From European museums to African homelands: Restitution as geopolitics

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In the past three years, something remarkable has occurred in Europe. Cultural objects were taken out of the “sanctity” of museum cases and flown to their ancestral homelands in sub-Saharan Africa: France returned 26 objects to Benin, Germany returned 20 objects to Nigeria and handed over ownership of over 1,100 objects, Belgium handed over a catalogue of 84,000 objects to DR Congo and has entered into bilateral discussions about their future. After decades of inaction, restitution is suddenly everywhere.

The debates around the restitution of cultural objects from Europe to African nations is anything but new. As many pointed out, including previous contributions on EUIdeas, the debates reach back to at least the 1960s. The past decades, however, there was little to no development on this issue and the objects have largely remained in European collections. So why is there suddenly such a flurry of activity? The main reason, I argue, is the changed geopolitical situation, not a sudden moral awakening by European nations to their colonial past. This makes restitution dependent on the geopolitical situation, not moral considerations.

The Sarr and Savoy Report of 2018, commissioned by French President Macron, reactivated the restitution debate by calling for the restitution of objects and citing that an estimated 90–95% of moveable cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa is stored in Western museums. The report advocates a “new relational ethics” of France and its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. The restitution of material objects is presented as a tool to establish this new relationship. This “new relational ethics” is based on facing the colonialist past. Already the term “restitution” includes an admission of wrong-doing, as can be seen in the Merriam Webster definition, where restitution includes returning something to its “rightful” owner. This critical engagement with their colonial past should and could be seen by many European nations as an opportunity. Unfortunately, instead of a chance for true “new relational ethics”, it is mostly used by European governments as a diplomatic opportunity for closer engagement with a sphere of influence that Europe fears it has lost its grip on.

Restitution as a political act

Following the Sarr and Savoy Report, France changed its legislation. The new French law allowed the return of 26 objects from the Quai Branly Museum to Benin. Other European countries followed suit in compiling lists, guidelines, and committees to consider restitutions. Crucially, the acts of restitution always feature state ministers, prime ministers, or presidents, highlighting that restitution is a political act. European politicians have good reason to care about restitutions. Africa’s young population, abundance of natural resources and growing middle class arguably make the continent the future of global growth, a reality China has long recognised and adapted to with massive investment campaigns. European nations in comparison have to contend with their legacy of colonialism in Africa, a lesson France has had to learn painfully in Mali, where Macron was called “neocolonial, paternalistic, and patronising.

This legacy of colonialism is a fact, as recognized by President Macron himself during his 2017 speech at the University of Ouagadougou: “[…] les crimes de la colonisation européenne sont incontestables et font partie de notre histoire.” (“The crimes of European colonization cannot be disputed and are part of our history.”) The restitution of the objects is thus a tool to overwrite this legacy with the eventual ceremonial return of the objects and the start of a “neues Kapitel der Freundschaft” (“new chapter of friendship”) as expressed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. This is the reason European restitutions of the past years have been accompanied by further cultural cooperation, such as future bilateral engagement of DR Congo and Belgium on the future of the colonial objects or the German-Nigerian cooperation in training personnel and financing the construction of new museum infrastructure in Benin City. It is also the reason European powers have little to no interest in formalising and streamlining restitutions.

For the restitution of Nazi confiscated objects, there is a procedure laid out in the Washington Principles. This sets out general rules and guidelines for the return of objects plundered in the context of the Second World War. The return of objects looted in a colonial context in contrast is completely dependent on bilateral relations and a formerly colonised nation requesting its heritage back. A European nation is more likely to have objects of a former colony in its collections, meaning it can alter the legacy of its own colonialism and European colonialism more broadly. Instead of relying on agreed-upon criteria for restitution, African nations have to rely on the whims of their former colonisers and their geo-strategical considerations.

The future of restitutions

When Nigeria revealed in May 2023 that it would not keep the restituted bronzes in public collections but instead return them as the private property of the Oba of Benin, King Ewuare II, this was called a “fiasco” for the two Green ministers who had been involved in their return to Nigeria. The future of the objects in Nigeria is currently unclear. The expectation of some members of the German public that the objects, as symbols of German benevolence, would still be under the influence of the German public after restitution reveals deeply entrenched paternalistic attitudes towards Nigeria and highlights the questionable sustainability of restitutions. With the appointment of right-wing Rachida Dati as French Culture Minister in January 2024, the future of French restitutions is equally unclear.

While the future of restitutions to sub-Saharan Africa hangs in the balance, the call for future restitutions is growing ever louder. It is led by African academics, museum professionals and civil society activists, such as the initiative Open Restitution. Africa or the opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City in the course of 2024. The restitution of cultural objects offers Europe the opportunity to establish a new relationship by acknowledging the painful past and seeking to remedy (parts of) it in hopes of holding on to what influence they can in Africa. Africa has been requesting the return of their heritage for decades. Ultimately what has changed is that it is Europe, not Africa, that seeks to reframe the past to establish a shared future.

 

Aurora Hamm is a member of the Decolonising Initiative and a PhD researcher at the EUI Department of History. Aurora’s PhD thesis will be on the utilization of cultural heritage in the foreign policy of the European Union.