and Consequences of Collecting,” 163. Back in Berlin, Luschan was assembling a massive collection from Germany’s global colonies. He had sent Czekanowski to Africa to gather ethnographic material—not only photographs, artifacts, and recordings of the area’s residents, but also, evidence that could, Luschan thought, contribute to the study of humanity in a more material way: their actual bones.“In what is now Tanzania, having been rowed to an island whose only other visitors were boats carrying the bodies of the dead, Czekanowski found birds of prey perched atop human remains.”
Czekanowski’s assignment could, if he didn’t worry about what the Africans thought, be carried out relatively easily. He didn’t even need to dig. In what is now Tanzania, having been rowed to an island whose only other visitors were boats carrying the bodies of the dead, Czekanowski found birds of prey perched atop human remains. Here, in accordance with local practices, bodies had been left exposed, rather than buried—which, as area residents had surely not anticipated, now also exposed their loved ones’ remains to Czekanowski’s grasp. He gathered what he wanted into “precious” packages to be shipped home.3For Czekanowski’s account of his visit to the island, see Barbara Teßmann and Marius Kowalak, “Die Schädel von der Toteninsel Musila (Tanzania). Eine historisch- anthropologische Recherche zu Totenbrauchtum. Bestattungssitten und Familienverbänden,” Beiträge zur Archäozoologie und Prähistorischen Anthropologie XII (2020): 217–231. In other parts of German East Africa, conditions were similar. When the Mecklenburg Expedition reached the kingdom of Rwanda, Czekanowski found that the bodies of the dead were frequently exposed on hillsides, in marshes and forests, or inside caves,4Célestin Kanimba Misago and Lode Van Pee, Rwanda: Its Cultural Heritage. Past and Present (Kigali: Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, 2008), 75. and he subjected vast volumes of them to the same treatment as he had those on the island. Box after box of human skulls arrived in Berlin.
The violence of museums’ human remains collections
Museum galleries tend to be quiet, with any human remains displayed behind glass and carefully lit. But the calmness of the environment does not necessarily reflect how the remains came to be there. Today there are debates about whether and how museums can hold them at all. Some of these debates hinge on the problem of collection: How did a set of items, whether artifacts or human remains, come to be in a museum or research institution? Often, the answer to this question involves both overt and structural violence.“The way racist structural violence enables museum collection has not been limited to Czekanowski’s day or the German Empire.”
As Czekanowski’s task in German East Africa shows, the bodies of certain kinds of people have been targeted as more appropriate for collection, research, and display. The Mecklenburg Expedition’s project, in which hundreds of skulls were taken without consent or recourse, hinged on the ability of the colonizer to exert power over colonized bodies; that this power could target certain kinds of bodies with impunity was a product of racist principles. The way racist structural violence enables museum collection has not been limited to Czekanowski’s day or the German Empire. Recently, Americans learned that the bodies of two Black children killed in the Philadelphia Police Department’s bombing of the Black separatist movement MOVE’s headquarters in 1985, Tree and Delisha Africa, were held in and studied by Princeton University and the Penn Museum. This happened without consent from or even notification of Tree and Delisha’s family members.
The actual methods of collection have also been violent. The South African historian Ciraj Rassool, for example, recounts the case of Trooi and Klaas Pienaar.5Ciraj Rassool, “Re-storing the Skeletons of Empire: Return, Reburial and Rehumanisation in Southern Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 41 no. 3 (2015): 653–670. In 1909, their remains were illegally exhumed, forced into a barrel filled with salt with their knee joints cut, shipped to Vienna, and held in a museum there for decades. At the museum, their bodies were macerated: reduced to bone through deliberate, managed putrefaction. These stomach-churning details drive home the reality of this sort of collection. In order to put a body on display in a quiet gallery, it may go through an intense level of physical violence behind the scenes; in the Pienaar case, this was layered on top of the structural violence of colonialism and racism that made the bodies of this San couple vulnerable targets.
This violence has aftereffects on those left behind, too. In the United States, the Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton has examined the impact on Indigenous communities of the collection and repatriation of their ancestors. Subjected to physical and structural violence on a massive scale over centuries, Indigenous communities have endured group trauma—and such trauma “has a habit of remaining in the present unless reconciled.”6Russell Thornton, “Repatriation and the Trauma of Native American History” in The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation: Return, Reconcile, Renew, eds. Cressida Fforde, Timothy McKeown, and Honor Keeler (New York: Routledge, 2020), 789. Collection of human remains through archaeological excavation or grave robbing—the line between which is often far from clear—produces ongoing harms to living communities. They cannot treat their relatives appropriately in death and must suffer the knowledge of this ongoing violation as long as the bodies remain in the hands of cultural institutions. In this way, the collection of human remains shares certain characteristics with the collection of art and artifacts: Communities cannot use heritage to fulfill cultural rituals and responsibilities, or to revitalize their culture; their gods and sacred objects are violated;7See, for example, Chip Colwell, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017). they lose material connections with their past.“As long as heritage has been collected by explorers, colonizers, anthropologists, archaeologists, soldiers and others, communities have sought to reclaim it.”
Collecting human remains and cultural heritage without consent and placing them in museums was a violent act at the time of collection, and museums that continue to hold onto these objects perpetrate violence in the present. The acknowledgment of this problem has led to an ongoing shift in museum practice, where repatriation—the return of cultural heritage and human remains to their places of origin—is beginning to pick up steam. But the recognition that collection can be both violation and violence and the argument that collections gathered in this way must be returned are not new. As long as heritage has been collected by explorers, colonizers, anthropologists, archaeologists, soldiers, and others, communities have sought to reclaim it. The return of the famed Benin Bronzes, looted in colonial expeditions at the end of the nineteenth century, was first formally requested in 1936.8Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press, 2020), 196. After independence, Mobutu’s Zaire pursued the return of Congolese heritage from Belgium,9Sarah Van Beurden, Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015). See also Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022), on African attempts for repatriation in the mid- to late twentieth century. and in the 1960s and 70s, the Netherlands returned objects to Indonesia as a form of cultural diplomacy.10London and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2020More Info → In the United States, certain forms of repatriation—especially of human remains and grave goods—have been enshrined in law via the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Despite lacking federal legislation to this end, many of Canada’s cultural institutions also repatriate to First Nations,11Jennifer L. Dekker, “Challenging the ‘Love of Possessions’: Repatriation of Sacred Objects in the United States and Canada,” Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals 14, no. 1 (2018): 37–62. and similarly in Australia, government policy supports repatriation to Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.
But major institutions, such as the British Museum, have been slow to return many items subject to claims—the Parthenon Marbles being, of course, the most prominent example. Museums and politicians have argued that returns are a slippery slope that ends with emptied storerooms and bare gallery shelves, threatening the end of the universal museum and its potential to teach history, diversity, tolerance, and beauty, all at once12See, for example, James Cuno, ed., Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).—a claim Pierre Losson has argued is disconnected from what are in actuality limited and specific requests.13Pierre Losson, “Opening Pandora’s Box: Will the Return of Cultural Heritage Objects to Their Country of Origin Empty Western Museums?” Journal of Arts Management, Law, & Society 51, no. 1 (2021): 379–392. And collections gathered during colonialism abroad appear to be a more difficult repatriation target than those taken from Indigenous communities within, as in the United States, Canada, and Australia; human remains, as discussed below, also seem quicker than artifacts to return.
Still, the tide may be turning. Soon after his 2017 election, French president Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso that he intended to prioritize returns to African countries from French collections. The Restitution Report that he commissioned, written by the Senegalese and French academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédictine Savoy, landed with a bang in European cultural and political circles. In the United Kingdom, despite the British Museum serving as the poster child for recalcitrance on this topic, academics, activists, and smaller cultural institutions are leading the way.14See, for example, Hicks, Brutish Museums; Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp and Chris Wingfield, “A ‘Safe Space’ to Debate Colonial Legacy? The University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Campaign to Return a Looted Benin Altarpiece to Nigeria,” Museum Worlds 7 (2019): 1–22. In Germany, recent years’ grappling with the country’s colonial history has intersected with the repatriation debate and led to changes in guidelines for museum practice and an intense focus on provenance research, which helps museums identify which of their holdings were gathered from colonial contexts.15E.g., Larissa Förster et al., eds., Provenienzforschung in ethnologischen Sammlungen der Kolonialzeit (Munich: Museum Fünf Kontinente, 2018); Holger Stoecker, Thomas Schnalke, and Andreas Winkelmann, eds., Sammeln, Erforschen, Zurückgeben? menschliche Gebeine aus der Kolonialzeit in akademischen und musealen Sammlungen (Berlin: Ch. Links, 2013). This work provides a basis from which to begin the process of repatriation.
Some of the items that have been researched in this way in Germany—not only to identify their origin, but to figure out how to return them—come from what once was German East Africa. From 2017, they included the skulls Czekanowski collected.
The dynamics of repatriating human remains
The repatriation of human remains is simultaneously more and less difficult for cultural institutions. On the one hand, fewer people are willing to argue that museums have the right or responsibility to hold human remains in their collections, especially when those remains come from communities that are actively seeking their return. When the bones Czekanowski had gathered—part of what is known as the S Collection, standing for Schädel, or skull—came under scrutiny recently, the assumption that they should return to the countries of former German East Africa did not provoke much contention. Ethical arguments about the collection of human remains are fairly straightforward. Michael Pickering, the senior repatriation advisor to the National Museum of Australia, lays out the context in that country, which parallels conditions elsewhere:
“Nearly all Ancestral Remains were collected unethically, through graverobbing, or other interference with the body that was illegal … at the time of collection … All human Ancestral Remains acquired without free and informed consent of the individuals concerned or of their families and descendants should be treated with respect. This includes the right of the deceased to be returned to families and to be part of respectful mortuary ceremonies.”
Many high-profile returns of human remains have focused on the necessity of treating the dead with respect—an approach that rarely includes holding, much less displaying, their bodies in museums.“Repatriation is not capable of reaching into the past and righting history’s wrongs, but it can contribute to improving mental health on individual and group scales…”
In some ways, such returns are optimistic. Russell Thornton suggests that return itself can help to heal social and cultural trauma.16Thornton, “Repatriation and Trauma.” Repatriation is not capable of reaching into the past and righting history’s wrongs, but it can contribute to improving mental health on individual and group scales, Thornton argues.17Thornton, “Repatriation and Trauma.” Repatriation also indicates a shift in the structures that enabled such violence. It makes a statement that collecting human remains while being heedless of the effect of such collection on living communities and ignoring the right of the dead to be treated with respect as their culture dictates will no longer be tolerated. It also symbolizes an attempt to put an end to some forms of the power imbalances of colonialism and to cease using the museum to participate in empire, as Rassool argues.18Rassool, “Re-storing the Skeletons of Empire.”
But the act of return remains a complicated one, freighted with meaning and emotion. To repatriate the Pienaars to South Africa required locating their relatives, finding an appropriate reburial location, and “negotiat[ing] the combination of national features and local Khoisan community dimensions of the return and reburial processes.”19Rassool, “Re-storing the Skeletons of Empire,” 655. When Germany returned to Namibia the skulls of Herero and Nama people killed in colonial war and genocide, the undertaking opened up intense political debate and social conflict. Namibian representatives were dissatisfied with Germany’s failure to treat the handover at a high governmental level; upon return, there was no agreement about whether the bones should be buried or displayed, and at what location.20Larissa Förster, “These Skulls Are Not Enough” – The Repatriation of Namibian Human Remains from Berlin to Windhoek in 2011,” darkmatter 11 (2013). Controversy erupted over who was appropriately situated to make these decisions—to the point that, Vilko Amukwaya Shigwedha of the University of Namibia writes, “it can be argued that the repatriation of the skulls from Germany seeks to open old wounds rather than heal them.”21Vilko Amukwaya Shigwedha, “The Return of Herero and Nama Bones from Germany: The Victims’ Struggle for Recognition and Recurring Genocide Memories in Namibia” in Human Remains in Society: Curation and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Genocide and Mass-Violence, ed. Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Élisabeth Gessat-Anstett (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 211. There are limits to how many wrongs repatriation can right.
To where are remains repatriated?
To return Czekanowski’s collection, teams of researchers have been working in both Europe and Africa. Both German and Rwandan museum professionals and scholars have collaborated on research into the skulls taken from Rwanda. In this project, they have investigated the archival material left by Czekanowski and others, the collective memory and oral histories of Rwandans about the colonial period, the history of scientific research involving the skulls, and the opinion of Rwandans themselves about how the skulls should be treated.22See Teßmann and Kowalak, “Die Schädel von der Toteninsel Musila.” This essay is also based on my interviews (2019–2021) with Rwanda and German researchers involved in the project. Because of the pandemic and the many considerations involved in repatriation, the bones have not yet returned to Rwanda. However, the findings of the research project are forthcoming in Bernhard Heeb and Charles Mulinda Kabwete, eds., Human Remains from the Former German Colony of East Africa: Recontextualization and Approaches for Restitution (Berlin: Böhlau, 2022). The end goal, those involved agreed, was to return the skulls to their home. But the home they left is no longer there.
When Czekanowski took them, the skulls belonged to people who were embedded in communities, had loved ones who cared for them, and lived in a cultural context that dictated certain rituals of death. Rwandans today are buried in cemeteries, a fact reflective of decades of Christian missionization in the country that ended traditional practices of exposure, although some of the deceased had also been buried at home. The dead of the S Collection would have largely expected their bodies to be placed in marshes, forests, hillsides, or caves; but Rwanda’s transformation in the last century has changed the practices of respect for the dead.23Annalisa Bolin, “Dignity in Death and Life: Negotiating Agaciro for the Nation in Preservation Practice at Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda,” Anthropological Quarterly 92, no. 2 (2019): 345–374. Any treatment of the dead with respect is a delicate dance between what the dead may have wanted then and what the living do today.“In some ways repatriation is for the dead, but in others it is for the living.”
Repatriation, if it makes anything right, can only do so haltingly and in part. The bodies of the Pienaars could not be un-macerated or their knees knit back together; the skulls of those subject to German rule in East Africa can return, but what they have undergone cannot be erased. In some ways repatriation is for the dead, but in others, it is for the living. The return of the skulls Czekanowski gathered symbolizes several things at once: the end of colonial rule over Rwandans; the transfer of power to Rwanda itself;24Annalisa Bolin, “The Strategic Internationalism of Rwandan Heritage,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 15, no. 3 2021): 485–504. a restoration of ancestors and relatives to their broader community. At the same time, the conflict in Namibia shows that repatriation is not a panacea for the wounds of the past. Instead, it is an opening for new possibilities—whether that means reconciliation of cultural trauma, contested responses that reveal fault lines within contemporary society, or all of the above.
Jan Czekanowski’s assignment responded to the European anthropological community’s imperative for research into humanity by using the bones and bodies of the dead. Germany’s colonies abroad provided a field in which Czekanowski, Luschan, and others thought researchers could find the raw material they needed for this investigation. The remains Czekanowski took from German East Africa were vulnerable not only because of their exposure, but because the structural violence of colonialism allowed the Mecklenburg Expedition to view them as appropriate objects of collection. The desires of the colonial scientific regime were understood to be more important than the needs of the communities who saw their relatives’ bodies packed up and taken away.
Czekanowski seems to have felt the unsettling undercurrent of his actions. On the “death island,” he and the soldiers who accompanied him were nervous. The lurking birds of prey as he rummaged among the dead seemed threatening, and as he packaged skulls and bones into boxes, he was overcome by fear.25See Teßmann and Kowalak, “Die Schädel von der Toteninsel Musila.” But, committed to his scientific project and confident in his right to undertake it, he didn’t let this fear stop him. It has taken more than a hundred years to begin to counteract, even partially, the violence Czekanowski both profited from and set in motion.
Banner photo: Government of South Africa/Flickr.