The three short years that have passed since the publication of the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron have seen returns from European and North American museums that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. In the past year alone, the French Museum at Quai Branly returned the Béhanzin Treasure to the Republic of Benin, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC returned the Benin Bronzes to the Nigeria, and a formal commitment from the Belgian government to return potentially thousands of cultural objects to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Old tales of museum loss or degradation through restitution are giving way to a heightened sense of cultural benefit – seen, for example, in both celebrations of returns to the Republic of Benin, and also in new understandings of collections. colonial art generated by Germany’s launch of a new online portal for looted colonial art. But where are the next challenges for cultural restitution?
Old stories take a long time to fade. As recently as 2019, Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, doubled down on the old hardline retentionist position. “The capture of the Elgin Marbles,” he told the Greek newspaper Your Nea, “was a creative act”. It is difficult to imagine such a statement today. Although attempts by the British government to cling to the neo-colonial suggestion that stolen goods could be loaned are still ongoing, could a formerly colonized nation now gain popular support to concede the property rights of the formerly colonizing nation in this way, where the ethical basis is little more than possession being nine-tenths of the law? International cooperation and determination are growing, as seen most recently in December, when the Greek resolution “Return or restitution of cultural property to countries of origin” was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of United Nations.
Progress on African restitutions has so far involved objects from well-known collections or individual Beninese objects such as those held by the University of Aberdeen or Jesus College, Cambridge. But Euro-American demonstrations of African heritage are only the tip of the iceberg. We gradually understand that a large part of this history concerns what is hidden in the reserves, often very badly cataloged, sometimes in boxes not opened for a century, even in certain cases in “orphan” collections where there is no there is no curator of African cultures or even of the world. on personnel to begin this work. The suggestion that some groundwork on provenance needs to be done before restitution can be discussed can become a delaying tactic. Even for collections as iconic as the British Museum objects from the 1897 attack on Benin, no item-by-item listing has ever been published. This lack of knowledge is a lack of transparency, which in turn is a lack of investment from the richest and most powerful institutions.
Multiply these gaps and silences by the millions of other African objects held by hundreds of European and North American institutions, and the next challenge of restitution emerges. It is difficult to claim that a museum cares for a collection if it cannot produce an accurate list of what it contains and where it came from. How long can museums hope to justify conserving African heritage outside the continent while failing to document their collections accurately and transparently? As these fundamental responsibilities for documentation and research continue to be shunned in museums, the case for returns allowing this work to occur in African rather than Euro-American contexts will grow. Provenance research, after all, requires resources. And since the cases won’t include the incredibly detailed levels of documentation we see for bronzes from Benin – where the looting was even photographed at the time it happened – museums may have to lower their evidentiary standards. during returns.
A generation ago, European and North American museums claimed Enlightenment values of universality as a palliative to refute demands for a return. Last September, in the work of the Intergovernmental Committee on the return and restitution of Unesco, the new director of the Acropolis museum affirmed that “the return of the marbles of the Parthenon is a universal requirement”. In the case of African restitutions, the false choice between cosmopolitan retentions or returns that only benefit narrow nationalism or identity politics likewise gives way to a new internationalism. This is what the Sarr-Savoy report called “relational ethics”. In my book, Brutal Museums, I suggested that the 2020s could be “a decade of comebacks”. If this potential is to be realized, the challenge is to build relationships that could lead to restitutions of long-neglected collections on a new, more ambitious scale, so that research is no longer solely in the hands of Euro-Americans, generating new understandings of colonial history. collections through equitable relationships between communities, scholars, institutions and nations.
• Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archeology at the University of Oxford. His latest book, Brutal museums: Benin bronzes, colonial violence and cultural restitutionis now available in paperback