More and more European countries are signalling a willingness to return controversial colonial-era items to their African countries of origin. French president Emmanuel Macron made the biggest step forward in November during an official visit to Burkina Faso, a former French colony. He declared that “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”
He has since assigned two experts the tricky task of finding out how to negotiate a “temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage” within the next five years. In 2017, France rejected a request from Benin, another former colony, to return precious items but it’s understood this request will now be revisited.
France is not the only former colonial power to consider making amends in the art world. Earlier this month, Germany’s culture minister Monika Grütters published a code of conduct for museums to treat colonial-era artefacts within their collections. Advice includes publishing the historical context and seeking possibilities of long-term loans or ‘joint custody’ of objects.
Grütters said in a statement that “the colonial era has been a blind spot in our culture of remembrance for too long” and decided the German Lost Art Foundation would dedicate some funding to colonial-era artefacts, as well as looted Nazi-era art. However, critics say the guidelines don’t go far enough as they stop short of recommending full restitution.
The return of objects to the countries of their original ownership is rare. Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum recently returned nine objects to an indigenous community in Alaska after it was found they were plundered from a burial site there in the late 19th century. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. London’s V&A Museum won acclaim for its exhibition on Ethiopia’s plundered Maqdala Treasures which calls the original acquisition “shameful” yet has stopped short of offering to return the items to the country, instead suggesting a long-term loan.
Other British institutions have been less keen to part with their African collections. The British Museum is home to other Maqdala Treasures as well as 700 items plundered from the annexation of the Kingdom of Benin in modern day Nigeria. A museum spokesperson said they’ve always rejected restitution claims because “there is great value in presenting the Benin collection in a global context, alongside the stories of other cultures.”
The question of the rightful ownership of colonial-era items has been regularly discussed in the art world in recent decades but the issue has gotten a new lease of life with the release of Black Panther, which features a scene where a character takes an object from a British museum, saying it was stolen from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, before killing the curator and security.
While many agree with the sentiments behind the return, the practicalities can be more complex. Although they can be a source of revenue through tourism, ancient artefacts are costly to both preserve and secure. Some African nations are subject to political instability and there are fears, even within their own nations, that their heritage could be lost if returned before an adequate space is available. Long-term loans can also be tricky politically, as in cases from the United Kingdom, the country getting the loan of the objects is required to admit the that UK is the legitimate legal owner of the artefacts prior to the loan.