French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the country would return 26 pieces of art to Benin, after he received a report calling for thousands of African artefacts housed in French museums, taken during the colonial period to be returned. The report compiled by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, recommends that French museums return the artefacts if African countries request them.
The report recommends “to respond favorably and grant restitutions concerning objects collected in Africa during,” “scientific expeditions”and “objects seized within the military contexts”.
The reports also recommends, “the restitution of pieces acquired after 1960 that have been proven to be acquired through illicit trafficking,” and proposed welcoming requests for restitution that could have bearing on objects donated or gifted to French museums by agents of the French colonial administration or their descendants as long as consent on behalf of the original seller can be can be attested.
The report says over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent, and France has been keeping many of the precious African artefacts.
While the debate on restitution has been raised for over 50 years, “there has been no progressive movement in this direction for the past 40 years,” the report observes.
In Africa, many countries have pleaded for the return of their cultural objects looted and taken during the colonial period, but these reclamations still continue to be ignored. Various European countries continue to hold on to African artefacts.
According to the report, “Currently, within the French Public Collections, there are at least 90,000 objects originating from sub-Saharan Africa”. Doors of the Royal Palaces of Abomey. Image credit: The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics. Source: Object file from the collection database of the musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac “70,000 pieces alone are housed in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, 20,000 more—and that’s a modest estimate, there’s probably a much larger number48—are housed throughout several port cities,” the report says.
It’s concerning to note a fundamental aspect revealed in the report that, “many other regions of the world represented in Western Museum collections are still able to hold on to a significant portion of their own cultural and artistic heritage, this is not the case in sub-Saharan Africa which has been able to retain almost nothing”.
Nigeria has in recent times demanded for the return of its stole bronze statues, but in a rather shocking move Britain says it can only loan them to Nigeria. This is not the only case where former colonises and looters dictate the terms of repatriation, and restitution.
In 1960, after gaining its independence, “Zaire sent a request to Belgium asking for the transfer of the “Museum of the Congo” (the present-day Tervuren Museum) to Kinshasa, only to obtain 15 years later, after difficult negotiations, just 144 pieces (out of the 122,000 objects inventoried at Tervuren)”.
The report, and its recommendations for restitution could not have come at an opportune time, and present the European countries with the golden chance to address, and redress mistakes of the past by giving Africans “access to their own culture, creativity, and spirituality from other eras that certainly have evolved since”.
It is welcome and commendable that France is looking to break away from the controversial loan approach previously suggested by other countries and institutions.
The project of restitution being undertaken by France is indeed a new point of departure, and the ball is Macron’s court to decide how to act in implementing the report’s recommendations considering the vast number of African artwork still being held by museums in France.