France should repatriate tens of thousands of cultural artifacts stolen from Africa during colonial times, reads a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron that could have dire consequences to museums and institutions across Europe.
The report insists that France’s laws on the matter should be changed and that African cultural treasures that were stolen and/or looted during France’s occupation should be returned to their countries of origin. In the report, the authors accused museums and institutions with large African collections of being part “of a system of appropriation and alienation” that continues to profit off a colonial past and in turn deprives Africans of the “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity”.
When Macron spoke on the matter and commissioned the report in a speech in Burkina Faso last year, it hinted a radical policy shift as France’s laws prevents the government from yielding state property. “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums,” he said at the time. Macron then tasked Benedicte Savoy, a French art historian and Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese writer, to research the matter and come up with a report that maps out the conditions.
Savoy and Sarr reference a finding that 90 percent of the “material cultural legacy” of sub-Saharan Africa exists outside of the continent. They say that while Europeans are fighting hard to justify their continued possession of such treasures, “Africans find themselves struggling to recover the thread of an interrupted memory”.
In France alone, over 90,000 African objects are being housed in different museums, collections and institutions. Before Macron’s presidency, France had strongly refused to return the slightest of artefacts to Benin due to “inalienability of public French art collections”. Macron’s positions on Africa’s cultural heritage is part of a greater policy to restore relations with the continent and the first step is to face the colonial past.
According to the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum, welcomes the questions the report raises but not the full and permanent restitution of artifacts. Lambert argues that the museum is in a unique position to tell stories about cross-cultural influences, which is only possible “if you have a global collection”.
It’s unclear how the report will be enforced just yet, but at the very least, the debate is being had on a more public scale, and opinions of people in powerful positions like Mr. Lambert, are directly clashing with scholars and historians, not just politicians.