European Museums Have Played for Time on Restitution Requests for Decades. Now, It Is Their Responsibility to Act

Read an excerpt from art history professor Bénédicte Savoy's book "Africa's Struggle For Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat."

Bénédicte Savoy, Africa's Struggle For Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat (2022). Courtesy Princeton University Press.

Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened forty years ago. Nearly every relevant film had already been made and nearly every demand had already been formulated. Even the most recent viral videos on social media about the spectacular “taking back” of artworks from museums, as filmed on mobile phones in France and Belgium in the summer of 2020 by the Congolese activist Emery Mwazula Diyabanza, had already been scripted in many minds by the mid-1970s. What do we learn from this? 

Firstly: The European men who tried to stem the tide against restitution requests from formerly colonized countries after 1960 left an enormous legacy cultural debt to the following generations. By arguing that collections that were accumulated in Berlin, London, Paris, Brussels and so on during the colonial era needed to be preserved for scholarship and future museum visitors, they offloaded the responsibility of finding fair solutions to future generations. They knew perfectly well that they were playing for time in bad faith, since they kept referring to “slowing things down,” spoke of time that could be gained through cooperative projects and promises, or of the course of history, which was likely to lead to restitutions one day regardless. These men also knew, as they put it in writing, that their strategy of denial would cause frustration and “desperation” for the supplicants. Nevertheless, they preferred to sit out the problem and delay an appropriate solution to the point when the matter would sort itself out (or they would be retired).

But cultural assets that were lost through war or colonization release collective emotions in the dispossessed and cause wounds not healed by time. On the contrary, historical distance seems to bring about a hardening of positions, doggedness and mistrust instead of rapprochement. In 1979, the German newspaper FAZ dubbed restitution as a “specter” haunting Europe. The phantom pain caused by the loss of cultural property 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 assume responsibility and to finish the work that museum directors and culture officials of the 1970s and ’80s deliberately left undone: a sincere and swift restitution of objects brought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during colonial occupation. We must do it now, and we must not shift the responsibility again to our children and grandchildren.

Secondly: This is about restitution. In the 1970s, all over Europe, authorities and museum administrations were not just fighting off the return of cultural property to Africa, they also argued for an abolishment of the “defamatory” term “restitution,” and suggested other terms as a replacement. To interpret the stoic philosopher Epictetus liberally, it is not just the acts that shake people, but also the words about the acts. The application or indeed the non-application of certain words are rooted and reflected in political-societal structures. The “re” in restitution is a capsule of temporality. The Latin prefix means “back,” “again,” but also “new,” “renewed.” Other than ersatz concepts like “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 the African holdings in European museums—was meant to be hidden. It went part and parcel with undisclosed inventory lists and unpublished collection catalogues, at least in Germany.

And this is precisely the reason why we insist today on the term “restitution” and must put it into practice: museums with non-European art in the heart of Europe are walk-in showcases of colonial appropriation practices. There is no way around it. They are veritable mementos that ask us as a society whether, in what form, and for how long we still want to live with these institutions in the twenty-first century, bearing in mind the long-standing desire for restitution expressed in African countries for fifty years. The great men who successfully defended the museums in the 1970s and ’80s did so in many cases because of an openly declared cultural or scholarly nationalism, coupled with racial prejudice. We should agree swiftly and democratically that we do not want to adhere to such questionable concepts. Instead of restitution, do we want to raise prospects of long-term loans and museum cooperations yet again, knowing perfectly well that these strategies were already deployed in the 1970s as “subterfuge” and as an attempt to “liberate” ourselves from the pressure of restitution?

Of course restitution does not preclude cooperation and exchange programs. Rather, they are a prerequisite for them. They guarantee that the current virtual monopoly exercized by Western museums on narrative, display and the circulation of such objects can be relinquished. Traditional relationships of dependency do not have to be perpetuated in a new format. Only then can a new economy of relations with Africa be initiated, which will not be restricted to the cultural sphere or museum exchange. For Europe, restitution does not mean disposing of the past. Restitution contributes to casting off an outdated, hierarchical structure—from the 1970s and ’80s—and to defining a mutual relationship in accordance with a post-racial coexistence.

Thirdly: Museums also lie. The reconstruction of the first restitution debate would not have been possible without the existence of generally accessible central archives with precise finding aids and user-friendly search systems. As a result, it became clear that many protagonists in the museum administrations of the 1970s and ’80s spoke with forked tongues. As they candidly documented in publications until the mid-1970s or later in internal correspondence, they knew perfectly well that the great majority of the African objects in their collections stemmed from the colonial era. To quote a much-referenced letter from 1897 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 bit of force.” Yet, externally, especially in committees and political circles, museum officials in the 1970s, with blatant impudence and rare exceptions, painted a picture of impeccably acquired collections with clean bills of provenance, which of course they never had to evidence. This was part of a strategy to reject any modest appeals to the solidarity of Western museums as well as culturally and humanistically argued restitution claims from Africa on legal terms. The alleged legality of acquisition became an autosuggestive mantra that persists to this day.

In December 2018, the official response of the German Federal Republic to an enquiry about “findings about the number of artifacts in the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin that may be considered potential restitution material” was that “no reliable information about this is at hand in the museums, and therefore neither in the Federal Government.” Of course it is at hand; one only needs to be allowed to access it. The political class and members of civil society must no longer allow themselves to be fobbed off as they were forty years ago with wrong or extensively filtered information from the museums themselves. The reconstruction of colonial-era acquisitions from African countries (and the rest of the world) must not be left exclusively to the holding institutions. Internally gained findings by museum staff on inconvenient provenance histories are not infrequently swept under the carpet by their superiors. Consequently, independent research committees with equal representation of African and European scholars should take on this task. In addition, a free and autonomous approach from within Africa to the cultural assets must be enabled, independently of European partners. In turn, this assumes a radical opening and digitalization of individual collection archives, or—even better—their transfer to professionally organized specialist archives.

The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel ran with the following headline at the end of 2020: “The valuable Benin bronzes should become the centrepiece of the Humboldt-Forum. But now, Nigeria’s ambassador publicly demands their restitution for the first time.” Shortly beforehand, Yusuf Tuggar, the Nigerian ambassador in Berlin since 2017, had let it be known on Twitter that he had presented an official request for restitution to the German Federal Government. He had already been waiting for an answer for a year. Some could not but feel that this looked like a case of indecorous political maneuvering: six days before the opening of the largest cultural project in Germany in the heart of Berlin, Nigeria was seeking media attention, what a coup! But in reality, as the present history has shown, Nigeria had been waiting for almost fifty years for affirmative action from Berlin. The same is true in other European contexts for Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia and Tanzania— to name but a few of the African nations whose cultural property was transferred systematically and en masse to Europe during the colonial era and who have tried since the 1970s to recover part of it.

Some restitutions to Africa did actually take place in recent times: a bible here, a sword there. Yet the issue still continues to trigger compulsive instances of institutional defence, as if the search for an equitable approach to collections created in an inequitable context was one of the greatest threats to European cultural heritage. But restitution claims from Africa are not a mere footnote in history. The manner in which European museums dealt with cultural demands from former colonized countries since their independence has been shameful. But there is value in turning to figures and initiatives of the 1970s and ’80s for guidance today.

There is dire need to incorporate the present restitution debate in the longue durée of 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 patterns enacted for decades in Europe in favour of new relational ethics with Africa. To play for time again, like in the 1970s, and to withhold the cultural heritage of humanity for the purposes of national self-assertion, is not an option for the future. 

Excerpted with permission from Africa’s Struggle For Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat (2022), published by Princeton University Press.

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