‘It does not matter (although many museums pretend it does) that the first of several Hague conventions was not promulgated until 1899: the rule against pillaging and looting of cultural property has been part of customary war law for centuries. Today, these ‘punishments raids’ would be classified as crimes against humanity as well as war crimes, and the moral objection to museums continuing to profit from displaying their spoils is compelling - and has compelled President Macron in France to order their return. There should be real shame attached to their permanent exhibition in museums of nations – Britain, Germany and Belgium in particular - that so barbarically acquired them.’ Geoffrey Robertson, Who owns history. (1)
Many have been asking recently what has happened, if anything at all, since the Sarr-Savoy report was published in 2018.This sceptic attitude has prevailed even though the critics themselves mentioned that there have been discussions, symposia and seminars on the topic of restitution. There have been discussions in many African countries, in France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Holland. But many seem to be suggesting that since the restitution of artefacts as recommend by Sarr-Savoy has not yet been implemented, nothing really worthwhile has happened. We have challenged this viewpoint that seems to dismiss the importance of discussions in a democratic society and also underestimates the complexities of restitution. (2)
As a result of the various discussions of the report commissioned by the French President Macron, the Arts Council England (ACE) has recently advertised an offer seeking a supplier to produce guidelines for British museums on restitution and repatriation of cultural objects acquired from former colonies. (3) The aim of the work will be ‘to create a comprehensive and practical resource for museums to support them in dealing confidently and proactively with all aspects of restitution‘.
The Arts Council England has woken up to discussions of these issues in several countries: ‘Restitution and repatriation of objects in museum collections is an area of increasing focus and debate across the UK and international museum sector. This is particularly, although not exclusively, focused on objects in Western museums acquired by European nations from former colonies, and links to wider agendas around decolonising museums. There is significant government, public and press interest and increasing calls for action by UK museums and sector bodies to address this agenda’.
This call for a set of guidelines for dealing with artefacts looted from colonies, comes after Germany has produced a set of Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts, Dutch museums have also produced new rules regarding claims for restitution of artefacts from
colonies ( https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/sites/default/files/2019- )whilst Belgians are still discussing the issues regarding their massive looting of Congolese artefacts that are in the Tervuren Museum, now rebaptised Africa Museum. The new Austrian coalition government agreement provides for establishing a new area for postcolonial provenance and handling of human remains. It is to be noted that the agreement also provides for restitution and provenance research but appears to be here referring only to victims of Nazi spoliations. Once again, it seems racism has won the day by envisaging restitution for one group and only research for the other group. (4) Thus the offer of the ACE comes not too early in the discussions on the demands of African States for the restitution of their artefacts that were looted by the colonialists and imperialists during their cruel and oppressive rule in Africa, following the partition of the Continent by the notorious Berlin Conference of 1885.
We would not want to anticipate the results of the offer made by the Arts Council England since we do not know who will be undertaking the research nor their methods of work. We assume they will be looking at the work done in France, Germany and the Netherlands and will be consulting a wide variety of specialists and scholars, also from Africa, as was done by the Sarr-Savoy Commission and to some extent, by the German Association of Museums. (5) They will also no doubt consider the decision of Jesus College, Cambridge, to restitute a Benin bronze to Nigeria as well as the decision of the Benin Dialogue Group not to restitute but only to loan looted Benin artefacts to Nigeria. (6)
The ACE study could usefully establish the merits of loans as opposed to restitution. Our own position is well-known. We believe firmly that restitution of looted artefacts is clearly in the interest of the original owners as well as that of the present holders. Both Africans and Europeans will be released by restitution from their historical roles of robbers and robbed persons as far as artefacts are concerned. The larger question of reparations for slave work, colonial plunder, destruction and deprivation is not affected by this. Restitution, if honestly and properly done, will put an end to this relationship and enable the parties to assume new relationship based on mutual interest and respect. Loans on the other hand prolong the historical relationship and furnish further grounds for the survival of the relationship i.e. the interpretation and implementation of the loan. And new grounds for dispute.
One topic on which the new study could help us would be the topic of provenance research. Would the report recommend this topic which now appears often as delaying tactic by those who have kept looted African artefacts for more than 100 years and now demand time to learn more about the objects? The French, the Dutch and the British have not made too much fuss about the need for such research since they seem already to have sufficient knowledge about the objects they kept all these decades.
Would the ACE also recommend using the occasion for restitution as opportunity for decolonization? The British cannot, unlike the Germans, pretend they have forgotten all about their former colonies or that the colonial period has somehow disappeared from their collective memory. The presence of the Commonwealth should remind them of their colonial history. But they still have to decolonize their country and their museums by, inter alia, removing some of the symbols of racism and colonialism that are still found in many institutions. Returns of artefacts to their countries of origin would contribute massively to decolonization and fulfil the demands of the United Nations/UNESCO since 1972.
Hopefully, the English study will be as thorough as both the German Guidelines and the Sarr-Savoy report as regards the history of the acquisition of African artefacts, the compatibility of such acquisition with International Law and with the laws of their places of acquisition.
As the ACE itself realises, the production of these guidelines would be only the first phase of restitution programme that would entail more work and require more resources than have been proposed in their current offer. As far as we can tell, none of the guidelines in Germany or Netherlands has led directly to restitution so far. However, we consider this step, limited in itself, as ‘progress’ considering the negative positions of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which seem to be oblivious of the changes that have taken place in the world since the end of the colonial empires and imperialist hegemony. These leading British institutions seem to be bent on clinging to old colonial racist assumptions of European superiority and a God-given right and duty to control cultural artefacts of non-European peoples. The Arts Council England may be able to persuade these venerable museums to move forward with the times and not cling on to old racist colonialist positions:
' The question of the meaning of the 'Benin bronzes' or 'Elgin Marbles' in London – 1900 or 2000 – is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the 'degeneration' of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively 'multicultural' now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male.' Jonathan Harris. (7)
The following facts must be considered in this context of discussions on restitution:
- the decision of Jesus College, Cambridge to return a Benin cockerel to Benin,
- the German guidelines,
- the new rules of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures regarding restitution of looted artefacts,
- the appointment of a Ghanaian curator and art historian Nana Ofosuaa Oforiatta Ayim, by Oxford University to its Advisory Council to advise the University on its policies towards Africa,
- the admission of the President of Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac that his museum is too ‘white’,
- the offers of British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum to loan artefacts to Ethiopia and Nigeria,
- trustee Ahdaf Soueif’s resignation from Board of Trustees of British Museum over the museum’s position regarding restitution,
- Open Society Foundation’s provision of $15million to support African restitution,
- and Arts Council England’s advertisement for the preparation of guidelines for English museums.
However one assesses the above facts, one must admit that the effects of the Sarr-Savoy have indeed been far-reaching and that without this ground-breaking report, most of these acts would have been unthinkable a few months ago. No one can deny that the attitudes towards looted colonial artefacts are changing rapidly, even in England despite die-hard declarations by some alleging that restitution of African artefacts deprives Britain of evidence of its imperialist colonial history or that decolonization is decontextualization or that the axing of the Parthenon Marbles in the Acropolis, Athens and their translocation to Bloomsbury, London, constitute a ‘creative act’. Maybe someone in the British Isles will have the courage to inform properly the scholar who has been arguing that the British should keep the Benin artefacts because the metal used were bought by the Kingdom of Benin from resources obtained through slave trading. Knowledge about Britain’s role in the nefarious slave trade does not seem to be widespread on the islands.
The signs of the future direction are clear: artefacts acquired by violence or under dubious circumstances will have to be returned. May the English institutions see these clear signs and not provide ground for such a discussion as the following in the British Parliament:
Dr. Spink : Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the British museum has been a party to any illegality.
Mr. Grant : Far be it from me to suggest such an appalling thing, but there are those who will say that the ways in which certain articles have been acquired leave a lot to be desired. The House would do a great service to people around the world if it were to investigate the ways in which some artefacts were gathered and came to be displayed in the British museum. I also mention in passing the Crown jewels--you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be pleased to know that I do not intend to dwell on them today--and some of my favourite pieces, such as the Cullinan diamonds or the Stars of Africa, which should be returned to that country.
What is meant by "British territory" in the regulations? Would an artefact that had been taken away from a Caribbean dependent territory such an Anguilla qualify to be returned? This is an important subject and it creates a lot of anger and emotion, certainly among people of African origin. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to have a wider debate on the issue which is not restricted only to Europe.
I thoroughly support the right of the Secretary of State to intervene and to be able to enter people's houses to chase up stolen objects. I hope that that right will apply to international objects. I hope that the regulations are merely the beginning. (8)
1. Geoffrey Robertson, Who owns history? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, Biteback Publishing, 2019, p.162.
2. K. Opoku, Miracle Abjured: Stéphane Martin Reiterates His Objection To Restitution Of Looted African Artefacts.
Some Have Waited For 100 Years; Others Are Tired After Few Months: Time in Restitution Matters...
France On Course to Restitution Of Looted African Artefacts
3. Arts Council England asks for help in returning looted artefacts ... Arts Council seeks guidance on restitution and repatriation for ...
4. K. Opoku, Brief comments on german guidelines on handling objects ...
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5. Kwame Opoku -Nigeria to Borrow Looted Nigerian Artefacts ...
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7. Jonathan Harris, The New Art History–A critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 275.
8. House of Commons Hansard Debates for 14 Feb 1994 93-94 Sessionhttps://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199394/cmhansrd/1994-02-14/Debate-13.html
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