Home Art At Final, Colombia Calls for the Return of Its San Agustín Statues 

At Final, Colombia Calls for the Return of Its San Agustín Statues 


Throughout a discussion board about cultural heritage held in Bogotá in December 2022, a consultant for the Colombian Ministry of Overseas Affairs publicly declared that his nation was — lastly — requesting the return of 35 statues from the San Agustín tradition, at present within the collections of the Humboldt Discussion board in Berlin. This announcement, whereas producing hopes in Colombia, additionally raises many questions on the way forward for the statues and the very that means of the present wave of restitutions of cultural heritage artifacts to their place of birth.

How did these statues find yourself within the collections of the Humboldt Discussion board? Additionally: At a time when  Western museums are critically analyzing the historical past of their collections, German museums are returning the so-called Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, and even the British Museum is negotiating the potential return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, why are these statues nonetheless in Germany?

San Agustín funerary statues have generations of European vacationers and explorers since not less than the mid-Nineteenth century. In 1913, German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss carried out archaeological fieldwork in San Agustín and surrounding areas in southern Colombia. He took away 35 statues, which left Colombia solely after the tip of the First World Battle and arrived in Berlin in 1923. They have been by no means returned. On the time, a number of voices in Colombia expressed concern concerning the removing of the statues. In a letter to the director of the nationwide museum, the mayor of San Agustín questioned who had granted Preuss the authorization to take the statues (the landowner appears to have given his permission however nationwide authorities remained silent on the time). Within the Spanish translation of Preuss’s guide on San Agustín, printed in 1931, the translators added the next footnote: “In another a part of the world, not solely would the exportation of the unique statues have been prevented, however copies of the molds would have been requested.” Nevertheless, it is just greater than half a century later {that a} motion in favor of the return of the statues to Colombia actually took form.

Amongst these within the destiny of the statues is David Dellenback, a US-Colombian citizen and a resident of San Agustín. Dellenback visited the warehouses of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin (to be later absorbed into the Humboldt Discussion board) in 1992, the place he discovered among the statues nonetheless unwrapped. Over the next years, he wrote to Colombian authorities and to Hermann Parzinger, the present president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Basis — a physique that oversees the Humboldt Discussion board amongst some 27 museums, libraries, archives, and analysis establishments in Germany — asking for the return of the statues to San Agustín. He additionally garnered greater than 2,000 signatures amongst native residents in help of his trigger. Nevertheless, Dellenback confronted the indifference of Colombian nationwide authorities, which confirmed no real interest in combating for the return of the statues. He additionally acquired a letter from Parzinger, who wrote again in 2013 that “a foundation for downright repatriation does scarcely exist, given the lapse of time and the truth that the Columbian [sic] authorities has clearly identified concerning the sculptures’ whereabouts in Berlin with out having submitted any concrete declare for repatriation to the German authorities.” 

San Agustín statues on the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 1992 (picture by David Dellenback, used with permission)
San Agustín statue on the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 1992 (picture by David Dellenback, used with permission)

Current developments, nonetheless, recommend that the return of the statues might now be a extra sensible prospect than it appeared solely a few years in the past. In Germany, the controversy surrounding the opening of the Humboldt Discussion board, accused of retaining a largely imperialist and colonialist view of the world, has receded because the nation grew to become a frontrunner within the technique of returning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. The Bronzes within the Discussion board’s assortment are set to return to Nigeria over the following few years; these to stay in Germany will achieve this on long-term loans. Over the previous few years, the Discussion board has additionally agreed to return a number of artifacts to nations comparable to Cameroon and Namibia and to Native communities in North America, suggesting that the museum might reply favorably to a hypothetical declare from Colombia.

In Colombia, Dellenback and different residents of San Agustín — as we speak integrated as a veeduría (oversight committee) — sued the Colombian state in entrance of an administrative court docket for failing to defend the nationwide heritage. In 2017, earlier than the court docket may attain a verdict, entities of the manager department, together with the presidency, the ministries of tradition and overseas affairs, and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and Historical past (ICANH), agreed to enter into an settlement with the plaintiffs, committing to behave diligently in favor of the return of the statues. Since then, nonetheless, this settlement has remained with out impact by lack of political will underneath the administrations of former Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque. The 2022 election of Gustavo Petro, the primary left-wing president of the nation, represented a political earthquake that additionally appears to have had instant penalties on the nation’s coverage relating to the restitution of cultural heritage. As reaffirmed publicly throughout the December 2022 occasion in Botogá, Colombian diplomacy is at present negotiating the return of a number of high-profile cultural artifacts, such because the Quimbaya assortment held within the Museo de América (Museum of the Americas) in Madrid, in addition to Kogi masks and the San Agustín statues from Berlin.

Whereas welcomed by advocates of the restitution of the nation’s stolen or mishandled cultural heritage, these current developments increase extra questions than solutions.

On the one hand, Colombian authorities proceed to barter the return of the statues with out involving the civil society actors who initiated the declare. If it weren’t for the advocacy of  Dellenback and veeduría group, Colombia may need not requested for the statues in any respect. As precursors on this dispute and as residents of the fashionable city of San Agustín — which makes them stakeholders within the safekeeping of the statues — they need to be authentic dialogue companions for Colombian nationwide authorities, on this case the ICANH, which oversees archaeological heritage within the nation, and the ministry of overseas affairs. Nevertheless, the relations between native communities and authorities businesses such because the ICANH have been poor, to say the least, over the previous decade. For instance, in 2013, many in San Agustín opposed the non permanent removing of statues from the archaeological space to be proven in Bogotá, a call made with out consulting the local people. In late 2022, the ICANH organized a primary assembly with the members of the veeduría, however there’s little indication to date that this may occasionally result in a extra significant dialogue with the native actors. That civil society activists really feel missed by the authorities and resort to courts to be heard speaks poorly of the appropriate to public debate in Colombia. That’s a problem that resonates all through Latin America, a area the place the standard of democracy, as measured by the responsiveness of govt authorities to the calls for of civil society, is commonly put unsure.

Monolith within the archaeological park of San Agustín in 2013 (picture by Diego Martínez Celis, used with permission)

However, and in nice half due to the absence of dialogue with civil society actors, it’s unclear what the destiny of the statues will probably be upon their return to Colombia. Will among the statues stay in Germany, possibly on long-term mortgage just like the Benin Bronzes? In that case, who would resolve what number of, which of them, and for the way lengthy? The place would the returned statues go? An unlucky final result could be sending the sculptures to the gathering of a Bogotá museum. If that’s the route taken, they could find yourself in a warehouse reasonably than on show and shortly be forgotten once more, limiting the scientific, social, and cultural influence of their return. The instance of the Machu Picchu assortment, returned in 2011 to Peru solely to stay underneath the tight management of the identical curators who have been in cost at Yale College, looms massive on this case. However different choices are potential. 

For one, the veeduría proposes the development of a neighborhood museum within the up to date city of San Agustín that might welcome the statues upon their return. Serving as an academic and cultural middle, this new establishment would facilitate the re-signifying of the statues for — thus growing their influence on — the local people. It might function an alternative choice to the Archaeological Museum of San Agustín, positioned throughout the archaeological web site, however not available to the city’s residents (one of many obstacles is a $7 admission price). And why not invite the German half to take part within the building and administration of this new middle? This could signify a promising avenue for a way forward for extra equal collaboration amongst companions. Decolonizing heritage and museums — of which the return of cultural heritage is just one small step — doesn’t solely imply that previously colonized nations discover equal therapy and partnership with the previous colonizers and imperial powers (Germany was not, after all, a colonial energy in Latin America, however archaeology within the early twentieth century served the nation’s and different European and North American powers’ imperial ambitions). Decolonizing additionally requires that consultants and establishments formally answerable for the museums and heritage sector enable different, grassroots, Indigenous voices to have a say in how and for whom this heritage is being valued and guarded.

At a time when the decolonization of museums as establishments of data is among the many most mentioned matters within the museum world, the potential return of the San Agustín statues to Colombia represents a possibility to enhance on the current observe of returns by proposing a brand new mannequin of collaboration between the holding establishment, the nationwide authorities of the claiming nation, and native stakeholders. Can these actors maintain as much as these guarantees?


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