Mark Horton correspondent
EUROPEAN MUSEUMS have been increasingly pressured to return to the irreplaceable artefacts that were plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist working in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the ease of access to Western museums, although it is disturbed by the ethical defects of how they got there illegally and the fault that my colleagues across Africa may not have the resources to see materials from their own country held for thousands of miles away.
The report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has now called for the return of a piece of art that was plundered from sub-Saharan African colonial times through constant restitution.
Felwine Sarr, a French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist, wrote a 108-page study of "theft, robbery, despoilment, deception and coercive consent" by which colonial powers acquire these materials. The call for restitution resembles a widely accepted approach aimed at returning the looted Nazi art to its legitimate owners.
The colonial power record in African countries was openly disgusting. The colonial law was determined by the weapon barrel, with military campaigns that were carried out under comprehensive reservations. The 1897 Benin expedition was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, known not only for its huge city and peninsula, but also its extraordinary bronze and brass plates and statues.
The city was burnt down, and British admiralty auctioned off a prey – more than 2000 works of art – to pay for expedition. The British Museum gained about 40 percent of the fishing gear. None of the artefacts left Africa – now they are scattered across museums and private collections around the world.
The United Kingdom's 1867 expedition to Absingney's ancient kingdom, which had never fully joined the colonial control, was installed on seemingly free missionaries and government representatives who were arrested by Caesar Tewodros II. It reached the culmination of the Magdalen Battle and the invaluable handwriting, paintings and artifacts of the Ethiopian Church, which sometimes required 15 elephants and 200 mules to bring them all. Most of them ended in the British Library, the British Museum and V & A, where they stay today.
Other African treasures were made without question. For many years, the famous Great Zimbabwean monument was made by the partner of the British host Cecil Rhodes, who in 1895 created the Rhodesian Ancient Ruins Ltd. to plunder more than 40 of its golden sites and destroyed a large part of the archaeological site. In 1981, icicle soapstone birds returned to South Africa in Zimbabwe, but many items are still in Western museums.
Though these are the most famous things, most of the African objects in Western museums were collected by adventure seekers, administrators, traders and residents without thinking about the legality of property rights. Even if they were bought from their local owners, they often had a pittant, and had little control to restrict their exports. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave markers, were simply collected and removed. Such activities continued in the 20th century.
Making them safe
Usually it is argued that when they arrived to the west, these items were kept by the offspring – if they were left in Africa, they would simply be ruined. This is a huge argument based on racist attitudes that local people can not in some way be able to entrust their cultural heritage. It is also the result of the effects of colonial corrosion.
The colonial forces had an incomplete record for creating museums to keep these objects locally. While impressive national museums were occasionally built in colonial capitals, they were later renamed with funding or experience. Following African independence, these museums were low on the list of priorities for public funding and foreign aid and development, but the regional museums were virtually neglected.
Nowadays, many African continent museums are partially abandoned, climate-controlled, ill-trained and with little security. There are many examples of thefts or lost collections. No wonder Western museums do not want to return to their collections.
When stocks are returned, the West must assume its responsibility for this situation and invest in African museums and their employees. There are some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the controversial art and subjects back to an uncertain future – there is a plan to restore the infrastructure of massive African museums supported by effective partnerships and real money.
Is the Musée du Quai Branly, this huge world ethnographic treasure house in Paris with more than 70,000 African objects, emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – Prussian Castle, which was rebuilt at a great price, to place ethnographic artefacts in Berlin, which will open in early 2019, would be in their African collections? The British Museum is already concerned that a very effective campaign may lead to Repu Nui Moai returning to Easter Island.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Magdalen Battle, and the V & A Museum has begun a worthwhile discussion to return its treasures in Ethiopia. But there are reports that it would be based on a long-term loan, and it depends on the Ethiopian government's withdrawal of its claim for the restoration of the abandoned objects. The Berlin Prussia Foundation concluded a similar agreement, which in 2000 did not want to give Zimbabwean government a share of small blueberries to the Zimbabwean government.
The Savoie and Sarra report offer hope that such deals can become a thing of the past and that the rich cultural heritage of Africa can be returned, rebuilt and restored to the excellent cultures that made it. – African conversation