IN THE NEW Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, two vitrines display a French-made sword, a Koran and a pair of scruffy leather sandals. They were taken from Hadj Omar Tall, a Sufi military commander who briefly formed an empire that stretched across Guinea, Mali and Senegal. Hadj Omar gained a heroic reputation fighting the French in west Africa until he was killed in 1864. His personal effects were seized as war booty and eventually bequeathed to various French museums. They have been returned, temporarily, for the Dakar museum’s opening. “It’s the third time they’ve lent us what is ours,” sniffs the director, Hamady Bocoum.
In November 2017 President Emmanuel Macron of France electrified an audience of students and faculty at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Claiming to speak in the name of youth, he said: “I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France…Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.” In minutes the first French president born after the colonial period had smashed the conventional justification for refusing to return artworks. Public collections in France and elsewhere in Europe are generally held to be “inalienable”. They belong to the state or, in the case of the British Museum, are held by its trustees on behalf of Parliament. They cannot be given back.
Around the time of his speech, Mr Macron commissioned two academics—Felwine Sarr, a radical Senegalese scholar and essayist, and Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian specialising in the restitution of art looted by Napoleon—to advise the government on how to share the art in its possession more widely. If French museum directors were shocked at not having been consulted before Mr Macron made his speech, they were even more surprised when the report came out last November. The authors concluded that 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent. Most of it was looted, stolen, bought under duress or borrowed and never returned, they said. They argued that objects should go back, starting with those that were carried off as booty during raids.
Western museums were appalled. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former French culture minister, complained to Le Figaro: “Their recommendations would have the effect of emptying French museums of their African collections, placing in their stead physical or virtual copies!” Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, which faces restitution claims from Nigeria for the Benin Bronzes (pictured above) as well as from Turkey and Greece, made no public comment. But over the winter he has repeatedly said to friends: “The report is not helpful. Not helpful at all.”
It is not the first time that Western museums have been asked to hand over treasures. One of the oldest disputes is between Britain and Greece over the marble statuary that was removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin and sold to the British government in 1816 to become the centrepiece of the British Museum. During the second world war, when Britain needed Greece’s help, the Foreign Office drafted a scheme for their return. The plan was shelved when the danger passed. Germany’s government has asked Russian museums to return some of the vast haul stolen at the end of the second world war; the Russians have declined.
Some restitution has taken place. The Smithsonian museums in America have repatriated thousands of funerary and sacred objects to Native American tribes. Human remains have been returned to Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia. Yet, with the exception of Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, who was brought from South Africa to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited in a freak show as the “Hottentot Venus” and whose remains were returned for burial in 2002, few objects have been given back to African countries.
But artists have not let the issue rest. Restitution was the theme of the latest documenta, a contemporary art show held every five years, most recently in Kassel and Athens. “Le Silence du Totem”, a novel of 2018 by the Senegalese writer Fatoumata Sissi Ngom, is about the discovery of a sculpture in a Paris museum. In the stupendously popular film “Black Panther”, an artefact looted from the fictional kingdom of Wakanda is stolen back from the “Museum of Great Britain”. And two developments—one originating in Europe, the other in Africa—are making demands for restitution harder to resist.
In 1998 representatives of 44 countries gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss how the heirs of Jewish collectors could lay claim to the artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis and their agents—often known as Raubkunst. Gradually the debate spread to what Nicholas Thomas, director of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, calls “colonial Raubkunst”. That refers to the untrammelled accumulation of ethnographic collections from Germany’s colonial empire: Togo, Cameroon, mainland Tanzania and former South-West Africa (now Namibia and part of Botswana).
A German museum due to open this year, the Humboldt Forum, has turned an academic row into a public one. A throwback to an old Prussian museum project, the Humboldt Forum will house, among others, objects from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Germany’s biggest ethnographic collection. Ms Savoy, one of the co-authors of the Macron report, has lived in Berlin for nearly 25 years. In July 2017 she resigned from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board in protest at what she regarded as the less than rigorous research being done on its ethnographic collections. “I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” she wrote. “Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no ethnological museum should open.”
Ms Savoy and Mr Sarr’s report for the French government has a German flavour. Long-term museum-to-museum loans, as Mr Macron had suggested, were not the solution, the authors argued. Nor was it sufficient to assume that a gap in the provenance of an object might mean that the object had been acquired in good faith. Just as has happened with artworks whose ownership could not be accounted for during the Nazi period, the report insists that unless an African object can conclusively be proven to have been purchased in good faith on both sides, it should be returned.
New homes for art
In 1973 Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), made one of the earliest public demands for the restitution of African artworks. He pleaded before the UN General Assembly in New York for the return of stolen objects, “so that we can teach our children and our grandchildren the history of their countries.” The Africa Museum at Tervuren, in Belgium, duly sent back 144 pieces. Almost all of these quickly found their way back on to the market in Europe, having been stolen, says the director, Guido Gryseels.
For decades European curators have cited that episode as one of the prime reasons why their treasures should not be returned to Africa. Corruption is not the only danger: Islamist terrorism poses a threat to art across the Sahel as it did in Iraq. Resources are a problem, too. In Ouagadougou, the city where Mr Macron gave his speech in 2017, the national museum is made up of half a dozen small buildings set across 28 acres of grassland. It has only enough of a collection to fill one room. There are more cattle outside than historical artefacts inside.
Tanzania has so far refused to engage with the idea, promoted by Germany’s Green Party, that the museums in Berlin should return 20,000 ethnographic artefacts seized when Tanganyika was a German colony before the first world war, saying it has nowhere to store them. Joseph Kabila, who has just stepped down as Congo’s president, said last December that the government would formally request the return of all its treasures from Belgium once a new national museum, paid for by South Korea, opens later this year. Until then, “Where would we put all those objects? We don’t have space here,” says Paul Bakua-Lufu, the director-general of museums.
But other countries are doing better. Ivory Coast is asking for the return of 100 objects from France, and says it has the galleries to display them. A new museum has been opened with UNESCO’s help in Gao in Mali; another will open soon in Timbuktu, says Salia Malé, director of Mali’s National Museum. Benin, which is requesting the return of works looted from the royal palaces of Abomey by French soldiers in 1892, is building three new museums.
The greatest steps forward have been in Senegal and Nigeria. In Mr Bocoum’s Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, which China built as a gift to Senegal for €35m ($40m), four floors of exhibitions cover everything from palaeontology to contemporary West African fashion. A gallery on the Abrahamic religions is there to show that Christianity and Islam can co-exist peacefully. “Non à la Charia à Tombouctou”, a contemporary textile-and-embroidery work by Abdoulaye Konaté, a Cuban-trained artist from Mali, shows the skyline of Timbuktu with a sword hovering above. Mr Bocoum believes art can be a unifying force. He would like artists and young people to come to the museum, not just to see art made in West Africa but to have the experience, as visitors in Europe do, of seeing the connections between artworks from different continents and civilisations—to prove that “what unites us is stronger than what divides us,” he says.
In Nigeria the Edo state government and royal court plan to build a museum in Benin City to house the treasures that were looted during a punitive expedition in 1897. More than 1,000 of the Benin Bronzes found their way into museums in Europe and America; the largest portion is in the British Museum. The state government will soon begin a feasibility study for the new building, which will include galleries and a research institute. “These works are our ambassadors,” says the executive governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki. “They represent who we are.”