Back in 2017, Emmanuel Macron called for a change in policy that could see the return of thousands of African artworks and treasures. There has been growing demand in Africa for their return, but as most European laws in Museum Policy forbids the ceding of objects, and of mass deaccession, this has proven quite a challenge.
Back in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron proposed the restitution of objects of African cultural heritage that were either stolen or looted or taken during submission and war.
Bénédicte Savoy (art historian) and Felwine Sarr (Senegalese writer) were asked by Macron to present a report on the matter, completed in November this year. They recommended that laws forbidding the restitution of objects should be amended and that this change should be applied particularly to works which were “transferred from their original territory during the French colonial period.” The only objects that could be excluded from restitution were ones that could be proven to have a legitimate acquisition history.
Macron must decide whether to implement their changes, and I wonder if he will, especially in the face of strong opposition expected from his Culture Ministry and the museums themselves.
In an interview with French daily Libération, Felwine Sarr told them,
We propose changing heritage laws so that all types of cases can be taken into account, and the criteria of consent can be invoked.
Advocates of restitution welcomed the report regarding objects that were bought and/or bartered under subordination, or stolen.
There are an estimated 90 000 African artworks in French museums, and around 70 000 are at Paris’ Quai Branly museum, which was formed by ex-president Jacques Chirac who was a keen admirer of African and Asian art. According to the report in order to proceed with any restitution, “a request would have to be lodged by an African country, based on inventory lists which we will have sent them.”
As expected, the suggestions in the report have raised concerns among some curators and art dealers who say it would eventually empty museums and galleries in some Western countries. However, Benedicte Savoy stated that it is not about “emptying French Museums,” but about giving African youth access to their heritage, and to the stories of their ancestors. Their cultural history has also had a large impact on European artistic production of the late 19th and early 20th century. Museums and museum professionals are stewards not owners of objects, and their role is to ensure that the collections are used in the best possible way to benefit the stakeholders of cultural heritage.
Many issues have been raised by industry experts, and European conservationists have raised practical concerns, such as the resource and funding issues of inexperienced museums which perhaps may not have had the same standard of training in collections car compared to European museums. They also expressed a possible danger of artefacts being stolen or poorly handled by inexperienced museums in politically unstable countries. I feel that both of these issues are held by sceptics who fear that to return Africa’s dispersed heritage will affect the standard and variety of European museums.
For Sarr, these concerns over the conditions of preservation and display of the works once back in Africa are not a valid reason for refusing restitutions.
There are more than 500 museums on the continent, around 50 in countries like Nigeria or South Africa. Benin is building three museums and restoring another one. There is some condescension in this request for facilities on the continent.
The proposal also urges France to sign the Unidroit convention, which is a 1995 international treaty designed to enable restitutions from private collectors and dealers, which will most likely be rejected.
Britain too has faced numerous calls to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. In my opinion, creating new relationships with Africa based on equality can only lead to positive communication which will bring together our heritage through shared learning and community projects.