Restitution of African cultural heritage as chance

by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

At this moment, 90 percent of the African cultural objects are in Europe (Kassel & Zimmerer, 2018). Most Africans do not have access to their cultural heritage as not everyone has the financial capacity to buy a plane ticket to Europe and visit a European museum. The Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy recommended to restitute the cultural objects according to the right to cultural heritage (Arend, 2019). On their recommendation, the French President Emmanuel Macron promised to pave the way for the restitution of culture objects within five years (Arend, 2019). This initiated a Europe-wide debate. In Germany, for instance, the government stipulated in the coalition agreement that it aims at promoting provenance research (Förster, 2019, p. 78). However, it did not consider the restitution of African cultural heritage.  Provenance research includes the examination of the acquisition practices and power asymmetries during the acquisition (Förster, 2019, p. 85). This means that it checks if the acquisition has happened without consent or under coercion (Förster, 2019, p. 85). At colonial times, the trade relationship was oftentimes not fair or voluntary (Förster, 2019, p. 85). The price reflected the economic and political power asymmetries (Förster, 2019, p. 85). Sometimes cultural objects have been acquired in the context of colonial wars, pillages or punitive expeditions (Förster, 2019, p. 86). Provenance research uncovers these circumstances. However, the German historian and specialist in African studies Jürgen Zimmerer fears that provenance research postpones a decision on the restitution of culture objects (Zimmerer, 2019). In this article, I would like to examine the legal point of view, the opinion of the museums and the view of the critics of the museums on the restitution of African cultural heritage.

From a legal perspective, following principle applies: Colonial goods are assumed to be unlawfully acquired until it can be demonstrated that this is not the case (Zimmerer, 2015, p. 24). Furthermore, the UN declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 states that indigenous societies have the right to self-determination which also includes the access to ceremonial objects (Förster, 2019, p. 90). 

From the point of view of the museums, restitution is seen rather negatively. The Belgian director of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Guido Gryseels, warns against insufficient infrastructures in Africa and empty museums in case of restitution (Kirchner, 2018). He claims that depositories and possibilities of restauration are unsatisfactory in African countries as Congo (Kirchner, 2018). Museums are defending their collections of colonial goods by insisting on extensive provenance research. Provenance research takes a lot of time as there are oftentimes only poor records about the object’s origin. It is thus difficult to find the owner of the cultural object as there may be a “chain of ownership” (Förster, 2019, p. 82). Sometimes it is not clear to whom these objects should be restituted: To the state of origin, the families, societies or the ancestors (Förster, 2019, p. 82)? 

The critics of the museums accuse the museums to not adequately deal with their past. With their exhibitions and representation practices, cultural differences and asymmetries of knowledge have been underlined and naturalized (Bobineau, 2019, p. 95). During the colonial era, European museums popularized racist stereotypes (Förster, 2019, p. 78). If the museums are not willing to look critically at their past, it is a wasted opportunity to come to terms with the past and to learn from it.

Some museums proposed to lend the objects to African museums or to create digital versions objects (Mangold, 2018). Both ideas would, however, contribute to a maintenance of power asymmetries between global north and global south. The restitution of colonial objects is therefore a good way to promote the Eurafrican dialogue and to eradicate postcolonial power asymmetries. Furthermore, restitution may be a chance to reconciliation and to dialogue. European politicians and museums should thus start getting proactive and not loose time with extensive provenance research. By engaging in an extensive provenance research in Europe, we reserve the right to determine the future of the objects that our ancestors acquired unlawfully.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash


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