My Berlin Triptych: On Museums and Restitution

15 September, 2022


“The Renais­sance of Osiris” by Hanaa El-Degham, in Berlin Glob­al (cour­tesy Hanaa El-Degham).


Viola Shafik


Know­ing that a good deal of Berlin’s impe­r­i­al out­look had been trashed dur­ing World War II, the ques­tion that some peo­ple have con­tin­ued to won­der in recent months, since the Hum­boldt Forum took shel­ter behind the fake Baroque façades of the recon­struct­ed Berlin Palace, is whether and how this could inspire the pub­lic to take a clos­er look at Germany’s undi­gest­ed colo­nial past. Par­tic­u­lar­ly with the mov­ing of the ethno­graph­ic col­lec­tions from Dahlem to the new premis­es, par­al­lel­ing Berlin Glob­al — an exhi­bi­tion ded­i­cat­ed to the city, that tack­les among oth­ers rev­o­lu­tion (!) — the ques­tion became, was it was pos­si­ble to unmask that res­ur­rect­ed colo­nial bas­tion through crit­i­cal or even rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­ments and artis­tic con­tri­bu­tions? Or rather, did we need to con­tend that the bas­tion once again was repro­duc­ing its cul­tured mask by a con­tin­ued insis­tence on the unso­licit­ed stor­ing and “res­cu­ing” of oth­er people’s arts?

Of course, this may not be an either/or ques­tion. Instead, I choose to share my con­tem­pla­tions in a tri­fold man­ner, pro­ject­ing them onto three dif­fer­ent can­vas­es — a film, a paint­ing and a muse­um — to cre­ate a trip­tych, so to speak. This should also help me por­tray a city in which I’ve been based for two decades, a city that I came to know and have vis­it­ed numer­ous times since my ado­les­cence. I remem­ber it still as a wound­ed city, a dam­aged, incon­sis­tent cityscape, shrap­nel pierc­ing its walls, with gap­ing ravines in its streets, and gaps or holes where build­ings used to be hasti­ly recon­fig­ured into makeshift play­grounds. My birth year was the year when the first barbed wire and con­crete walls start­ed block­ing the East from the West.

For decades, the divid­ed city remained an island, and a place for alter­na­tive or even rev­o­lu­tion­ary cul­ture. I got my first Super 8 film screened in the late 1980s, in an under­ground film fes­ti­val in one of Berlin’s famous squat­ter hous­es. Lat­er this place became the Eiszeit Movie The­atre. It no longer exists. The city was a mag­net. It attract­ed me like many oth­er young adults born into West Germany’s eco­nom­ic won­der, who were sens­ing the tena­cious Fas­cist under­cur­rents of which I was even more afraid, due to my mixed, Ger­man Egypt­ian background.

I was too young to have tak­en part in Berlin’s famous stu­dent move­ment and to have shared life in the rad­i­cal­ized com­munes that found their safe haven in Berlin. My aware­ness had grown only so much to know that a police­man gunned down the stu­dent Ben­no Ohne­sorg dur­ing the 1967 anti-Shah demon­stra­tions, and that the move­ment was spear­head­ed by Rudi Dutschke, whom Ger­man Neo-Nazis con­spired to assas­si­nate in Berlin in 1968. He not only described the Viet­nam War as a colo­nial war but dreamt too explic­it­ly of estab­lish­ing a more egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety. To this move­ment and to the sub­se­quent events, but also to the pre­ced­ing famous Eich­mann Tri­al, we owe that the dis­sec­tion of Ger­man Fas­cism and its hor­rif­ic reper­cus­sions became part of our school cur­ricu­lum. Hence, we were taught, or, thought: Ger­man nation­al­ism?! Holo­caust?! Nev­er again!

Queen Tiye, film still from Jour­ney of a Queen (cour­tesy Vio­la Shafik).

In fact, in West Ger­many we were trained to cri­tique the nation­al­ist excess through the lens of anti­semitism, not though with a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism, colo­nial­ism or even racism. We did not study that the exter­mi­na­tion of the Euro­pean Jews had been pre­ced­ed by the Herero and Nama geno­cide in Namib­ia, for exam­ple, and the exter­mi­na­tion of oth­er indige­nous peo­ple in the Pacif­ic. I knew from school only that Ger­many had owned a few neg­li­gi­ble (!) colonies, such as Togo, Rwan­da and some west Pacif­ic islands, but that these had pro­duced con­cen­tra­tion camps and geno­cide? No!

The exter­mi­na­tion war against Namibia’s Hereros and Namas took place short­ly before WWI, from 1904 to 1908. It leaked into pub­lic aware­ness only in 2002, with offi­cial Namib­ian demands for resti­tu­tion. My first time to see and learn about the events in their full grav­i­ty was actu­al­ly in the cadre of a Berlin exhi­bi­tion in 2017. This lag­ging behind may explain the cru­cial short­com­ings of the cur­rent debate around the colonies’ plun­dered treasures.


The film

In 2002, I was doing research in Berlin for my doc­u­men­tary Jour­ney of a Queen (Arte TV, 2003), trac­ing the acqui­si­tion of a small ancient Egypt­ian wood­en bust rep­re­sent­ing Queen Teyi, Nefertiti’s moth­er-in-law and Akhenaten’s moth­er. The head was kept in the “Marstall,” pre­vi­ous­ly the sta­bles of Char­lot­ten­burg Palace. After WWII this place had become home to West Berlin’s Ancient Egypt­ian col­lec­tion. Dur­ing the war most of it (but not all!) had to be moved from its orig­i­nal place, the Neues Muse­um (New Muse­um) to dif­fer­ent hid­ing places.

Pruss­ian Lep­sius-Expe­di­tion to Egypt, 1842–45 (copy­right Stiftung Preussis­ch­er Kulturbesitz).

The Neues Muse­um, bombed to rub­ble in 1944, car­ried this name because it was more recent than the Perg­a­mon and the Bode Muse­um. In 1855, it opened its doors to specif­i­cal­ly dis­play Berlin’s grow­ing Ancient Egypt­ian col­lec­tion. Like Lon­don and Paris, the Pruss­ian cap­i­tal and since 1871 also seat of the Ger­man Kaiser or Emper­or was com­pet­ing for colonies and trea­sures. They put on dis­play their most splen­did col­lec­tions in huge mon­u­men­tal con­struc­tions, meant to pro­mote the respec­tive colo­nial pow­ers and their rulers. The Neues Muse­um laud­ed and mir­rored Ancient Egypt­ian mon­u­ments with its inte­ri­ors shaped exact­ly like an Egypt­ian temple.

Kaiser Wil­helm II (ruled 1888–1918), whose coun­try had missed out on exten­sive colonies — or so the elites thought — was eager at least to com­pete through tech­nol­o­gy in coop­er­at­ing on the Berlin-Bagh­dad rail­way and through arche­o­log­i­cal exca­va­tions in Pales­tine and Egypt. In his endeav­ors, the emper­or was assist­ed finan­cial­ly by a group of Jew­ish busi­ness­men, among whom one of the best known was James Simon, whose wealth stemmed from cot­ton fab­ri­ca­tion. He financed antique acqui­si­tions or even entire arche­o­log­i­cal expe­di­tions, like the one which brought the icon­ic bust of Nefer­ti­ti to Berlin.

I start­ed get­ting famil­iar with these details because in 2002 — at a time when the Egypt­ian queen was still emblem­at­ic for Berlin with her face adver­tised every­where on posters across the city, while the head of the Egypt­ian antiq­ui­ty admin­is­tra­tion, Zahi Hawwas, was loud­ly demand­ing her return — I began what they would call today a prove­nance study, research­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of anoth­er like­wise roy­al sculp­ture on dis­play in Berlin. The wood­en bust of Queen Tiye that I chose for the film rep­re­sents in fact Akhenaten’s moth­er and Nefertiti’s moth­er-in-law. It is a tiny object that still is mind-blow­ing in its grandeur and finesse. One of its pecu­liar­i­ties are the elab­o­rate ear­rings that come forth beneath the braid­ed hair-dress. The sculp­ture had attract­ed my atten­tion already in 1997 at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um New York, in a show ded­i­cat­ed to the roy­al women of the Amar­na period.

What trig­gered my research was the fact that the sculp­ture had changed over time. In 1997, it appeared dec­o­rat­ed with a roy­al feath­er crown that was miss­ing before. More­over, the muse­um boast­ed with com­put­er x‑rays that showed that the orig­i­nal hair­do had been cov­ered and altered most prob­a­bly at the time when the Amun priests had returned to pow­er and Akhenaten’s moth­er returned from Amar­na to Thebes (Lux­or). Inter­view­ing the museum’s direc­tor and an opposed crit­i­cal Egyp­tol­o­gist, I found that the feath­er crown was actu­al­ly a con­tro­ver­sial mat­ter: it was a coup good for pro­mo­tion but the museum’s restau­ra­teurs had no hand in it. The feath­er crown had been found acci­den­tal­ly in the museum’s stor­age rooms and the direc­tor con­sid­ered it a match for the sculpture.

The Egypt­ian Hall of the Neues Muse­um, (copy­right Stiftung Preussis­ch­er Kulturbesitz).

Div­ing deep­er into the mat­ter, I made some dis­turb­ing dis­cov­er­ies. Lud­wig Bor­chardt, an archi­tect turned arche­ol­o­gist who had also brought Nefer­ti­ti to Berlin, acquired Tiye from an antiq­ui­ty deal­er on behalf of James Simon. At the same time he claimed that the head was found in a “Kohlekeller” (coal cel­lar), typ­i­cal for Berlin where coal served for heat­ing in win­ter­time but it is def­i­nite­ly noth­ing we know from Egypt and Fayum, where the item sup­pos­ed­ly came from. In James Simon’s house, the bust was stand­ing around for some­thing like two decades and was on one occa­sion dropped by a vis­i­tor of the house. But this was not the only haz­ard. Before deliv­ery, Bor­chardt had scratched off parts of the hair­do and made vis­i­ble one of the ear­rings. He also drilled a small hole in the back­side of the head to see what’s beneath. I had not expect­ed this to be the tra­jec­to­ry of the piece, and I have to admit, it shook for the first time my firm belief that the

West rep­re­sent­ed the bet­ter home for the arte­facts of the “under­de­vel­oped” glob­al South.

All in all, the sto­ry of the queen’s jour­ney felt like a sto­ry of dis­place­ment. I chose to start the film with a song. I asked the won­der­ful Ukrain­ian singer Lud­mi­la Krup­s­ka, who had left her home­land to offer her chil­dren a bet­ter future, to per­form a nos­tal­gic song in the Berlin sub­way, as we see so many musi­cians still do today to make a liv­ing. At the same time, I tried to give the sculp­ture a voice by recit­ing words from the Book of the Dead on her behalf. For I knew that Ancient Egypt­ian pic­tures and sculp­tures were not designed as real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions, but rather as mag­ic objects which were believed to expert pow­er, just like a spo­ken spell would do.


The museum 

In my film I made it also clear that the museum’s role had changed over time, from impe­r­i­al sta­tus sym­bol towards a sub­si­dized mer­can­tile enter­prise, to be pro­mot­ed by spec­tac­u­lar acts and find­ings. And the sto­ry went on, of course. In 2009, Queen Tiye had to leave its home again when the entire Ancient Egypt­ian col­lec­tion moved back to the mean­while restored Neues Muse­um. Under­stand­ably, the latter’s restora­tion did not cre­ate the same fuss as did the Berlin Palace, which in part dates back to the 15th cen­tu­ry. Bombed dur­ing the war, the GDR decid­ed on its total demol­ish­ing in 1950 and erect­ed on its site the Palace of the Repub­lic. The lat­ter, with its all glassed mod­ernist con­struc­tion, advanced into an impor­tant show­piece of social­ist GDR archi­tec­ture. After uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990, this in turn was torn down which made the deci­sion to rebuild the roy­al palace seem to car­ry a quite con­ser­v­a­tive note, or so it seemed to me.

The destroyed Neues Muse­um (copy­right Stiftung Preussis­ch­er Kulturbesitz).

Anoth­er impor­tant mat­ter that increas­ing­ly inflamed the tem­pers was the ques­tion of prove­nance and resti­tu­tion with regards to the trea­sures kept at the Hum­boldt Forum and meant to be dis­played in the palace. These mat­ters had still not made it to the sur­face when my film came out in 2003. Plus, for the case I chose the con­nec­tion to colo­nial plun­der did not seem as overt, as for exam­ple in the case of the giant boat from Luf Island (Papua New Guinea), so metic­u­lous­ly inves­ti­gat­ed by Götz Aly, the Ger­man his­to­ri­an and jour­nal­ist. When the boat was tak­en away, not enough native islanders had sur­vived Germany’s so-called puni­tive expe­di­tions (Straf­ex­pe­di­tion) to nav­i­gate it. Anoth­er promi­nent exam­ple was the rob­bery of the roy­al Benin bronzes, whose details were made pub­lic by the French his­to­ri­an Béné­dicte Savoy. These show­pieces of the Berlin col­lec­tion had actu­al­ly been loot­ed by British troops in 1897 after set­ting the roy­al Oba palace in Benin (Nige­ria) on fire and scat­tered around West­ern capitals.

Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Savoy, the Stiftung Preussis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz which runs the Hum­boldt Forum showed lit­tle capa­bil­i­ty in address­ing these ques­tions. Being a mem­ber of the Forum’s expert com­mit­tee, she resigned in 2017, attest­ing to the Stiftung’s “total scle­ro­sis.” She also com­pared the planned Palace muse­um to Tch­er­nobyl, an ill-fat­ed reac­tor clocked in con­crete. Luck­i­ly, her protest was not in vain: Ger­many agreed to return the bronzes to Nige­ria — or at least declare them Niger­ian prop­er­ty (as of this writ­ing, only two pieces of some one thou­sand have been returned). Also, the Forum estab­lished four posi­tions for prove­nance studies.

An Egypt­ian stat­ue in the rub­ble of the Neues Muse­um (copy­right Stiftung Preussis­ch­er Kulturbesitz).

Notwith­stand­ing, a walk through the “eth­no­log­i­cal” exhi­bi­tion after the museum’s open­ing in 2021 had not lost the char­ac­ter of an “impe­r­i­al tro­phy col­lec­tion” (Götz Aly). My impres­sion, too, was that despite or pre­cise­ly because of the infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed on Ger­man mil­i­tary actions and intru­sion, the col­lec­tion emanat­ed an over­whelm­ing sense of vio­lence and dis­place­ment, plus a gen­er­al lack of pre­cise infor­ma­tion about the use and cul­tur­al or cul­tic con­text. The obvi­ous loss of dig­ni­ty these objects suf­fered because of that was shocking. 


The paint­ing

One floor beneath the African and Microne­sian col­lec­tion, the Hum­boldt Forum chose to present the inter­ac­tive Berlin Glob­al exhi­bi­tion that starts right at its entry with a sec­tion on rev­o­lu­tion. I am not sure why this spe­cif­ic top­ic was cho­sen to rep­re­sent Berlin. A mali­cious guess could be the white­wash­ing of the dis­ap­pear­ance of the Palace of the Repub­lic? Or a lauda­to­ry ges­ture to Germany’s uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990, com­mon­ly referred to as peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion. For some­one who has expe­ri­enced the 2011 Egypt­ian upris­ing, this notion may seem uncon­ven­tion­al, but in the end, notions are always debat­able. Be it as it is, Egypt­ian fine artist Hanaa El-Degham, a good friend, was asked to con­tribute an art work to this exhi­bi­tion. Dur­ing the Egypt­ian protests she had made a name for her­self as a mural­ist, and so she was expect­ed to con­tribute some­thing along these lines. Giv­ing her con­sent to par­tic­i­pate, how­ev­er, in the cadre of the gen­er­al con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the Hum­boldt Forum was not an easy decision. 

When she final­ly agreed, Hanaa was crit­i­cized by those who opposed the Forum. I remained hes­i­tant. As cer­tain as I was of my friend’s moti­va­tion to hold on to the con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion and to express her uneasi­ness with the Forum’s colo­nial trea­sury, I knew in the­o­ry how dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble such an enter­prise could be. March­ing through the insti­tu­tions had already been writ­ten on the ban­ners of Rudi Dutschke’s move­ment and its sym­pa­thiz­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary artists. Hadn’t their mes­sages been so eas­i­ly absorbed by con­sumer cul­ture and the arts mar­ket, with bla­tant crit­i­cism and anti-bour­geois sen­ti­ment becom­ing almost com­pul­so­ry for good sales, as art his­to­ri­an Wal­ter Grasskamp has so poignant­ly described in his book Der lange Marsch durch die Illu­sio­nen (The Long March Through the Illu­sions)?

Against all odds, my friend came up with a great idea: she invit­ed scores of peo­ple, col­leagues and friends, to scrib­ble or draw on the can­vas. A huge vari­ety of con­cerns came togeth­er, from glob­al injus­tice to the ques­tion of Pales­tine, dis­place­ment, migra­tion, the refugee cri­sis, up to racism and white suprema­cy. As for my con­tri­bu­tion, my first thought was to dis­cuss Gilles Deleuze’s warn­ing of insti­tu­tion­al­ized rev­o­lu­tion in coin­ing instead a con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion as some­thing eter­nal­ly in the mak­ing — devenir-révo­lu­tion­naire/be­com­ing-rev­o­lu­tion­ary. And indeed, Hanaa allowed me to design a sten­cil like the ones which had filled the streets of Cairo dur­ing the upris­ing, using the spir­i­tu­al sign of the ser­pent that bites its own tail with Deleuze’s sen­tence on top.

Artist Hanaa El-Degham at work on “The Renais­sance of Osiris,” Berlin Glob­al (cour­tesy Hanaa El-Degham).

With this sort of self-cre­at­ed found mate­r­i­al at hands Hanaa’s mural/painting The Renais­sance of Osiris start­ed to take shape. In the process, she devel­oped a col­lage com­posed of her own visu­al reper­to­ry and that of oth­ers. Draw­ing from her per­son­al mem­o­ries, from her stud­ies of Ancient Egypt­ian arts, Islam­ic archi­tec­ture, up to the visu­al reper­to­ry of Berlin and its his­to­ry, the WWII refugees, East Euro­pean migra­tion, rub­ber boats in the Mediter­ranean, and the like, she start­ed to devel­op a huge frag­ment­ed mur­al. As for the sten­cil, I was lat­er sur­prised to see that she had re-inter­pret­ed it as a throne for seat­ing the God Osiris, the deity of res­ur­rec­tion and renew­al. In fact, the whole paint­ing was designed like a move­ment of res­ur­rec­tion. Slow­ly leav­ing the above described sta­t­ic cab­i­net of hor­rors on the left side of the can­vas the depic­tion moves toward a more dynam­ic final moment on the right side: three som­er­sault­ing boys give way to a lit­tle girl (akin to an alter ego of the artist) is seen swing­ing an ancient map of the Nile Val­ley on a boat-like swing typ­i­cal for Egypt­ian Saint Feasts, thus swing­ing slow­ly but sure­ly towards the bor­ders of the canvas.

Jump, lit­tle one! Jump out of the frame, out of the muse­um…! Or maybe not! That moment of the girl’s lin­ger­ing, being ready but not hav­ing bro­ken free yet, in that I find, Hanaa has suc­ceed­ed, or so my pro­jec­tion at least, in express­ing regard­less the con­fine­ments of an old pow­er­ful insti­tu­tion marked by cen­turies of war­fare and exploita­tion and hos­tile to any rev­o­lu­tion­ary change a state of “becom­ing-rev­o­lu­tion­ary.”


Ancient EgyptBerlincolonialismdisplacementEgyptGermanymuseumrestitutionrevolution

Viola Shafik is a filmmaker, curator and film scholar. She is the author of Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity1998/2016 (AUC Press), Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation (AUC Press 2007), Resistance, Dissidence, Revolution: Documentary Film Aesthetics in the Middle East and North Africa (forthcoming from Routledge, 2023) and the editor of Documentary Filmmaking in the Middle East and North Africa (AUC Press 2022). She has taught at the American University in Cairo, Zurich University, Humboldt University and Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich where she held the position of a researcher 2016-2020. She served as the Head of Studies of the Documentary Campus MENA Program 2011-2013, curator and consultant for numerous international film festivals and film funds, such as La Biennale di Venezia, the Berlinale, Dubai Film Market, Rawi Screen Writers Lab, Torino Film Lab and the World Cinema Fund. She directed several documentaries, among others The Lemon Tree/Shajarat al-laymun (1993), Planting of Girls/Mawsim zaraa al-banat (1999), Jannat `Ali-Ali im Paradies/My Name is not Ali (2011) and Arij - Scent of Revolution (2014). Current works in progress are Home Movie on Location and Der Gott in Stücken. Viola Shafik is the guest editor of TMR's BERLIN issue.


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[…] in the Berlin Bien­nale, and reviews mat­ters of colo­nial­ism and resti­tu­tion in her essay My Berlin Trip­tych: On Muse­ums and Resti­tu­tion. She also inter­views Ziad Kalthoum in Tra­jec­to­ry of a Syr­i­an Film­mak­er and […]