Cultural Heritage Should Urgently Be Returned

January 11, 2019

Ninety percent of African art – classic, museum-quality, heritage-ingrained artefacts from the African continent - is located outside of Africa. Let that sink in. Ninety percent. That leaves ten percent split between all the private collectors and five hundred museums across the continent. For millions of people African art functions as a historical and spiritual connection to their cultural or biological ancestors. It has not simply gone missing, but has been largely stolen, subject to theft on a massive scale primarily due to the second wave of European imperial colonisation.

 

Between the nineteenth and early twentieth century, soldiers, colonial officers, expeditioners and the like travelled the world, romantically construed as being in pursuit of scientific and ethnographic exploration. They amassed for their respective European empires ever more territory, accumulating resources, wealth, and international prestige in Africa, Asia, and remote corners of South America. From those territories they rivalled to bring back to their monarchs and museums the very best of the possessions of other cultures and civilisations, calling them ‘discoveries.’ Instead, these artefacts were ripped from palace walls and torn out of the hands of colonised peoples as one of the many “undeniable crimes of colonisation” French President Emmanuel Macron recognised in a speech in Ouagadougou, Benin in November 2017.

 

That speech, in which Macron asserted that “African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums – it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” and the report he commissioned in March 2018, released in November 2018, to address African heritage housed in French museums (namely the Musée de Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac) has redrawn attention to this theft, and possible solutions. As the granddaughter of a Puerto Rican woman with indigenous ancestry and a strong understanding of what it means to have been stripped of both cultural heritage and a pre-colonial identity, I did not take much convincing to believe wholeheartedly in the main argument of the report by Benedicte Savoy – a French art historian and professor, and Fewine Sarr – a Senegalese writer and economics professor: illegitimately acquired African art, stolen from local peoples and civilisations, needs returning.

I understand the logistical and legislative obstacles to this statement. The cost of transporting and insuring artefacts of this calibre is high, and there are legal difficulties to repatriating what by French law is French property (I, like Sarr, refuse to entertain the condescending and untrue claim that African museums cannot properly conserve these artefacts.) But these obstacles do not excuse the moral injustices and physical crimes that have been committed. They demand rectifying. Every effort by European governments, legislative bodies, museums, and private collectors should be made to do so.

However, not all the points made in Savoy and Sarr’s report are easy to agree with. They argue that all African artwork in French museums without clear provenance should be returned to their country of origin, reversing the burden of proof. They also put forward that art acquired for a below-value price requires repatriation as well. This ‘grey-area art’ could make the process of ethics-motivated restitution an excessively political one, causing disputes and resistance that could halt the process altogether. This ignores the facts that documentation during colonisation was imperfect, and that the market value of art is subjective: making it impossible to project accurately today’s value of art onto the past.   

 

Regardless, their report concludes that of the approximately 90,000 pieces in the Musée de Quai, about 46,000 were illegitimately acquired during 1885-1960 French colonisation. Repatriation of this artwork is, as put by Congolese-born art collector Sindika Dokolo, as urgent as the imperative to return Nazi-confiscated art. The rest of Europe and the world should take note; distance from the past does not excuse crimes of the past. Heirs to empire must not ignore their responsibility to right past wrongs. The British Museum cannot and should not hold onto artefacts like the Hoa Hakananai’a head thieved from Easter Island’s Rapa Nui people in 1868. Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa needs to discern the provenance of its 180,000 artworks of African origin and return those that were stolen, as does Austria’s Weltmuseum with its 37,000.

 

With remaining artwork (especially grey-area art), European artwork, and newly returned African artwork, governments should enter into the Euro-African Conference called for by Macron in his statement accompanying the report. To be held in Paris early 2019 and to be run by France’s new culture minister Franck Riester, the Conference aims to negotiate the circulation of artefacts through repatriation, loans, joint exhibitions, etc. But this will not empty museums completely as critics have worried; it will rightfully transform them from the ‘public repositories’ of ‘the colonial system’ they have perhaps unwillingly become, into true bastions of fair and equitable cultural exchange.

 

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