Mark Horton Correspondent
EUROPEAN museums are under mounting pressure for irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I don't have the resources to see material from their own country, I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums. which is kept thousands of miles away.
Now, a report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.
The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of "theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent" by colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for "restitution" echoes the widely accepted approach which is to return to the looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.
The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. The colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, not only famous for its huge city and history but also extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.
The city was burned down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2000 art works – to "pay" for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40 percent of the haul. None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they're now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.
The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which was never fully acceded to colonial control – was installed to be free free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. The most end up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V & A, where they remain today.
Other African treasures were also taken without question. The Great Zimbabwe famous monuments were subjected to numerous associations of British Cecil Rhodes businessmen – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.
While these are the most famous cases, the majority of the Western museums are collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little legality to ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or graves, are simply collected and taken away. The activities continued well into the 20th century.
Making them safe
The argument is often coming to the West, they are simply going to have to be rotted away. This is a special argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people cannot be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.
Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were the lowest priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.
Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. The No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.
If the collections are to be returned, the West needs to take responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There are some, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to uncertain futures – there must be a plan to rebuild the African crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.
The rightful owners
Will the Musée du quai Branly, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70 000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? The massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at a great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? The British Museum has a very effective campaign that may lead to the return of Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V & A Museum has become a worthy discussion to return to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.
The report by Savoy and Sarr offered such deals to be a thing of the past and that Africa's rich cultural heritage can be returned, restored and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it. – Africa Conversation