“…land or area where an umbilical cord of a person is cut off and buried … In the Herero culture, when a baby is born and the umbilical cord falls off, they bury (it), and where it is buried (that is) your ancestral land”. – Tjavindikua Zatjiinda, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Claims of Ancestral Land Rights and Restitution, July 2020

“Objects of cultural heritage can also lead to redefining and redesigning territorialities thus inscribing themselves within geographies that exceed a national framework”. – Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Towards a new relational ethics, November 2018

In May 2022, 23 ancestral inheritances (out of 1400) were returned on permanent loan from the Berlin Ethnological Museum to the National Museum of Namibia. The returns are part of a longer term project between the National Museum of Namibia, Museums Association of Namibia, and Berlin Ethnological Museum/Humboldt Forum. These processes set in motion debates on coloniality, proprietorship, collective memory, and future spaces for heritage activation.

Our research focuses on the discursive, and knowledge framework of restitution processes between Namibia and Germany. While giving breadth to the trajectory of coloniality in heritage institutions, the project re-centres practices which relate ancestral inheritances to their wider memorial landscape. The epigraphs above evoke a relationality between ourselves, that which we fashion with our hands, and our ecology. Yet once mobilised, and/or, in the context of museums, despoiled, ‘objects’ circulate within multiple orbits, and have temporal accretions in space, thereby creating diverse forms of resonance and place-making.

Drawing on the processes of commemoration in Namibia, and the returns of despoiled human bodies, and ancestral inheritances to the region in the last decade, we foreground the wider repercussions of restitution. Restitution that is inextricably linked to restorative processes which encompass the everyday and memorial practices in/on land, as both a material and symbolic geography of contestation and regeneration.



Meeting one of the dolls in the Namibia collection of the Berlin Ethnological Museum before her return to Windhoek, May 2022.
Photo credits: Robert Machiri