The issue of restitution has seldom been out of the spotlight this year. There has been a steady stream of requests for the return of cultural artefacts to former colonies – in August, the Jamaican government became the latest to make such a claim to London’s British Museum.
The museum hasn’t shifted its long-held stance that such artefacts are of universal value and should remain part of its collection. But times are changing. The museum’s “immovability” on the issue was one of the reasons behind the high-profile resignation of its former trustee, Ahdaf Soueif, over the summer.
Following last year’s landmark Sarr-Savoy report, commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron, there are concerns that the UK is falling behind on the issue. Many continental museums are starting to take a more proactive approach to provenance research in colonial collections.
The National Museum of World Cultures, in Amsterdam, announced earlier this year that, rather than waiting for claims, it would proactively identify items in its collections acquired through colonial theft, and was open to returning objects without precondition.
In Germany, the federal government and 16 regional authorities, which between them oversee most of the country’s museums, recently signed up to a framework of principles for dealing with collections from colonial contexts, while the German museums association has produced a set of guidelines on the same subject.
These two important developments “suggest a fundamental change in the relationship” between Germany and its former colonies, says Jeremy Silvester, the head of the Museums Association of Namibia. “Namibia and other former colonies should now be directly involved in ensuring that the commitments made in these two crucial documents are effectively implemented,” he says.
At the start of the year, the German government committed €1.6m towards provenance research in colonial collections. The country has also recently made several high-profile restitutions, including a bible and whip stolen from 19th-century Namibian freedom fighter Hendrik Witbooi, which were returned to Namibia by Stuttgart’s Linden Museum.
An extensive project is also under way to identify and repatriate the remains of people killed in the 1904-08 Namibian genocide, many of which are held in German and Finnish institutions.
The Museums Association of Namibia wants this growing cooperation to be a two-way street, says Silvester. “We don’t want to simply be partners that tick a box on a European donor form that wants the identity of a local partner [from a community of origin],” he says. “We want to be shaping projects and involved in the conceptualisation of exhibitions and the review of collections.”
In France, however, there appears to have been a retreat from the Savoy-Sarr report in government circles. A Euro-African conference planned for April never materialised, and the French culture minister reportedly asked heritage professionals at a recent symposium in Paris “not to focus on the sole issue of restitution”, instead emphasising cultural cooperation with Africa.
So one year on, what impression has the Sarr-Savoy report made among UK heritage professionals? “It’s very sophisticated on the one hand, but it’s also a polemic,” says Paul Basu, a professor of anthropology at London’s School for Oriental and African Studies. “It makes a specific political argument that doesn’t fully engage with the complexities.”
There is a dichotomy between the principle – that items acquired under the violence of colonial rule should be returned without precondition – and the messier realpolitik involved in making that happen, he says.
One example of that realpolitik is the model being trialled by the Benin Dialogue Group, a team made up of representatives from Nigeria and the European museum sector, including the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK, who are negotiating loans of the contested Benin bronzes for a museum being built in Benin City, Nigeria (see feature, p22). The plans will see the bronzes lent on a rotating basis.
It is regarded by some as a pragmatic compromise to the legal and practical complexities of restitution, and by others as a way of sidestepping the real issue of restoring full legal ownership.
Shift in attitudes
Even since last year, however, there has been a shift in attitudes among European museums on the issue, according to a source in the Benin Dialogue Group. The source says that when the group came together in Switzerland in 2018, there were three positions on the European side: retentionist, circulationist and restorationist.
But that had changed by the time they reconvened in Benin City this summer. A joint press release put out afterwards by the group acknowledged, for the first time, that the bronzes had been looted. The source says: “Where we are now is that none of those institutions is retentionist any more.”
Ahdaf Soueif is a keynote speaker at this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, on 3-5 October