THERE WAS A time when the principle of returning to African countries art and artifacts removed under colonial rule seemed on its way to becoming an international norm. In 1978 the director-general of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, argued for the return to African societies not of every work of art in Western collections, but “at least the art treasures which best represent their culture, which they feel are the most vital and whose absence causes them the greatest anguish.” He added: “This is a legitimate claim.”1
He was heard. The star French TV anchorman of his day, Roger Gicquel, made the case that restitutions were appropriate—in fact necessary—for true cultural preservation. In 1982 France’s government commissioned a study led by Pierre Quoniam, a senior official in the museums service, who recommended restitutions as an “act of equity and solidarity” demonstrating an “effort of intelligence.”2 Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, a German government minister, put forth a similar view. Meanwhile UNESCO moved ahead and circulated a standard form for restitution requests.
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy unearthed this information in conducting research for The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, the report they submitted in November 2018 to French president Emmanuel Macron. It is the first serious revival of the issue by the national authorities of a former colonial power since that bygone era, after which the vision of mutually beneficial North-South relations gave way to neoliberal austerity in the rich countries and the imposition of “structural adjustment” budget cuts in the poor ones. In France, the Quoniam study was relegated to the archives. There is apparently no record of the UNESCO form ever having been used. Assorted activist groups have continued to plead for restitution over the decades, and several African governments have made periodic public claims. Yet on the whole, as Sarr and Savoy write, “Nothing has moved in forty years.”3
Restitution is a fraught project. Throughout history, art objects gathered in the course of war, conquest, and the pursuit of colonial control have found their way into private and public collections in the victorious nation—or been scattered widely through sales and transfers. In the postcolonial era, many nations that were once subject to a foreign power have demanded the return of important artifacts. Since the mid-nineteenth century, successive Greek governments have called upon the British Museum to return the so-called Elgin Marbles—sculptures removed from the Parthenon in 1817 at the direction of a British noble, supposedly with permission from the Ottoman Sultan who ruled Greece at the time. The most high-profile African case involves the Benin Bronzes, a vast cache that the invading British soldiers looted during a punitive raid on Benin City, in present-day Nigeria, in 1897. Roughly one thousand of these pieces are in the British Museum and other Western institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some of the institutions (though not the Met) have reached an agreement with Nigerian authorities to send one set of works to a new museum under construction in Benin City. Still, the arrangement is only provisional—more of a long-term loan than a transfer—and Nigeria continues to press its permanent restitution claims. Indeed, all the current instances of African art being returned to its country of origin are case-by-case, and most fall short of the full and permanent transfer of ownership that the word restitution entails. That a former colonial power would review all the African works in its public holdings that might have been extracted on illegitimate or unequal terms and devise an official restitutions policy was an idea beyond the most optimistic advocates’ dreams.
Hence the general surprise when Macron, apparently unprompted, announced in a 2017 speech to students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso that he planned to make possible “permanent or temporary” restitution of African art objects within five years. Just one year earlier, France, under the government of François Hollande, had turned down a request for restitution of works from the Republic of Benin, invoking a long-held legalistic excuse: French law does not permit deaccessioning of public collections, thus the request could not be entertained. It was head-spinning to see a new president tweeting: “African cultural heritage cannot be kept prisoner of European museums.”
Any doubts as to Macron’s interest in a serious policy review ended when he selected Sarr and Savoy to make recommendations. Neither is a bureaucrat, neither is from the museum establishment, and neither emerges from the tangle of political and business interests known as Françafrique that binds together powerful elites in France and its former colonies. Sarr, who teaches at the Université Gaston-Berger in Saint-Louis, in his home country of Senegal, is an economist with an alternative bent; his work on Africa’s future prospects has a philosophical cast, and is sympathetic to both the Afrocentric thinking of Cheikh Anta Diop and the anti-colonial psychological perspectives of Frantz Fanon. Savoy, a French art historian, is based at the Technische Universität in Berlin. She is an expert on art transfers, looting, and theft in the European context; Africa was new to her. Clearly, the look that Macron sought was one that would be analytically rigorous, but pointedly fresh.
THE QUESTION OF restitution is as complicated as one wishes to make it. Opponents of restitution often appeal to complexity, producing one reason or another why a particular case is of dubious merit, or impracticable, or would set a bad precedent. Sarr and Savoy seek to simplify the issue. Their report reads on multiple levels—as a policy paper, as historiography, as a philosophical essay. But it is also an attempt to produce criteria by which to gauge the suitability for restitution of specific objects.
The authors are careful to specify their scope. As mandated by Macron, they examine only objects from Africa—which they further limit to sub-Saharan Africa, judging Algeria and Egypt to warrant a separate treatment. The review is also limited to French public collections, therefore excluding individual holdings and private museums, notably those of missionary orders that were active under colonization. Even so, the universe of objects under consideration is substantial: at least 88,000 individual pieces according to Sarr and Savoy, of which 70,000 are held by one institution, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which opened in 2006, subsuming the ethnographic collections of the former Musée de l’Homme and the erstwhile colonial museum at the Porte Dorée. Given the scale and significance of this collection, a change in policy will necessarily prompt the question for other colonial collections and move the needle in the international debate.
In the same way, Sarr and Savoy draw distinctions within their field of inquiry that have value beyond it. Until the very late nineteenth century, the acquisition of these art objects occurred largely through conquest, amid violence, rendering them in effect war spoils. In consolidating control over a large section of West Africa, preparatory to setting up colonial rule, French troops plundered myriad art objects in the sack of Ségou (present-day Mali) in 1890, the pillage of Abomey (present-day Republic of Benin) in 1892, and the 1898 war against the anti-colonial hero Samory Touré. The British sack of Benin City occurred in the same period (and indeed some of the bronzes found their way to France), all in the process of cementing the division of Africa that the colonial powers agreed to at the Berlin Conference of 1884.
In the twentieth century, under colonial rule, Europeans obtained art objects both by force and through purchases—though the latter could hardly be termed fair, and indeed sales were often coerced. As Sarr and Savoy write, “patrimonial extraction became professionalized.”4 One driver was the rise of anthropology and its implication in the colonial project. “Scientific missions” made it their purpose to collect and catalogue objects in vast numbers, with the goal of understanding—though always through a paternalist lens—the ruled people. Sarr and Savoy note that European museums were often stakeholders from the outset—that is to say, accomplices and abettors—counting on colonial expeditions to enrich their troves.
After 1960, as African countries became independent, art objects continued to arrive in European museums, but on different terms, driven no longer by the colonial imperative but by the desire of encyclopedic institutions to enhance their collections. Thus, most of what is now the Quai Branly’s African collection was acquired before 1960; objects added later were largely from Nigeria, Ghana, and other countries that France did not rule.
This typology informs Sarr and Savoy’s recommendations, which appear mid-report, like the seed of a fruit. They are quite simple—too simple, according to their critics. First, they recommend “favorable consideration”—in effect, a presumption of validity—of restitution requests for objects that were taken amid military operations. Second, they recommend similar treatment of requests to restitute objects that were obtained on ethnographic missions, unless there is testimony or physical evidence of consent by the custodians of those objects at that time. Third, they recommend positive response to requests to restitute objects that were given to the museums by colonial agents or their descendants, again barring evidence of a willing original sale. Finally, concerning works obtained after 1960, they recommend restitution of any whose provenance is demonstrated to involve trafficking or illicit sale.
Sarr and Savoy detail the changes to French legislation that these recommendations entail and propose a timeline for taking meaningful action within Macron’s five-year window and beyond. The first step they propose is the prompt restitution of a limited number of symbolically significant works to different African countries as a strong opening signal. Next would come establishing shared resources—from inventories of objects to partnerships among museum officials, curators, and the like—and joint commissions, between France and each country involved, to advise on restitution requests and direct the work needed to make transfers successful.
Upon receiving the report, Macron announced plans to return permanently to the Republic of Benin twenty-six major works from the sack of Abomey, reversing the Hollande government’s refusal. The move clearly adhered to Sarr and Savoy’s proposals. But although Macron has formally accepted the report, its actual implementation is far from certain. For one thing, Macron is under siege from social dissidents of the populist Yellow Vest movement. But the bigger challenge is that the proposed changes require bringing aboard parties that may not care to cooperate.
The volte-face of Stéphane Martin, director of the Quai Branly, is indicative of the opposition mobilizing against Sarr and Savoy’s proposals. In their report, the scholars thanked the museum for its support in the study process. Martin seemed, if not an enthusiastic ally, at least not an enemy. He appeared open to restitutions. After Macron’s 2017 speech, he told Le Figaro that some objects would surely be returned eventually. After all, he said, “one cannot have a continent deprived to this extent of the testimonials of its past and its artistic genius.”5
Martin’s reaction to the final report, however, was hostile. His objections, expressed in a pair of French newspaper and radio interviews, recapitulated pell-mell the arguments that have resurfaced in commentary from European curators, administrators, and editorialists. They attest to the gap that persists between a European cultural establishment locked in defensive, zero-sum thinking and numerous African peers (and European critics) who welcomed the report’s call for a “new relational ethics.”
One objection relates to Sarr and Savoy’s lack of professional credentials and competence in assessing the issues at hand. Though they met with numerous museum heads and curators in France and the four African countries where they focused their field research (Senegal, Mali, Benin, Cameroon), Martin called their consultation of museum professionals insufficient. He labeled the authors advocates (personnes engagées), and suggested they viewed museum collections as “totems of suffering.”6 Behind this distinction lurked the notion that museum experts possess a mature, rational understanding, whereas proponents of restitution operate from emotion, specifically, grievance. “I want to talk about art and sharing, not to constantly rehash feelings that are real but that have nothing to do with cultural heritage policy,” Martin said. “Museums must not be hostage to the painful history of colonialism.”7
Other objections concern a purported lack of readiness on the part of African countries to receive and properly preserve restituted works. According to Martin, the salient change from 2016, when France refused to return the Abomey pieces to Benin, to 2018, when it agreed, was that Benin was now building new museums—with support from the Quai Branly, he noted. The decrepit, underfunded African museum, unsafe and vulnerable to corruption and theft, is a common trope deployed to object to restitutions, even though the actual landscape of African museums is highly varied and quickly evolving. While many national museums are indeed in substandard shape, new institutions are cropping up across the continent, such as the recently opened Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. A cynical observer might note, in addition, that the construction by Greece of a modern museum in which to exhibit the Elgin Marbles has done nothing to accelerate resolution of that case.
Still other objections put forward slippery-slope hypotheticals. At the risk of courting absurdity, opponents of restitution fret that allowing a broad range of African restitutions would open the door to all manner of claims—for instance, as the Belgian curator Julien Volper and art-market lawyer Yves-Bernard Debie mused in a joint interview with Le Monde, would Belgium demand the return of Rubens paintings in French collections?8 According to this argument, restitution implies all art belongs in its place and culture of origin, and therefore that universal museums are invalid. This pure straw-man notion is recurrent even though it is at odds with the carefully defined scope of Sarr and Savoy’s report, as well as the distinctions they make between sold and stolen art. “The idea that all Italian painting should go back to Italy, all Breton painting should go back to Brittany—I don’t think that will make a better world,” Martin said.9
WHAT TO MAKE of this barrage of objections? On a practical level, they suggest how complicated it may prove to achieve restitutions on more than an occasional, one-off basis, given the inherent resistance and the profusion of technical details that can exacerbate conflict and impede transfers. But what is most striking is how much these objections are cloaked in claims of knowledge, logic, rationality—epistemic baggage familiar from, well, the colonial project.
Sarr and Savoy seem to have anticipated this resistance. On the question of museum infrastructure in Africa, for instance, they simply note that it is growing, and that it would be condescending to assume that African countries would not rise to the occasion if they knew precious works were actually coming home. Above all, Sarr and Savoy insist on the moral imperative of restitutions—and the necessity of understanding the process not in terms of redress or closure, but as a fresh beginning. In their view, even France and its institutions would benefit from increased circulation of African objects between institutions. They are clear in their belief that non-African audiences should have access to African heritage, but under curatorial arrangements premised on cooperation and equity in what they call a “new exchange economy.”
There is a panic around restitutions entirely out of proportion to the few that have taken place, or even to those likely to occur under an aggressive scenario. The fear, in its most elemental expression, is that restitutions will vider les musées—empty the museums. The surge of concern that greeted the Sarr-Savoy report underscores how much subconscious investment remains in museums as sites where power is justified and renewed, so much so that even beginning to address a historical injustice reads as a ghastly injury. Popular culture, often more knowing, has had fun with this fear, most recently in the film Black Panther, which includes a scene of liberation of artifacts from a museum, accompanied by some violence.
In the frantic defense of colonial collections resides a fragility, and a poverty of imagination, that Sarr and Savoy challenge. After all, imagine that numerous artifacts taken from Africa through colonial extraction were to return. So what? African curators told Sarr and Savoy that they would gladly place restituted objects back in circulation, by means of loans, joint exhibitions, and even facsimiles. Other objects might not be returned to museums, but to ritual settings, educational ones, or others yet to be invented. Objects cannot assume the same symbolic meanings they had at the moment of removal, any more than the injury to generations, deprived of access to their material heritage, can be repaired. The opportunity of restitution is to set artifacts free to assume new meanings. As Sarr and Savoy write: “The objects having become the product of historical relations, they are not returned unchanged: They become the vectors of future relations.”10
Decolonizing systems of knowledge may be more than Macron had in mind when he promised to set a restitution policy in motion. But Sarr and Savoy went there anyway. Whether their report sets forth a wave of returns is unclear—and ultimately beyond their ambit. After all, restituting objects is a means; the end is to liberate thinking.
1. Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, quoted in Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain: Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle, November 2018, restitutionreport2018.com, p. 15–16. All translations from the French are by the author.
2. Pierre Quoniam, quoted in ibid., p. 16.
3. Sarr and Savoy, p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 47.
5. Stéphane Martin quoted in Eric Biétry-Rivierre, “Stéphane Martin: ‘L’Afrique ne peut pas être privée des témoignages de son passé,’” Le Figaro, Dec. 12, 2017, lefigaro.fr.
6. Martin, quoted in Claire Bommelaer and Eric Biétry-Rivierre, “Oevres d’art africaines: ‘Il y a d’autres voies que celle de la restitution,’” Le Figaro, Nov. 25, 2018.
7. Martin, interviewed by Patrick Cohen, “C’est arrivé demain,” Europe 1, Nov. 25, 2018, europe1.fr.
8. Yves-Bernard Debie and Julien Volper, “Restitutions d’art africain: ‘Au nom de la repentance coloniale, des musées pourraient se retrouver vidés,’” Le Monde, Nov. 28, 2018, lemonde.fr.
9. Martin, interviewed by Patrick Cohen.
10. Sarr and Savoy, p. 33.