African heritage belongs to Africa, but some items could be repaid in kind

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by Hans Dembowski

Understanding one's own culture and history is not enough

Yes, cultural artefacts that were robbed by colonial powers should be returned to former colonies. In our globalised era, however, it would make sense to strike deals according to which some of them should be repaid in kind. African museums should be able to put valuable items from other world regions on display.

In an official report to French President Emmanuel Macron, two scholars last week recommended sending back African cultural objects from French museums to the countries of origin. Such a policy would fit in well with Macron’s intention to come to terms with colonial history. The Financial Times reported: 

“The authors, Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist, and a French historian, Benedicte Savoy, reiterated a finding that more than 90 per cent of the ‘material cultural legacy’ of sub-Saharan Africa — including palace doors, thrones, carved heads and bronzes — was outside the continent. Europeans, it said, were straining to justify their continued possession of such treasure, while ‘Africans find themselves struggling to recover the thread of an interrupted memory’. France alone, the report said, had at least 90,000 African objects, including from modern-day Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin, Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Guinea. French collections also had artefacts from Ethiopia and the former British colonies of Ghana and Nigeria. Many items labelled as ‘gifts’ were the spoils of war, it said.” 

These are steps in the right direction. Now action must follow words. Destructive colonial legacies must be tackled, and D+C/E+Z took a look at some of the related issues in a focus section one year ago. 

According to the FT, the report also stated that museums with large African collections are parts of “a system of appropriation and alienation” that deprives Africans of the “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity”.

The first point is correct, the second one is incomplete. It suggests that all that is needed to improve matters is to return objects that represent African heritage. Problem runs deeper, however. African societies tend to be highly diverse, and conflicts often erupt between people who speak different languages, believe in different faiths and are raised according to different traditions. To promote a healthy sense of nationhood and diversity, all people would have to recognise their personal roots in whatever way the artefacts would be put on display in Africa. If historic artefacts are used to endorse the view of dominant communities, museums may actually do more harm than good.

Given that diversity is important, I think it would actually be better to only return 50 % of the artefacts concerned to the countries of origin, and pay for the others in kind. African countries should be given valuable European art in return for some of the artefacts that were taken away. They should also be given art from other world regions. Museums around the world should not only inform people about domestic cultures and histories. They should convey ideas that span the globe. Religions have always inspired artists. Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish artefacts deserve as much attention as Christian or Muslim ones do. Ancient artefacts from China or Egypt represent humankind’s heritage just as much as Greek or Roman ones. One obvious implication is that museums in India or Mexico should have relevant African items.  

Among other things, a sense of global diversity helps to put into perspective the position of locally dominant communities. In any case, we are living in an era of globalisation, whether we like it or not. The reason is that humankind is facing serious challenges that nation-states on their own cannot rise to. These challenges include global warming, financial stability, international terrorism, migration, the spread of diseases and many others. We need international solutions because the problems are international. 

In this setting, it is important to have an understanding of one’s own nation’s history and the cultural roots of its diversity. However, we also need an understanding of other countries and world regions. Equipping museums around the world to convey insights accordingly about the history and the great cultural diversity of our species would make sense. Moreover, museums should lend their items to museums in faraway countries for special exhibits. As in other politically relevant fields, we need more cooperation, not more exclusiveness.


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