The focus of this two-day activation is the manner in which so-called human remains have been (man)handled. In the context of the on-going debate surrounding the restitution and repatriation of human remains from anthropological collections attached to medical faculties, this term denotes that which physically remains of the deceased following death after a legally determined timespan. This inherently implies issues such as the universal notion of respect for peace in death and for the dead, and an ethical response to the history of scientific racism and its crimes.
In 2011 and 2014, a total of 55 skulls and skeletons, which both in legal and cultural terms had been understood as human remains and thus retained their erstwhile status of object, were removed from the collection at Charité in Berlin and returned to Namibia, from where they were forcefully stolen at the turn of the 20th century. This repatriation of human remains is due to be taken up again in Cape Town and activated in the course of a process of “becoming human”.
At the public handover ceremony in 2011 in Berlin two of the skulls could be viewed beneath a plexi-glass cover, while the remainder were packed in cardboard boxes. Straddling the threshold between scientific material and individual remains – or a corpse, the racist- and colonially-driven scientific praxis was manifestly de-codeable. The labels attached to the skulls and serrations caused by a saw – evidently proof of their objectification and invasive procedures – had become conspicuously visible “in the material”. Inherent to the actual display of the “handover” on the premises at Charité – Berlin’s oldest medical school – were the genocide perpetrated by the German Empire during the colonial period as well as the present-day debates surrounding the issue.
Wrested from this scientific context, these (erstwhile) objects exhibit an almost scarily uncontrollable indeterminacy and openness in terms of time and space, which we refer to as an “activation”. They made an impact. They were at once objects and yet subjects of mourning and remembrance. They were at once functionaries of local and/or national interests and likewise agents in their own right. While not individually identified, they had once again become scientific objects, this time round in the domain of provenance research. Through their very presence, the specifically established Charité Human Remains Project was in the position to substantiate the nature of their violent appropriation and provenance, including those taken from the Shark Island Concentration Camp (in today’s Namibia), as well as the racist research undertaken by German institutes. Many of the spectators from Namibia and Germany attending the official handover ceremony deemed the skulls as a matter of shame, and, in the true sense of the term, bones of contention; they collectively demanded the recognition of the genocide perpetrated and an apology from the German state.
Deputy Minister Cornelia Pieper – an invited guest and sole government member present – immediately left the proceedings after her speech. In wake of the handover, there was a strikingly critical coverage in the press as well as a brief parliamentary inquiry with respect to the manner in which the federal German government responded to the issue.
We would like to address over the course of the two-day meeting in Cape Town the herein described activation, as well as its affiliated specific and rare convulsion of scientific, cultural and emotional certainties and to grasp it as a multi-perspective negotiation, at whose culmination should ensue not so much the resolution in a (necessary) regulation or in an art-work, but rather in the multi-layered narrative of this complex situation. (Artefakte//aktivierung)