A New Wave of Cultural Restitution

In November 2018, scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy published a report commissioned by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, entitled The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.  Toward a New Relational Ethics (the “Report”).  The Report calls for the restitution of “African cultural heritage objects” currently held in French national collections and for a new era in cultural relations between France and Africa.  According to the authors, “the process of restitution allows for the possibility of writing a new page of a shared and peaceful history, where each protagonist [emphasis added] can provide his or her fair piece of the common story.” 

While the Report states that the history and responsibility of France in Africa is different from that of Great Britain, Belgium, Germany or Italy, it certainly implicates its European neighbours in the genocide and pillaging carried out in different parts of Africa, reminding readers that 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan African remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent.

The Report does not seek to hide the political and economic motivations behind it, asserting that “the restitution of African cultural items will . . . initiate a new economy of relations whose effects will not be limited to cultural spaces or those of museographical exchange.”

The Report suggests restitution of African cultural heritage in three phases:

  • The first phase (2018-19) involves the formal restitution of several largely symbolic pieces whose return has been requested for a long time by various African nations or communities.
  • The second phase (Spring 2019-November 2022) involves the process of “inventorying”, the sharing of digital files and an intensive transcontinental dialogue.  During this phase, the Report states that “works judged to be important by nation-states and communities concerned” should be restituted. 
  • The third phase (November 2022-Open Ended) involves a process of restitution that is not limited in time and calls for assuring African states concerned that their eventual requests for restitution, even if made a few years from now, will be welcomed.

The authors do little to assuage the concerns of Western museum directors, who worry that the Report calls for restituting “everything” and risks entire museums to be emptied.[1]  While the Report calls for the modification of France’s Cultural Heritage Code, this Report is not legally binding.  To make it binding, President Macron, who faces intense criticism and scrutiny of his government as demonstrated by the weekly and increasingly violent yellow vest protests[2], will have to introduce and push legislation through the French parliament, which has reportedly distanced itself from him.

The Report has applied pressure on other European countries to enact similar measures.  On 15 March 2019, the German culture ministers from all sixteen states met and agreed to establish protocols for repatriating colonial-era objects from public collections across the country that were acquired “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today.” [3]  The German government has reportedly allocated €1.9 million this year to provenance research for artefacts that entered museum collections during the colonial era, with the funds to be administered by the German Lost Art Foundation.  An eight-person committee on which the co-author of the Report, Bénédicte Savoy, will sit will select the grant recipients on the basis of applications from German Museums.

Also in March 2019, ethnological Museums in the Netherlands published guidelines calling for the restitution of works acquired during the colonial era.[4]  The guidelines issued by the Museum of World Cultures include a claims procedure for countries of origin and promises a timescale of one year maximum for the return of items whose repatriation is approved.  The Minister of Culture is said to be responsible for signing off on any such return.

It is too soon to tell whether these measures will be effective in turning the tide of the restitution debate relating to artefacts acquired during the colonial era.  For his part, President Macron has seemingly distanced himself from the Report, assigning his cultural and foreign ministers to help further the objectives he set out in his 2017 speech that triggered the Report and asking his ministers to not only explore restitution but also exhibitions, exchanges and loans.[5]

While some Western museum directors have raised concerns as to whether African nations are prepared or equipped to store their heritage, many African nations have pushed back on this suggestion, arguing that it is grounded in racist and prejudicial attitudes towards them.  In fact, new homes to store African heritage are being built throughout Africa.  For example, the recently built Museum of Black Civilisation in Dakar, Senegal is a four-floor exhibition space to cover everything from palaeontology to contemporary West African art.[6]  In Nigeria, the Edo state government plans to build a museum in Benin City to house the treasures looted during the colonial era.[7]  Mali has also built a new museum in Gao and another is due to open in Timbuktu.[8]  A number of additional ambitious museum building initiatives are reportedly underway in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to restituting cultural heritage.  While it is unreasonable to demand the restitution of all artefacts acquired by the West during the colonial era, as some objects were acquired in good faith, it is equally unreasonable to take the position that nothing should be restituted.  Every country has a right to its cultural heritage.  Provenance research, which requires examining each artefact’s history of acquisition and ownership, can help museums in the West and private collections “get it right”.  As has happened in relation to works looted during the Nazi era, thanks in part to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, the Report maintains that unless an African object can conclusively be proven to have been acquired in good faith, it should be returned.

While commencing litigation in courts is one way of resolving restitution-related disputes, it is not always effective as legal remedies are limited.  Short of changing cultural heritage laws of the West, voluntary restitution or negotiations between governments and private entities/individuals to find a just and fair solution have become increasingly popular and proven to be effective.  These negotiations require a careful balancing of interests and any resolution reached must be documented via comprehensive legal agreements. 

To date, France has returned twenty-six bronze artefacts, including statutes and thrones, taken from Benin during the colonial era back to its country of origin.  There is certainly more to come.

Azmina Jasani


[1] Farah Nayeri, Museum in France Should Return African Treasures, NY Times Nov 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/arts/design/france-museums-africa-savoy-sarr-report.html.

[2] Rym Momtaz, Macron’s opponents are piste off, Politico, 20 March 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-opponents-french-france-lrem-paris/

[3] Catherine Hickley, Culture ministers from 16 German states agree to repatriate artefacts looted in colonial era, The Art Newspaper, 14 March 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/culture-ministers-from-16-german-states-agree-to-repatriate-artefacts-looted-in-colonial-era

[4] Catherine Hickley, Dutch museums take initiative to repatriate colonial-era artefacts, The Art Newspaper, 14 March 2019, https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/13032019-dutch-museum-commits-to-returning-looted-artefacts

[5] Vincent Noce, French President Emmanuel Macron calls for international conference on the return of African artefacts, The Art Newspaper, 26 Nov. 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/french-president-emmanuel-macron-calls-for-international-conference-on-the-return-of-african-artefacts

[6] Bamako, Dakar and Kinshasa, The Clamour to Return Artefacts Taken by Colonialists, 28 March 2019, The Economist, https://www.economist.com/international/2019/03/30/the-clamour-to-return-artefacts-taken-by-colonialists

[7] Id.

[8] Id.