European museums have gambled on restitution claims for decades. Now it’s their responsibility to act

Almost all of the conversations today about returning cultural property to Africa already took place forty years ago. Almost all of the relevant films had already been made and almost all of the requests had already been made. Even the latest viral videos on social media of the spectacular “recovery” of works of art in museums, filmed on mobile phones in France and Belgium in the summer of 2020 by Congolese activist Emery Mwazula Diyabanza, had already been scripted in many minds. around the mid-1970s. What do we learn from this?

first of all: European men who tried to stem the tide against restitution claims from formerly colonized countries after 1960 left a huge cultural debt to succeeding generations. By asserting that the collections accumulated in Berlin, London, Paris, Brussels, etc. in colonial times were to be preserved for researchers and future museum visitors, they discharged the responsibility of finding equitable solutions for future generations. They knew perfectly well that they were trying to buy time in bad faith, since they kept talking about “slowing down”, talking about time that could be won by cooperative projects and promises, or the course of history, which was likely to lead to refunds one day regardless. These men also knew, as they said in writing, that their strategy of denial would cause frustration and “desperation” to the supplicants. Nevertheless, they preferred to sit on the issue and delay a proper solution until the matter was settled (or they would be removed).

But cultural assets that have been lost through war or colonization release collective emotions among the dispossessed and cause wounds that time does not heal. On the contrary, the historical estrangement seems to engender a hardening of positions, stubbornness and mistrust instead of rapprochement. In 1979, the German newspaper FAZ restitution described as a “specter” haunting Europe. The phantom pain caused by the loss of cultural assets outside Europe has been felt since the 1960s. It shapes our present and becomes more acute over time. It is up to our generation to take responsibility and complete the job that the museum directors and cultural leaders of the 1970s and 1980s deliberately left unfinished: a sincere and speedy restitution of objects brought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during the colonial occupation. We have to do it now and we must not put the blame on our children and grandchildren again.

Secondly: This is about restitution. In the 1970s, across Europe, authorities and museum administrations were not only fighting against the return of cultural property to Africa, they were also advocating for the abolition of the “libelous” term “restitution” and suggesting ‘other terms instead. To interpret the Stoic philosopher Epictetus liberally, it is not only deeds that shake people, but also words about deeds. The application or non-application of certain words is rooted and reflected in political-societal structures. The “re” in the restitution is a capsule of time. The Latin prefix means “return”, “again”, but also “new”, “renewed”. Besides ersatz concepts such as “circulation” or “transfer”, which have no historical dimension but operate in a purely spatial sense, the term “restitution” refers both to the past and to the future. By banning the term in the 1970s, the past – that is, the colonial dimension of the problem, and with it the shameful history of African collections in European museums – was meant to be hidden. It went hand in hand with undisclosed inventory lists and unpublished collection catalogs, at least in Germany.

And this is precisely the reason why we insist today on the term “restitution” and must put it into practice: the museums of extra-European art in the heart of Europe are showcases for the practices of appropriation colonial. There is no way around it. These are real memories that ask us as a society if, in what form and for how long we still want to live with these institutions in the 21st century, given the ancient desire for restitution expressed in African countries for fifty years. The great men who successfully defended museums in the 1970s and 1980s did so in many cases because of overt cultural or scholarly nationalism, coupled with racial prejudice. We should quickly and democratically agree that we do not want to buy into such questionable concepts. Instead of restitution, do we want to relaunch prospects for long-term loans and museum cooperation, knowing full well that these strategies were already deployed in the 1970s as a “subterfuge” and as an attempt to “liberate” ourselves from the pressure of the restitution?

Of course, restitution does not exclude cooperation and exchange programs. On the contrary, they are a prerequisite for them. They guarantee the abandonment of the current quasi-monopoly exercised by Western museums on the narration, exhibition and circulation of these objects. Traditional dependency relationships do not have to be perpetuated in a new format. It is only then that a new economy of relations with Africa will be able to begin, which will not be limited to the cultural sphere or museum exchange. For Europe, restitution does not mean disposing of the past. Restitution contributes to getting rid of an outdated hierarchical structure – from the 1970s and 1980s – and to defining a mutual relationship according to a post-racial coexistence.

Thirdly: Museums also lie. The reconstruction of the first restitution debate would not have been possible without the existence of a generally accessible central archive with precise research tools and user-friendly search systems. As a result, it became apparent that many of the protagonists of the museum administrations of the 1970s and 1980s spoke with forked tongues. As they candidly documented in publications up to the mid-1970s or later in internal correspondence, they were well aware that the vast majority of African objects in their collections came from the colonial era. To quote a highly referenced 1897 letter to the director of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, even in the context of injustice during colonial rule, it was “quite difficult to obtain an object without using at least a little force”. Yet outside, particularly in committees and policy circles, museum officials of the 1970s, with blatant impudence and rare exceptions, painted a picture of impeccably acquired collections with clean bills of provenance, which which of course they never had to prove. This was part of a strategy to reject any modest calls for solidarity from Western museums as well as culturally and humanistically argued demands for restitution from Africa in legal terms. The purported legality of the acquisition became an autosuggestive mantra that persists to this day.

In December 2018, the official response of the Federal Republic of Germany to an investigation into “the findings on the number of artifacts in the Ethnological Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin which can be considered as potential restitution material” was that “no reliable information on this is at hand in the museums, and therefore no longer in the federal government.” Of course, it is at hand; you just need to be authorized to access it. Politicians and members of civil society must no longer allow themselves to be fooled as forty years ago by erroneous or largely filtered information coming from the museums themselves. The reconstruction of colonial-era acquisitions from African countries (and the rest of the world) should not be left exclusively to the holding institutions. Discoveries made internally by museum staff on impractical provenance stories are often swept under the rug by their superiors. Therefore, independent research committees with equal representation of African and European scholars should take on this task. Moreover, a free and autonomous approach from within Africa towards cultural goods must be allowed, independently of European partners. This in turn presupposes a radical opening up and digitization of the archives of individual collections or, better still, their transfer to professionally organized specialized archives.

The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel headlined at the end of 2020: “The precious bronzes of Benin should become the centerpiece of the Humboldt-Forum. But now the Nigerian ambassador is publicly demanding their return for the first time. Shortly before, Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s ambassador to Berlin since 2017, tweeted that he had made a formal restitution request to the German federal government. He had already been waiting for a response for a year. For some, it looked like an indecent political maneuver: six days before the opening of Germany’s biggest cultural project in the heart of Berlin, Nigeria was attracting the attention of the media, what a coup! But in reality, as current history has shown, Nigeria had been waiting for almost fifty years for positive action from Berlin. The same is true in other European contexts for Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia and Tanzania, to name just a few of the countries Africans whose cultural goods were transferred systematically and en masse to Europe during the colonial era and who have been trying since the 1970s to recover some of them.

Some restitutions to Africa have indeed taken place lately: a bible here, a sword there. Yet the issue continues to trigger compulsive instances of institutional defense, as if seeking a fair approach to collections created in an unfair context is one of the greatest threats to Europe’s cultural heritage. But Africa’s demands for restitution are not a mere footnote in history. The way European museums have dealt with the cultural demands of former colonized countries since their independence is shameful. But it is useful to look to the figures and initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s for orientation today.

It is absolutely necessary to integrate the current debate on restitution into the long duration historical processes in order to recognize the political, personal, administrative and ideological constellations that have shaped the debate for half a century. Only in this way will it be possible to interrupt the institutional schemes that have been in force for decades in Europe in favor of a new relational ethic with Africa. Replaying time, as in the 1970s, and retaining the cultural heritage of humanity for the purposes of national affirmation, is not an option for the future.

Excerpted with permission from Africa’s Struggle for its Art: A Story of Postcolonial Defeat (2022), published by Princeton University Press.

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