Objects taken from African countries “without consent” during France’s colonial era should be permanently returned, according to a report commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron.
The study, written by the Senagalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, was commissioned following the French president’s famous speech in Burkina Faso last year, where he said that returning artefacts to their countries of origin would be a key priority for him. Estimates suggest that up to 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is currently held outside the continent.
The report focuses on items taken by soldiers, administrators or scientific explorers from sub-Saharan Africa during the French colonial period of 1885 to 1960. In what would be a significant shift in policy for the French government, it recommends the complete transfer of property rather than long-term loan, and states that this policy should apply as a general rule to all works taken during that time unless it can be proven that they were acquired legitimately.
To coincide with the report, Macron announced the symbolic return of 26 artworks looted by French forces from Benin in 1892. The items are currently held at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.
The report states that conditions for return should include a request from the relevant country, precise information about the origins of the item, and adequate facilities to house the item in the relevant country.
Speaking to international media, the study's co-author, Savoy, said there was no question that the policy shift would result in "emptying French or European museums", and said that it instead intended to achieve a "rebalancing of the geography of African heritage". The report suggests that repatriated objects could be replaced with replicas.
French law currently prohibits state-owned museums from permanently removing accessioned objects from their collections. New legislation would have to be passed by the country’s parliament, where it would be likely to face significant opposition.
Some French museum professionals expressed concern at the report. Speaking to AFP, the director of Quai Branly, Stéphane Martin - who contributed to the study - criticised the final report, saying it had tainted "everything that was collected and bought during the colonial period with the impurity of the colonial crime". He warned that a change of law risked opening "the door to complete maximalist restitution" and said the proposed policy put "historical reparations over the contribution museums make".
Quai Branly houses around 70,000 of the estimated 90,000 items from sub-Saharan Africa in France's public collections, most of which would meet the criteria for restitution under the report’s recommendations. However Martin said many of those items had been given freely as gifts.
Macron is planning to organise a conference before next April where representatives from African and European countries can come together to discuss the issue.
The Museums Association’s (MA) director Sharon Heal welcomed the report. She said: “It is good to see that the government in France has taken a proactive and measured approach to restitution and I hope this will include conversations and dialogue between museum professionals in France and museum professionals and source communities in African nations.”
The Macron report will add to growing pressure on museums across Europe to re-examine their approach to the repatriation or restitution of colonial-era objects.
In October, several major European institutions, including the British Museum, agreed to return artefacts to Nigeria on loan for a new museum that the country is planning to open in 2021. The objects include the Benin bronzes, which were looted by British troops during the Benin Expedition of 1897 and have been the subject of longstanding negotiations between the Nigerian authorities and European institutions.
Meanwhile, a delegation from Rapa Nui, the Chilean territory also known as Easter Island, visited the British Museum in London last week, where the island’s governor, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, made an emotional plea for the return of a Moai statue held by the museum.
The four-tonne statue, Hoa Hakananai’a, sits at the entrance of the museum’s Wellcome Gallery. It was taken from the island by the British navy without permission in 1868 and given to Queen Victoria as a gift.
The statue is of huge significance to the island’s indigenous people, who believe it holds the spirits of their ancestors. “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul,” Rapu told a news conference assembled on the steps of the museum.
MA guidelines urge museums to be proactive in developing relationships with source communities and to respond promptly and sensitively to repatriation claims.
In a statement, the MA said: “The three key principles of the Code of Ethics for Museums are: public benefit and engagement; collections stewardship; and individual and institutional integrity. All three of these principles should apply in cases of claims for repatriation or restitution from museum collections.
“The specific guidance on repatriation urges museums to deal sensitively and promptly with any requests, both within the UK and from abroad.
“Factors to be taken into account include the law; current thinking on the subject; the interests of actual and cultural descendants; the strength of claimants’ relationship to the items; the scientific, educational, cultural and historical importance of the items; and the consequences of retention and repatriation for a range of stakeholders.
“Claims for repatriation raise important question about public benefit and museums’ relationship 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.”
A full analysis of the latest developments on repatriation will appear in the January issue of Museums Journal.
A previous version of the article said Bénédicte Savoy is an economist. This has been amended to art historian.
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Should the UK government follow the French president's lead on repatriation?— Museums Association (@MuseumsAssoc) November 29, 2018