Restitution back in spotlight

Recent developments suggest a growing willingness among museums in the west to discuss the return of objects taken during the colonial period. Caroline Parry reports
Caroline Parry
The restitution of objects from museum collections obtained during the colonial era is firmly back on the agenda following a series of significant developments at the end of last year.

In late November, a report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron called for objects taken  from sub-Saharan African countries “without consent” to be permanently returned. The report, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, coincided with the news that France will return 26 works of art from the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac to Benin in west Africa.  

Also in November, the governor of Easter Island, Tarita Alarcon Rapu, voiced  an appeal from the steps of the British Museum for the return of the Hoa Hakananai’a statue, which stands at the entrance to the museum’s Wellcome gallery. It is  the first time the museum has held a meeting about the statue, and talks are thought  to involve a long-term loan, rather than restitution.  

Meanwhile, in October, the Benin Dialogue Group agreed to loan several items, including some of the Benin Bronzes, which were taken from the city of Benin in Nigeria, to the country’s planned Royal Museum.
The group – which includes the British Museum, Horniman Museum, University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, as well as several other European institutions – will also advise on building and exhibition design, as well helping the new museum to develop training and a legal framework. Further talks will take place in Benin city this year.

“The conversation is moving on, and the report from France will be very influential,” says Alistair Brown, the policy officer at the Museums Association (MA).
“There is a growing desire across the sector to  do more, and a willingness from museum directors on many sides to have these discussions. “Whether that involves  a high-profile repatriation from a national museum remains to be seen, as there are legal issues around that.”

Need for transparency

Tristram Hunt, the director  of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), says the French report “rightly reinforces” the need for museums to be transparent about the origins and nature of their collections.
“Through exhibitions, conservation work, provenance research, talks and events, the V&A is committed to exploring our own colonial history with rigour and transparency, and to building platforms for partnership and collaboration around the world,” he says.

Sharon Heal, the director of the MA, says the organisation’s guidance on repatriation urges museums to deal sensitively and promptly with requests.
She adds that claims for repatriation raise important questions about public benefit and museums’ relationships with communities, both in the UK and abroad.
“In particular, the views of source communities should be taken into account, and museums should strive to build lasting and meaningful relationships with these communities,” says Heal.

“We would encourage museums to develop constructive relationships with representatives of people who contributed to collections, and to take proactive steps to inform them of the presence  of items relevant to them in their collections.”

There has been much praise for the Macron report recommending the transfer of objects, rather than long-term loans. It advocates that this policy should apply to all items taken between 1885 and 1960, unless it can be shown that they were acquired legitimately. It recommends that conditions for return should include a request from the country of origin, precise information about the item’s origins and adequate facilities to house the object on its return.

Complex subject

However, while many senior figures in the museum world accept that a debate on colonial heritage is overdue, they argue it is not as easy as just returning items, particularly as many African museums have suffered from underinvestment.

According to Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol, many museums across Africa are in old colonial buildings that are not fit for purpose, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. He calls on western museums to take responsibility by supporting African museums and their staff.

“There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge,” he says. “It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.”

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