Is There a Bright Future for European Museums’ Restitution of African Artifacts?

October 10, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic crawling around the globe, the Northern hemisphere saw unprecedented racial tension growing in the aftermath of the ongoing violence and killings of Black people in the United States. The wave of discontent also caught the United Kingdom where racism exploded with Brexit. In both environments, people of color, but also all the others willing to defy the horrific hatred, stood up to confront centuries-old colonial heritage and the systematic exclusion based on the notion of race.

The implications of colonialism are so far-reaching that globalism and the free market logic as a dominating tendency could be interpreted as its extension. One of the most debated issues in the art field in the last couple of years related to colonialism (but also to globalism - e.g. the concept of world heritage) is the restitution of African art and cultural heritage.

Plenty of artifacts found in the collections of numerous Western museums are actual prey of the former colonies and their conquests, military and scientific expeditions or confiscation conducted without any legal consent. Convinced that the ancestral altars, sacred objects, statues, thrones, manuscripts, and other artifacts of various African communities belong to them, these museums seem to perpetuate the racism at its best - by nurturing white supremacy, the phenomenon to be explored more further in the text.

The Sarr-Savoy Report

The move that pushed the debate happened in 2017 when the current French President Emmanuel Macron visited several African countries and gave a speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso regarding the restitution, one of the most fragile cultural topics in France.

Namely, Macron stated that the state will conduct the temporary or permanent restitution of African cultural heritage during the course of five years. For a moment, the statement was considered as a politically correct gesture until the president commissioned a one of a kind report from researchers Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr to articulate the return of thousands of artworks. Known as the Sarr-Savoy Report, it was published in late 2018, and shortly after Macron announced that restitution requests by Benin in 2016 would be upheld with the return of twenty-six artworks that have been in France since the colonial period.

However, the Report faced serious criticism both in the local and international context. Locally, the fearful assumption was that restitution would cause the modification of the French Code of Heritage and therefore endanger the five-hundred-year-old principle of protecting its public domain. At stake there would be the inalienability rule originally imposed to protect the property of the French monarchs. Although it was temporarily withdrawn amid the French Revolution, it was reinstated in the 19th century, and is still applicable today, preventing individuals or foreign factors from claiming possession of public goods.

The Sarr-Savoy Report critically approached this law and underlined it refers only to the protection of national property meaning that the African artifacts never belonged to France and therefore are not to be treated as national heritage. 

Cover of Restituer le patrimoine africain, a book written by Benedicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr

The Colonial Fears

The artifacts mostly originating from sub-Saharan countries found in the national collections at the Louvre Museum, Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, or Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, were used for the sensational colonial exhibitions that eventually increased the country’s economy. Needless to mention that the American museums generate 50 billion dollars every year, while Europe’s cultural and creative industries earn around 509 billion euros each year.

To obtain their economies and their symbolic dominance, European governments expressed another fear by posing questions if returned would the African artifacts be maintained accordingly and what would remains of their own collections. This kind of an egoistic perspective was questioned within the Report as Sarr and Savoy, which urged for transparency when it comes to determining the origin of the artifact - whether it was stolen, acquired, and bought during the colonial era - as well as for balance between both continent’s possessions in regards to enhancing their political and cultural relations.

At this point, France is heading somewhere with the restitution, while the UK, the USA, and other Western countries and their museums, are not engaging themselves at all. The best example is the British Museum, which holds around 73,000 African artifacts and which apparently has no intention to bring them back to where they belong as it shares its collection around the world. A similar case is with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (the very title unravels the problematic context) in Brussels which hasn’t reinstated any artifacts back to Rwanda and Congo or Rwanda, two countries Belgium colonized. 

Interior of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. Image by Lionel Allorge via Wikimedia Commons

The Matter of Looted Artworks - Will European Museums Restitute African artifacts?

Over five hundred museums span across the African continent and their voices are still to be heard, but most likely they are no different then the request imposed by the Museum of Black Civilizations (MCN) opened in Dakar, Senegal, in 2018 which archives the history of the Black world and therefore urges for the return of African artifacts held in Western museums. In addition to this demand is the fact that up to 90 percent of the cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa is held outside the continent.

Although Macron is the first Western President to approach publicly the painful issue and broaden the French cultural policy unlike other country leaders, his strategy remains under scrutiny over the ongoing discontent of people in this country and the yellow-jacket movements. The attempt to make his move civilized and full of understanding for the centuries of the suffering of Africans must be a gesture driven by a new, nicely disguised profitable considerations.

Numerous media underline that the further development regarding restitution depends on the willingness of African countries to cooperate and claim their possessions as they easily forget the other side of these processes when it comes to European soil and the outrages looting committed by the Nazis that happened from the late 1930s until the end of WW II.

This comparison may seem harsh to some, but it indicates the same and before mentioned white supremacist logic according to which all the other races are less worthy, inferior, and allegeable for exploitation.

Therefore, the restitution should not be just a legal act of returning the stolen artifacts, but an act of reconciliation and recuperation of the previous damage done. The legitimate owners should be entitled to use those objects to reclaim their histories, their voices, and re-integrate them into their communities, and cultures to build a stabile new cultural policies and both internal and external relationships.

Featured image: Statues of the royal palace of Abomey (quai Branly museum - Jacques Chirac, Paris). Left: Royal anthropo-zoomorphic statue (lion's head) evoking the reign of King Glélé (King of Dahomey 1858-1889) / Center: anthropomorphic statue previously representing King Ghézo (King of Dahomey 1818-1858) / Right: Anthropo-zoomorphic royal statue (shark's head and torso) representing King Béhanzin, the last king of Dahomey (1890-1894). These statues are part of a batch of 26 works which should be returned following repeated claims by the government of Benin and the Bénédicte Savoy - Felwine Sarr report. Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.