Young artists fight for a cultural restitution

A talk with Pablo Santacana, a student of University of the Arts and a member of the working group “Decolonize M21”, about the restitution of Latin American cultural heritage from European museums.

decolonize M21
graphic: Pablo Santacana

The working group “Decolonize M21” consists of students of the master’s program “Art in Context” at the Berlin University of the Arts. The joint work of the students began in 2018 as part of the project “Intervention M21: Am Humboldtstrom – Collecting in the 19th Century” between the Berlin University of Art and the State Museums of Berlin, under the direction of artist and teacher Kristina Leko.

The project is dedicated to the content and contextualisation of Module 21, an exhibition module of the Humboldt Forum, which shows archaeological objects from Peru. There are five art works included: “Humboldt Huaca”, “Museum nullius”, “Der Sammler”, “Tace, ora et labora”, “Das (de)koloniale Glossar”.

Today I want to talk with one of the project members, my classmate and friend, Pablo Santacana, who together  with my colleges is fighting for the decolonization of European museums. 

Humboldt Forum is one of the biggest culture projects in Germany. There were a lot of talks about it in the last 15 years. The main concerns are about the colonial heritage which will be presented in a reconstructed Berlin imperial city palace. You are clearly against it in your projects. But you still exhibit your works in this institution. How do you deal with it as artists?

It is difficult to confront an institution, when you need to do it with their resources. We always try to stay critical. We need to  withstand the pressure and explain to everyone why the institution that we criticize is hosting us. We decided to take this opportunity to raise critical questions instead of only refusing to participate. We are aware this is a sensible and polemic positioning,  And of course, many important partners, such as NoHumbold21, simply refused to work with us because of that.

So you decided to start a second parallel project?

Humboldthuaca Ritual, Museum Insel, 31. October 2019
Daniela Zambrano Almidón,
Pablo Santacana
Photo: Liu Choi
More info:

Right. We decided to split up the platforms. These are two different projects which address the same topic from two different perspectives. First is that we are, as artists, producing our perspective (5 art works) to the topic and showing it at the Humboldt Forum. And another – we as activists coordinate an independent platform “Devuelve, Pe!” ( Give it back, Pe!) where people can talk about restitution. The project is focused on the restitution of one specific object – the mummy “Mallki” of Chuquitanta. This mummy is not only human remains, but also has a spiritual meaning, so its return is extremely important for the community it comes from in the outskirts of Lima, in Chuquitanta. This community is about to open its museum and they are ready to accept the object. 

I see, now there are two platforms, with one goal, but different perspectives. What exactly do you want to prove or change with your project? 

Now you’ll hear a lot of answers, you can choose which one you like best. (laughing) 

Aus Vorräte und Restitution,
Natalia Rodríguez Ramírez
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First of all, we want reparation. We want museums to give voice to the communities and provide them the opportunity to speak and influence the process of museum making in a structural way. And that means that in some cases, cultural heritage must return to their homeland. This means that the concept of knowledge in museums has to be changed. Maybe interest from museums should shift from collection objects to the communities fighting for the maintenance of their living culture, who are still nowadays suffering from colonial oppression.

Decolonization topics are reaching now many museums in Europe. Did you notice any changes in the concept of museums last years?

No. There’s a lot of talk about the theme, it’s true, but structurally nothing changes. 

Here are some simple examples. Take the history of the Humboldt Forum itself. It’s an imperial castle where european countries splited Africa into colonies during the Congo conference 500 years ago. For me, just an idea of rebuilding it, is a pure symbol of colonial perpetuation. 

Der Sammler,
Beatriz Rodríguez Flores
in cooperation with Lorena Méndez Arieta
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Another example is the golden Orthodox cross, which was recently placed on the top of the dome of Humboldt Forum. You open an ethnographic museum where you talk about diversity and inclusivity of cultures. And you complete the museum with a  golden cross, simbol of the violent oppression made by the christian church in the past to such cultures. You even decorate it with a sentence from the bible literally saying “ at the name of Jesus every knee should bow“. It is so clear that you are not rethinking anything. 

Last example. In september they organized a very interesting discussion whose title was: “To whom does culture belong”. The main idea they wanted to communicate is that culture is something universal. If it is something universal, it is the same then if it is in Peru, or in Berlin. From my point of view, yes we are equal as a people, but societies and economies are absolutely not equal, and so it is also the benefit that each community is gaining from exhibiting and trading  with such cultures.

Do you think european countries are afraid of empty museums?

Of course they’re scared. After all, cultural heritage is for the global north not only financial capital, but also status. The status of a high culture with the possibility of scientific research on lower ones. 

Tace, ora et labora, 
Helga Elsner Torres
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But what will happen to the objekts after restitution? Is it safe for them?

You know, I’ll tell you an interesting story about a small salted statue that was returned from Switzerland  to its homeland in Bolivia. When it came back to La Paz, people celebrated its return with a parade where the statue toured the streets of the city.  The museum in Berna started to complain about triggering the conservation of the statue with such celebrations. But for the communities this was not only an object whose materiality needed to be conserved, it was also a sacred divinity, a living believe that needs to be practiced and empowered. Even if we should acknowledge that the statue went back to a museum in perfect conditions after the parade, this kind of cultural practices should make is rethink about western concepts of conservation and knowledge.

Going back to your artworks, what is the plan? Where can we see it?

Quelle: Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem (object from the collection)

When Humboldt Forum will finally open, our projects will be probably presented on a screen in the exhibition space of Module 21. We also plan to have exhibitions  in Lima and Peru, then hopefully  the exhibition will come back in Berlin in 2022. Corona is affecting also our plans, so we are now recalculating everything. To document the process we are preparing a Hand Book, which will be ready in the end of the summer. It will be a book, which explains all our artistic process during the last two years. 

You folks did a great projekt, I am very excited to see it live. My last question to you is more personal. How do you feel after two years of working on one topic so hard? 

For all of us the project was not only artistic, but also a personal process. We already worked with colonial heritage before, but this project took us very deep to the topic. We learned a lot. We are now much more aware about colonial structures and racism, what does it mean and how it is presented in our daily lives. 

For me, as a european spanish person, it was very important to understand my position inside the project. And I came to the conclusion that my role would be to amplify others’ voices that  need  to be louder.

Das (de)koloniale Glossar,
Aliza Yanes,
Santiago Calderón
More info:

During this period a lot of things happened, also in  Latin America, from Ecuador, Bolivia to Amazonas. Now Corona is hitting Peru and Colombia very hard, and it is further stressing the struggles of the world”s most marginalised groups. This changed also our perspective a lot. We always need to reformulate our thoughts when something new is happening in the world. And we know this project will not end now. When working with such issues, you can’t do it in one or two years, this process will accompany you forever. It is exhausting, but very exciting.