Art Restitution Regaining Momentum: What Holds Museums Back?

The African Collection of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where art restitution is made possible.
Musée du quai Branly, The African Collection © Musée du quai Branly. Photo: Cyril Zannettacci

By Adam Hencz

Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh recently pasted a series of posters throughout more than 200 locations in Dresden to remind the German public about its role in his native country’s missing heritage. Unveiled on December 29, the “missing poster” series was launched in a German city which is home to five objects looted by the British troops back in 1897 from the former royal palace in Benin, the so-called ‘Benin Bronzes’.
Ogboh’s appeal comes at a time when the subject of colonial restitution has been emerging from an insider topic within museum communities to a worldwide public issue. In contemporary disputes, restitution not only refers to the return of unlawfully stolen property in times of war but also to reinstating status and legitimacy to those who had their property seized and ownership rights denied for the benefit of the colonial power.

The global movement for art restitution has strengthened considerably in the past years, and dialogues are pushed to a tipping point of the permanent repatriation of looted items. Institutions are pressured by lawmakers across Europe to make the final steps towards returning the plundered objects to their rightful communities but, in the meantime, the recent zealous efforts have raised even more complex questions concentrating on how and who they shall be eventually returned to.

The Case Of The Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes – a huge range of items, from engraved ivory tusks to brass sculptures and plaques – have become highly charged symbols of the cultural injustice perpetrated during the colonial era as well as of the movement dedicated to returning cultural treasures looted during colonialism. The Benin Bronzes were produced starting in the 15th century in the wealthy and industrious Kingdom of Benin, present-day Nigeria.
Many of these items were used during rituals, and provide an important historical record and visual archive of the Kingdom of Benin, in a society that did not use the written word. Key elements of the Benin Bronzes are the plaques which once decorated the Benin Royal Palace. In 1897, the palace was looted and razed by British soldiers during a punitive expedition, and the bronzes are now dispersed throughout major international Western museums, including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with Germany holding the largest number of objects.

Interior of the Royal Palace during looting, showing Captain Charles. Herbert Philip Carter, ‘E.P. Hill,’ and an unnamed man in February 1897. Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1998.208.15.11).
Interior of the Royal Palace during looting, showing Captain Charles. Herbert Philip Carter, ‘E.P. Hill,’ and an unnamed man in February 1897. Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1998.208.15.11).

The British Museum has long faced calls to return the bronzes to Africa, but the limitations of laws governing the return and restitution of illicitly exported or stolen cultural property, and the significant differences between national legal regimes, prevent the return or restitution of cultural objects in many cases. Despite a historical precedent for repatriation – the British Museum returned some 25 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in the 1950s – since 1963 the institution is restricted by the British Museum government act, which prevents it from returning any more objects.
As art restitution due to law enforcement has been often unsuccessful, it relies more and more on dialogues, agreements and alternative methods of solutions directly involving key museum representatives from both sides. While several African nations have made formal requests for the return of objects from Western national collections, and several museums have committed to long-term loans to African partners, the full transfer of ownership has been a sticking point.

The French Bill

France marks the latest significant development in Western attitude towards restitution. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech delivered on a 2017 visit to the West African republic of Burkina Faso – a former part of the French colonial empire – made a promise to make the restitution of French-owned African heritage a priority over the following five years. France, like many other Western countries in the possession of African heritage that was looted during the colonial period, had to pave a legal path around centuries-old principles that protects objects in the national collection from being deaccessioned. Last November, a landmark bill was passed by the French Senate that would allow for the restitution of 27 objects from the French national collections to Benin and Senegal before the end of 2021.

Macron’s promise and the French bill set the future direction of a decades-long debate in France over art restitution, and shed light onto the question of how exactly repatriation should be carried out and restitution requests handled. The bill originally proposed by the French Senate included the creation of a National Council that would advise on future claims received by French institutions, but the National Assembly later reduced the provision, adopting a case-by-case approach that would require individual approval from the president. France’s example increases the pressure on museums across Europe, which has been building on several fronts.

Interior of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where art restitution is made possible.
Interior of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where more than 70,000 African artefacts, artworks, and objects are reported to be held. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

Pragmatic Dilemma

The current debate continues between the two different attitudes towards restitution: one – well represented by France – supporting the return of artefacts that were looted historically; the other stressing the international nature of cultural heritage that is less favourable to return and restitution. The arguments for the latter are stemming from the fear of Western museums becoming emptied due to the efforts of art restitution. It is also emphasized a purported lack of readiness and local infrastructure to preserve the objects on the part of African countries.

Art restitution claims received a boost with the release of a 2018 report commissioned by the French government that calls for wholesale restitution of artefacts seized during the colonial era. The report from academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy argues that “transitional solutions,” like temporary returns or loans, should be in place only “until legal mechanisms are found to allow the final and unconditional return of heritage objects to the African continent.” Even though long-term loans are often criticized for neglecting the question of ownership and colonial violence, they indeed give institutions time while they allocate resources to the challenges revolving around questions of how to determine what objects from their respective collections were plundered and who they should be returned to on these terms.

Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy at the Collège de France in Paris advocating art restitution.
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy at the Collège de France in Paris, on March 21, 2018. © Alain Jocard/AFP

Returning the objects to African governments might not be the only solution, since the borderlines of African countries have been constructed by the accident of colonialism, and, in many cases, the plundered artefacts represent communities that spread beyond contemporary national borders. These communities are eager to reconnect to their past and cultural heritage. Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, the curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, poses the crucial question whether the focus of art restitution should be on the physical objects or on the intangible culture and heritage that accompanied these artefacts. The curator also urges the creation of a research pipeline involving intellectuals from the African continent and diaspora to help devise practical ideas and actionable plans that take the interests of the rightful owners and ultimately address historical injustices wherever they are found.

For the time being, many institutions are waiting for government guidance and are still fighting for vaulting the insurmountable legal hurdles to deaccessioning. Whatever the stage of the debate, most experts agree that the restitution movement has long been inching forward and by now has gathered an unstoppable momentum.
The upcoming decade could lay out historic fundamentals for eventually reinstating cultural heritage across former colonies.

Relevant sources to learn more

The 2018 restitution report from Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy
Benin Bronzes at the British Museum
Vermisst in Benin” by Emeka Ogboh