Only art that is looted back can restore the heritage to the culture that made it



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Written by Mark Horton

Mark Horton is a professor of archeology at the University of Bristol, England. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN exhibited The Conversation work, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. Content is produced solely by The Conversation.

European museums are under intense pressure to restore the irreplaceable artifacts looted during the colonial period. As an archaeologist working in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research.

I benefited from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being attacked by ethical confusion about how they were taken there by illegal means, and with guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa might not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is stored thousands of miles away.

Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, recommends that art looted from Sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era must be returned through permanent restitution.
Benin demands the return of national assets that have been brought to France and is currently on display at Quai Branly, a museum that displays original African art and culture.

Benin demands the return of national assets that have been brought to France and is currently on display at Quai Branly, a museum that displays original African art and culture. Credit: GERARD JULIEN / AFP / Getty Images

The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, spoke of "theft, looting, plunder, deception and forced consent" in which colonial powers obtained these materials. The call for "restitution" echoes a widely accepted approach that seeks to return the art that the Nazis plundered to their rightful owners.

Records of colonial powers in African countries are frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by gun barrel, with military campaigns carried out on the thinnest reasons. The Benin expedition in 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, which was famous not only for its large cities and fortifications, but also for its extraordinary plaques and bronze and brass statues.
Three British soldiers after the Benin expedition.

Three British soldiers after the Benin expedition. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The city was on fire, and the British Navy auctioned off booty – more than 2,000 works of art – to "pay" for expeditions. The British Museum gets around 40% of the catch. There are no artifacts living in Africa – they are now scattered in museums and private collections throughout the world.

The British expedition of 1867 to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which had never fully agreed to colonial control – was installed for missionaries who appeared to be free and government agents detained by Emperor Tewodros II. This culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the plunder of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artifacts from the Ethiopian church, which is said to require 15 elephants and 200 mules to bring them all. Most end up at the British Library, the British Museum and V & A, where they remain today.

Purchased, stolen, destroyed

Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous Great Zimbabwe ruins were subjected to many excavations by fellow British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who founded Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 of their gold sites – and much of the archeology on the site was destroyed. . Iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but there are still many items left in Western museums.

France returns stolen artwork stored in the museum

While this is the most famous case, most African objects in the Western museum are collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought about the legality of ownership. Even if they are purchased from local owners, often at low prices, and there are some controls to limit their exports. Archaeological remains, such as inscriptions or markers, are collected and taken away. Such activities continued into the 20th century.

Make them safe

The argument is often put forward that by coming to the West, these objects are maintained for posterity – if they are left in Africa they will only rot. This is an unreasonable argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous peoples cannot be trusted to regulate their own cultural heritage. This is also a product of the impact of corrosive colonialism.

Colonial powers have incomplete records in establishing museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in the colonial capital, they then lacked funds or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were on the low priority list for national funding and overseas assistance and development, while regional museums were almost ignored.

The Belgian Central African Museum reopened in December amid protests and requests from the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo to return stolen artifacts.

The Belgian Central African Museum reopened in December amid protests and requests from the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo to return stolen artifacts. Credit: GEORGES GOBET / AFP / AFP / Getty Images

Today, many museums on the African continent are semi-abandoned, without climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are many examples of theft or loss of collections. No wonder the Western museum is reluctant to restore its collection.

If collections must be returned, the West needs to take responsibility for this situation and invest in African museums and their staff. There have been several attempts to do this, but the task is enormous. It is not enough to send back art and controversial objects to an uncertain future – there must be plans to rebuild the ruined African museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.

Legitimate owner

Will the Musée du quai Branly, the world's largest ethnographic treasure house in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian castle rebuilt at great cost to accommodate ethnographic artifacts in Berlin that opened in early 2019 – shaved off by its African collection? There is already concern in the British Museum that a very effective campaign can lead to the return of the statue of Rapu Nui Moai to Easter Island.
Easter Island seeks to secure the return of the statue, known as Hoa Hakananai & # 39; a, from the British Museum in London.

Easter Island seeks to secure the return of the statue, known as Hoa Hakananai & # 39; a, from the British Museum in London. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / AFP / Getty Images

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V & A Museum has held a proper discussion to return his property to Ethiopia. But there are reports that this will be based on long-term loans, and depends on the Ethiopian government to withdraw its claim to return the looted objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin signed a similar agreement, unwilling to give up ownership of a small piece of soap to the Government of Zimbabwe in 2000.

Reports by Savoy and Sarr offer hope that such agreements can be a thing of the past and that Africa's rich cultural heritage can be returned, restored and returned to the brilliant culture that made it.

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