A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron will recommend the full return of African artefacts held by by French museums taken “without consent” from former African colonies reports suggest.
The French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr will present their 108-page study to President Macron Friday, 23 November. According to The Art Newspaper, in the report the experts argue that the complete transfer of property back to Africa and not the long-term loan of objects to African museums should be the general rule for works taken in the colonial period unless it can be proven that these objects were acquired “legitimately”.
The report was commissioned by President Macron, who appears open to revising French legislation to allow permanent repatriation of African artefacts currently held in French collections. In 2017, during a three-day trip to Africa, Macron said the return of African artifacts will become “a top priority” for France during the next five years. “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” he told a group of students during a two-hour speech at the University of Ouagadougou, in the capital of Burkina Faso. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”
“African heritage,” President Macron said, “must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.” “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
Macron then appointed the two experts to spearhead the investigation on the repatriation of African artefacts held in French museums. The director of the Musée du Quai Branly, Stéphane Martin, was scheduled to travel to Benin to meet with cultural workers during the year.
In an editorial first, published in the French newspaper Le Monde in January, Savoy wrote that Macron’s speech in Ouagadougou constituted a “revolution”. She wrote, “It draws strength from a generational shift, it suggests that sharing is possible, it presupposes the specificity of the African case and — contrary to expectations — it has not sparked the institutional outcry that we have been used to in recent years.”
“The story of African collections is a shared European history, a family affair, if you will, where aesthetic curiosity, scientific interests, military expeditions, networks of commerce, and ‘opportunities’ of all sorts contributed to feed logics of domination, affirmation and national rivalries,” she wrote, after enumerating the African holdings of major museums in other European countries. “The museums of our capitals are the brilliant conservators of human creativity. They are also, despite themselves, repositories of a darker history that’s too rarely told.”
Looted African heritage
France is not the only European country still holding on to stolen precious African artwork. Various British museums hold thousands of objects from Benin, Ethiopia, Nigeria and other African countries. Germany is also guilty with Berlin State Museums also housing an extensive collection of Benin treasures. Nigeria has 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 it’s welcome that France is looking to break away from the controversial loan approach previously suggested.