Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s groundbreaking report called for French museums to return to their countries of origin artefacts that had been taken without consent. What influence have their proposals had a year later?
On 28 November 2017, the French president Emmanuel Macron, speaking in Ouagadougou, expressed his intention to initiate restitution, either temporary or permanent, of the African patrimony in French museums, to be accomplished within five years. It was quite a turnaround from another French president’s finger-wagging speech 10 years earlier, when Nicolas Sarkozy lectured academics in Dakar on the reasons for African backwardness.
Macron’s announcement sent shock waves through the world of museums, not only because of the sudden lurch away from long-standing French laws about the inalienability of state property (proclaimed in 1566, re-asserted during the French Revolution and, in a museum context, cited to deny a request from the Republic of Benin just a year before), but also because of consternation over the idea of what ‘permanent or temporary’ might mean.
Museum directors throughout France quickly convened meetings. Many regional museums were guardedly supportive, but the three most prestigious national museums (the Louvre, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, and the Natural History Museum [which includes the Musée de l’Homme]) rejected the idea point blank. Their opposition was hardly concerned with the return of African ethnographica, but rather with the danger of creating a precedent for the collections that really mattered to them – the treasures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Allowing the return of masks or spears to Ouagadougou or Abidjan, they feared, would establish a slippery slope that could threaten their status as repositories of the world’s great masterpieces.
The first step in Macron’s ambitious undertaking was to appoint two Africanists (economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Bénédicte Savoy) to conduct an exploratory inquiry into African patrimony in French museums, and formulate a process for its return. Published just a year later, the Sarr-Savoy report fuelled animated discussion, but to date only one object has been ‘returned’. In November 2019, the French prime minister presented a ceremonial sword that had belonged to the 19th-century Senegalese political leader, military commander, and Islamic scholar El Hadj Omar Tall, to the president of Senegal, before a crowd of dignitaries in Dakar. Observers have been quick to point out, however, that the sword, which was returned for a period of five years (what Macron apparently meant by ‘temporary restitution’) had, in fact, already been on display in the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, on loan from France.
African academics with whom I spoke recently at a conference in Lyon pointed to two kinds of reactions in their homelands. On the one hand, they said, the great majority, who had more pressing concerns than the status of museum artefacts, were simply not interested. On another level, however, the spectre of cultural objects being returned to the country fanned the flames of rivalries between ethnic groups, each of which lays claim to particular pieces of the patrimony in question, including the Senegalese sword. More officially, in July 2019 the Economic Community of West African States held a meeting in Cotonou, unanimously adopting a detailed five-year plan of action (including the creation of inventories, preparation of infrastructure, etc.) to be ready for the return of their patrimony.
In France, too, reactions are divided and complex. Academics argue that there is a disconnect between, on the one hand, the country’s traditional left/right political orientations and, on the other, views of Macron’s restitution project, and they spoke of what seemed like surprising difficulties in predicting on which side of the debate their friends and colleagues would fall.
My interlocutors, both French and African, also emphasised that it would be naive to view potential restitutions as benevolent one-way transfers. Rather, they stressed that restitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return. They cited President Mitterrand’s restitution to South Korea in 1993 of a precious Korean manuscript, long held in the Bibliothèque Nationale, while France was hoping to win a multi-billion-dollar contract for building the country’s high-speed trains.
Clearly, Africans should not be holding their breath for the return of the Djennenke statue from Mali that greets visitors to the Quai Branly’s permanent collections (acquired from a Parisian art dealer for €4m). But Macron’s support for a new attitude toward restitution in France can perhaps give them hope, long-term, for more flexibility and genuine collaboration in terms of the status of the cultural patrimony that has been taken, often brutally, from their homeland.
Sally Price is the author of Primitive Art in Civilized Places; Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly; and (with Richard Price) Enigma Variations: A Novel.
The power of a museum begins with the skill of the conservator. Slowing decay to a near standstill creates a familiar illusion: that the passage of time might be halted, things kept the same. We’ve all felt the wonder of going back to see a much-loved museum object. Such returns are less about material stasis than human change. Bringing our bodies and biographies back to a mute artefact they become yardsticks and flashlights, revealing how we’ve grown and aged. Museums aren’t reliquaries but unique public spaces. They can’t bring time to a halt, of course, but they can throw change into relief. Each return visit to a gallery reminds us that every museum object is an unfinished event. What, then, of material returns?
It is folly of the highest order for any museum director to seek to extend the gesture of conservation – mistaking it for something more than a metaphor – beyond the walls of the museum. Nothing can stop the tide of history as it’s being made around our institutions at this global juncture for the colonial past. And yet the rhetoric is hardening. In Bloomsbury an old prejudice is reworded. Taking the Parthenon Marbles was ‘a creative act’, says Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, in an interview published in Ta Nea in January 2019. From South Kensington a more extreme position emerges. The accusation is iconoclasm: ‘to decolonise is to decontextualise’, Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, wrote in the Observer in June 2019. But what exactly is the Victoria and Albert Museum contesting when it describes the sacred objects pillaged from Maqdala in 1868 as ‘contested heritage’? What, precisely, is the British Museum finding difficult when it ‘acknowledges the difficult histories’ of military booty taken from Benin in 1897?
This language is not that of curators or activists, but press officers. It’s not just euphemistic, it’s divisive – driving the misunderstanding of restitution as a choice between retaining everything or the spectre of empty galleries. In reality, British museums routinely return spoliated property. The National Museum Directors Council ‘recognises and deplores the wrongful taking of works of art that constituted one of the many horrors of the Holocaust and World War II’, adopting the 1998 Washington principle that responsibility for understanding provenance lies with institutions not potential claimants. Museums have been returning human remains to indigenous communities for years. The urgent question is: what about colonial spoliation of cultural property?
Contemporary voices from across the continent of Africa are offering new responses to this question. Listening to them, the Sarr-Savoy report showed how the myth of the universal museum obscures an area where transparency and precision is imperative: the different modes of colonial acquisition. Extractive, militarist corporate colonialism across the African continent created divergent circumstances from those of settler colonialism in the Pacific or the Americas. Trophies of war are doubtless a human universal, but we must distinguish the central role Victorian and Edwardian museums played in ‘race science’. The wrongful taking of skulls and royal and sacred objects wasn’t a side-effect of empire. The violent theft and display of art classified as ‘primitive’ or ‘degenerate’ was a key part of an ideology of white supremacy, foreshadowing the horrors of the 20th century. It’s shameful for UK institutions to ‘contest’ this brutish complicity, the chilling dispossessions behind what many visitors experience as racist displays.
The restitution of colonial loot isn’t a question of taking sides. It’s about addressing blind spots and ongoing institutional racism, such as the idea that Africans are incapable of caring for their own cultural heritage. ‘Give it back and it’ll only be stolen’ is the universal motto of the thief. National museums reduce ‘decolonisation’ to artwashing by offering loans rather than return, while special-pleading about legal restraints (straightforwardly overcome for Holocaust spoliation and human remains). In non-national museums, from universities to local authorities, some are pioneering open-minded case-by-case approaches to claims. The global shift is unstoppable: from the museum as end-point to the museum as process.
Restitution is not subtraction; it is refusing to defend the indefensible, supporting African institutions and communities, reimagining museums as sites of conscience; paying debts. No museum can stop the world from changing around it. Dialogue is giving way to action for thousands of looted objects, which constitute thousands of unfinished events.
Dan Hicks is professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University and curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
From the January 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.