Not too many happy returns

Calls for restitution of artworks taken during the colonial era are intensifying around the world

Michael Prodger

In 2017, before the first flash of a gilet jaune appeared on the horizon to upset his sangfroid, President Emmanuel Macron visited Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. He declared: “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France. There is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums — it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities.” Some critics claimed the French president’s words were less to do with altruism and rewriting historic injustices than with bolstering France’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa (and pointed out that he ignored the parallel example of Oceania). Macron nevertheless commissioned a report into the issue of restitution.

When that report was published last year it was unequivocal in its recommendations. The authors, the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French historian Bénédicte Savoy, called for tens of thousands of works gathered during the colonial period and now in French museums to be returned. Indeed, they said, everything that couldn’t be proven to have been legitimately acquired should be sent back. Macron announced that he wanted the restitutions to begin within five years. The first items earmarked are 26 statues and other items from Benin currently in Paris’s ethnographic Musée du Quai Branly that were looted by French troops in 1892. They will be housed in a new museum due to open in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2021.

Before this can happen, however, a new law changing France’s code of patrimony needs to be passed and the African countries themselves would then have to request the specific returns. The scale of the task, should it come into effect, is daunting. It has been estimated that as much as 90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage is no longer on the continent. And when the report authors examined inventories at the Musée du Quai Branly they found that some 46,000 of its 90,000 African works were colonial period acquisitions, collected between 1885 and 1960.

The report has reverberated beyond France. The German government has allocated €1.9 million to research the provenance of objects that entered its museums during the colonial era. The money will be administered by the German Lost Art Foundation, which usually deals with claims around art looted by the Nazis.

The issue has also intensified restitution claims from elsewhere. The perennial rumbling surrounding the Elgin Marbles periodically breaks out into something more shrill. Last autumn the governor of Easter Island, which belongs to Chile, broke down in tears at the British Museum when pleading for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, an ancestor statue taken in 1868 and given to Queen Victoria. The museum’s policy is not to dismiss such requests but talk in terms of loans rather than restitution.

Restitutions proper do happen. One of the odder examples was the National Army Museum’s decision to return a lock of hair cut from the head of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros shortly after he committed suicide following defeat at the battle of Maqdala in 1868. Hair does not count as “human remains” (which government guidance says can be restituted) so the museum’s decision was one of goodwill. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library both hold artefacts taken from Maqdala but, unlike the National Army Museum, are bound by deaccession regulations. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York said it would be returning to Egypt a first-century BC gilded coffin of a priest named Nedjemankh, after it emerged it had been looted in 2011. Extraordinarily, the museum bought the coffin for $3.5 million on the back of a fake provenance and a forged export licence.

The Macron report chimes with the binary tenor of the times. It assumes that colonialism was an undiluted ill — an act of criminal subjugation — ignoring the fact that it was uneven and that centuries of cultural intermingling also went on. It also assumes that the great majority of the artefacts were acquired coercively. While looting undoubtedly occurred, it is ahistorical to ignore the fact that at certain periods the spoils of war were traditional booty, or that trade, gifts and legitimate purchases also took place. Items that are defined as cultural heritage now were, in many instances, merely material goods then.

As well as its oversimplification of hundreds of years of history, the report also had little to say about either the ongoing and long-established links between museum professionals in Western institutions and their peers elsewhere (the British Museum, for example, had already agreed to loan some of its pieces when the new Benin museum opens and other institutions have partnership programmes with non-Western museums) or about the fate of the artefacts once they had been returned. The report acknowledged that Africa does not have a similar museum infrastructure to the West, but assumed it would follow — as would a culture of museum going — in due course. The time-worn, if uncomfortable to discuss, issues of security, corruption and underinvestment were not a major consideration.

Although the Macron report has concentrated thought, resistance to it is based on the fact that, rather than considering viable options, it is absolutist. As Eckart Köhne, director of the German museums association, put it: “If that means museum collections should be packed wholesale into a lorry and shipped abroad, then we do not consider that the right way.” Two right ways, for example, were already under way. One is research into provenance to ascertain the ethical and legal circumstances under which items entered Western collections. The other is greater co-curation and the circulation of exhibitions beyond their usual geographical remit. The Macron report calls for “dialogue, polyphony and exchange” but doesn’t acknowledge that it has been happening for years.

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