In the Africa section of the sprawling Musée du Quai Branly in Paris stand three wooden figures mounted on plinths. One is of a man partially covered in feathers made from metal, his right arm raised as if about to strike. Another has the head and body of a lion; the third is half-man, half-shark. They represent three of the last four kings of Dahomey, a small but powerful kingdom in present-day Benin. Beneath each statue is a plaque telling visitors they are a “gift from General Dodds”.
General Alfred Dodds led the French conquest of Dahomey (1892-1894). When he reached Abomey, the capital, it was in flames. The retreating king had torched his palaces after his surrender was refused, and flames quickly spread to the surrounding suburbs. As soon as the blaze died down, troops set about digging through the wreckage to salvage what loot they could.
Mostly they were disappointed. Dahomey’s kings had grown rich from the slave trade and were known for employing craftsmen who specialised in silver objects. Having been fed stories of the kingdom’s great wealth, the soldiers had to make do with bundles of textiles and large quantities of German gin found in the royal cellar. The most valuable things had been removed or destroyed by fire.
Some artworks, however, remained. Four ornately carved palace doors were found half-buried in a cornfield just outside city. To these were added a couple of thrones, some royal sceptres and the three statues of Dahomey’s kings. The objects were promptly carted off to Paris and given to its main ethnographic museum, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Today they sit in the Musée du Quai Branly, near the Eiffel Tower, a prized part of France’s vast national collection of African art. Other objects plundered during the expedition found their way to France by similar routes.
When Benin asked for their return in 2016, French officials quietly rebuffed the request. They simply nodded to France’s policy of treating its public collection as inalienable. Germany and Britain have similar laws. They put artworks in the possession of the state, preventing museums from giving them back. And they provide officials and curators with a handy way of dodging awkward conversations about restitution.
France’s law is based on a 1566 edict designed to stop sovereigns divvying up inherited lands. It was cited 450 years later, when a group of Beninese activists and politicians sent an open letter to François Hollande, President at the time, requesting the return of about 6,000 objects taken during the conquest of Dahomey and the decades of colonial administration that followed. Impossible, they were told.
In November 2017 Emmanuel Macron, the present French President, turned centuries of cultural policy on its head. He told an audience of students and staff at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso: “I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage is in France.” To cheers and applause, he continued: “Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.”
Macron’s remarks came towards the end of a speech in which he pledged to reset France’s relationship with Africa. In the space of a few minutes, he had thrown open the long-running debate about returns. He followed up with a tweet that said: “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.”
Soon afterwards, Macron asked the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian, to draw up plans to repatriate African artefacts in French museums.
Savoy had sparked controversy in Germany by resigning from the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum, a new museum of world cultures due to open in Berlin later this year at a cost of about €595m. Billed as a celebration of cosmopolitanism and mutual understanding, it is probably the most ambitious cultural project under way in Europe. But it has faced criticism for failing to acknowledge its colonial roots.
“I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” Savoy wrote in Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, shortly after stepping down. “Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no ethnological museum should open.” Her resignation was as explosive as it was unexpected. “It was a shock,” says a former colleague. “We had our usual meeting and there was an empty place. That was it.”
Savoy and Sarr spent several months consulting with curators and historians in Senegal, Benin, Mali and Cameroon. They also pored over the inventories of several French museums. When their final report was published in November 2018, it sent western museum directors reeling.
They concluded that 95 per cent of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent, most of it stolen or bought on the cheap. They said that not only should items looted in military expeditions be returned, but all items bound up with the crime of colonialism, including those collected by anthropologists and administrators, should be candidates for restitution. That would include most of the 70,000 pieces of African art in the Musée du Quai Branly.
These recommendations went far beyond the mixture of returns, temporary loans and joint exhibitions that Macron and his advisors had in mind. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former French culture minister, wrote in Le Figaro: “Their implementation would empty the museums, especially the Musée du Quai Branly… where the works would be replaced by copies!”
Stéphane Martin, the museum’s director, said that by tainting “everything that was collected and bought during the colonial period with the impurity of colonial crime” the report was a recipe for “complete maximalist restitution”.
Soon after receiving it, Macron pledged to return to Benin 26 artworks taken during the conquest of Dahomey – including the statues of its kings – as a gesture of good faith. But he has tried to distance himself from most of Sarr and Savoy’s recommendations. A joint conference on returns between the foreign and culture ministers, originally planned for April, appears to have been postponed.
The genie, however, may already be out of the bottle. These developments have electrified public opinion in former French colonies such as Benin. “Everyone is talking about restitution here,” says Marie-Cécile Zinsou, daughter of a former Beninese prime minister and director of the Zinsou Foundation, an arts centre in the coastal city of Cotonou. “You go out into the street and you hear about it. It’s the first time culture has been discussed so much in the country.”
Both Senegal and the Ivory Coast intend ask for objects back. “If 10,000 pieces are identified” in French collections “we are asking for all 10,000”, Senegal’s culture minister said in November. His country is home to the new Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, a state-of-the-art museum built with a Chinese cash. When it was inaugurated in December, several exhibition spaces stood empty.
“People weren’t sure if he was joking,” says Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Senegalese philosopher at Columbia University. “But obviously, with the new museum being there, any culture minister wants to know exactly what in Musée du Quai Branly could be returned.”
Before Macron’s s Ouagadougou speech, “the subject of restitution was taboo,” says Silvie Memmel Kassi, director of the Ivory Coast’s Museum of Civilisations in Abidjan. Now, she says, western museums are starting to engage with the issue. Last month she travelled to Paris for discussions with French officials. This month members of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a regional grouping of 15 countries, met in Cotonou to co-ordinate plans to request the return of artworks.
Sarr and Savoy found that Chad was the biggest source of art in the Africa collection of the Musée du Quai Branly, contributing almost 10,000 pieces. It was followed by Cameroon (7,838 objects), Madagascar (7,590) and Mali (6,910). All of these countries might now come knocking at the museum’s door.
It’s hard to down play the significance of this for museums and private collectors worldwide, though some worried about its consequences do. “This is a French problem, not a universal one,” grumbles an art dealer from Belgium, home to a large number of Central African artworks. “Everyone is brandishing the Savoy-Sarr report as a nuclear weapon that will effect the entire world. It is not.”
But the report comes at a time of renewed focus on the colonial pasts of museums across Europe, which is spreading from academic conference halls to the wider public. For instance, the Africa Museum in Brussels, long criticised as a relic that triumphally celebrated Belgium’s colonial history, was recently revamped. It now tries to highlight the darker parts of Belgium’s brutal colonisation of the Congo.
In 2016, at about the time students at the University of Oxford were calling for the toppling of a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, students at Cambridge successfully campaigned for the removal of a bronze cockerel, looted by British troops from Nigeria in the 19th century, from the dining hall of Jesus College. In Germany, Savoy’s resignation from the Humboldt Forum thrust a marginal debate about the project’s colonial undertones into the mainstream.
Last year the hit film Black Panther exposed the issue of colonial loot to perhaps its biggest audience yet. Before a heist to steal a plundered axe from the fictional Museum of Great Britain, one character asked a curator: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
Nor do calls for restitution just come from African countries. In November, the governor of Easter Island made a tearful plea at the British Museum for the return of the hulking figure of Hoa Hakananai’a, a four-tonne basalt statue carried off in 1868 by British sailors as a gift for Queen Victoria.
Islanders see such statues as a deified representations of their ancestors. A few weeks later, activists of Iraqi, Maori, Greek Cypriot, Hawaiian and aboriginal Australian heritage gave talks as part of an unofficial “Stolen Goods Tour” at the museum to an audience of about 150 people. Among the objects they highlighted were artefacts lifted by Victorian explorers from modern-day Iraq and an Aborigine shield taken by Captain Cook shortly after he first landed in Botany Bay.
Earlier this month Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Greece’s President, took a swipe at the British Museum’s refusal to relinquish the Parthenon sculptures. They were removed from the Acropolis early in the 19th century and sold to the museum by the Earl of Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Speaking at the glass-fronted Acropolis Museum in Athens, which Greeks hope will eventually house them, Pavlopoulos branded the British Museum a “murky prison” and described efforts to reclaim the reliefs as a “holy battle”.
The row over the Parthenon sculptures is long-standing, as are most disputes about objects in European museums. “This is not new for us,” sighs a German curator asked about restitution. But in recent years the issue has gained fresh momentum.
Returns on the scale proposed by Sarr and Savoy are unlikely to happen soon. One obstacle is the sheer size of many museum collections. The British Museum has eight million objects. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford contains more than half a million; the Musée du Quai Branly only slightly fewer. All hold objects acquired through well-documented colonial plunder, as in Dahomey. Yet often curators simply do not know how a lot of things in their collections left their original owners.
Some museums are starting to comb through colonial-era artworks to determine their provenance and identify what was acquired in dubious circumstances. The Übersee-Museum in Bremen, for instance, has commissioned researchers to investigate 1,500 works from Namibia and 2,500 from Cameroon. Similar work being done on the collection of the Humboldt Forum, thanks in part to the debate stirred by Savoy’s resignation. Last month Germany published guidelines requiring museums to produce inventories of wrongly obtained artefacts. Similar plans are being hatched in the Netherlands, whose National Museum of World Cultures recently published guidelines on returns and entered discussions with Sri Lanka over disputed objects.
“There has been lack of transparency about these facts,” says Gilbert Lupfer, of Lost Art Foundation, a German organisation specialising in identifying and returning art looted by the Nazis. The organisation recently received government funding to help museums study the origins of their collections and will start awarding grants in June. “This debate has changed something,” he says.
Doing such provenance research, however, takes time.
Museum directors often complain that the growing noise over restitution overlooks their efforts to engage with other museums and indigenous peoples. Wiebke Ahrndt, director of the Übersee-Museum and head of the group that drafted Germany’s repatriation guidelines, points out that her museum has long-standing relationships with indigenous communities in places such as Alaska and Samoa, from where parts of its collection come.
“They don’t just ask for restitution,” she says. “Often they want to collaborate on exhibitions with us.” Her museum is currently planning an exhibition of Samoan art to highlight the threat to the island from climate change. “They want to use these objects to get the public interested in this huge problem for Oceania,” she says. “Museums must be willing to return objects acquired illegally or unethically if source communities want to have them. But very often they want different things.”
Like other museums, the Übersee-Museum has digitised parts of its collection and works on projects with local artists overseas. The furore over returns, though, is starting to eclipse such work. “It’s impossible to get money for these projects because everyone is talking about restitution,” says Ahrndt. “In my opinion we’re going too fast down the avenue of repatriation.”
The Pitt Rivers has similar programmes. “For a very long time, we’ve had delegations of indigenous peoples from around the world come to our museum,” says Laura van Broekhoven, its director. Sometimes they identify items they want back. But these exchanges also focus on self-representation in the museum, and delegates often collaborate with curators to modify exhibitions to their taste.
“With returns there’s this assumption that it’s all or nothing, when there’s a much wider range of possibilities,” says van Broekhoven. “There are usually quite specific requests for objects that are particularly meaningful.”
Most recently a group of Masai from Tanzania visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in December. They went through 75 objects with museum staff and picked out six they were thought problematic, including a necklace traditionally included in a bride’s dowry. They were happy for the rest to be kept in the museum. Before leaving, the group donated two objects to the museum.
Van Broekhoven says: “Sometimes people suggest we should just call DHL, pack it all up in neat packages and say: ‘This is going back to this country and that is going back to that country, and that’s colonialism done with’.” This sort of partnership emphasises notions like reconciliation and decolonialisation. It’s a drawn-out process involving emails, expensive air fares and lengthy feedback sessions. Another Masai delegation is due to visit later this year.
“We know some parts of the collection have a really problematic past; they are part of a history of military violence, plunder, looting,” says van Broekhoven. “Those are the sort of aspects we are really looking at.”
Other museums are less upfront about their colonial heritage. Danny Chivers, one of the organisers of the “Stolen Goods Tour” at the British Museum, says it has done its best to duck thorny questions raised by the campaign.
“The reaction of the museum to the tour was to try and pretend it didn’t happen,” he says. “They go out of their way to comment as vaguely as possible.” Like their French counterparts, the museum’s management referred activists to the British Museum Act of 1963, which legally forbids it from ceding parts of the collection. “They use it as an excuse to not properly engage in these discussions,” says Chivers.
But even when curators are willing to return objects, giving them back can be tricky. In 2018 the Übersee-Museum sent a PhD student to Namibia to contact the descendants of someone who owned several items in its collection, mainly household utensils and cloth. After four months of searching, he couldn’t find anyone to return them to.
“In that case we had a name but that is very rare,” says Ahrndt. “Objects in the museum are very badly documented.”
Returns to governments rather than communities, as proposed by Savoy and Sarr, would be more straightforward. But they make some museum directors uneasy. In Africa, in particular, borders imposed by colonialists have divided many ethnic groups across different countries. The Masai are split between northern Tanzania and southern Kenya; the Senufo people of West Africa are scattered across Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali. It is not clear where to send items previously owned by either community.
Many ethnic groups also face marginalisation at home. “For some communities, it certainly wouldn’t feel like any sort of reconciliation if things were just going back to nation states,” says van Broekhoven.
Others baulk at the idea of museum directors bypassing governments. “We need to go government to government,” says Souleymane Bachir Diagne. “Let them deal with how to resocialise these objects in their own countries… it shouldn’t be up to museum directors with the arrogance of deciding they are on the side of a certain group.
“Are they not to develop their own solutions?”
When restitution is mentioned, museum directors often point out that their institutions have preserved artworks that might otherwise have been destroyed. In many cases, they have a point. Savoy and Sarr counted about 500 museums in sub-Saharan Africa their report. But many are in a shoddy condition, starved of funds.
A good example are the royal palaces of Abomey, the former seat of Dahomey’s kings, which are spread over a dusty site of about 118 acres. Despite being a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985, many suffer from water damage and infestation by termites. In 2009 half a dozen buildings were destroyed by a bush fire. Since then hundreds of objects have disappeared from the site’s museum, through theft and poor maintenance. Sometimes there isn’t enough cash to keep the lights on. “The museum is in a terrible state,” says Zinsou. “Most people in the government don’t care.”
Elsewhere political stability is a worry. Countries including Burkina Faso have seen alarming spikes in jihadist violence. Cultural artefacts in neighbouring Mali, most notably manuscripts from the library at Timbuktu dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, were destroyed by jihadists. During months of unrest in Ivory Coast in 2011, sparked by a disputed election, looters took about 80 artworks from the Abidjan Museum of Civilisation. “With this flight, we fear that part of Ivory Coast’s history is erased,” Silvie Memel-Kassi, its director, said at the time.
Stories abound of artworks that have disappeared after their return. In the 1970s, Belgium returned thousands of cultural objects to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Many soon turned up in European markets, pilfered and sold by corrupt officials. Dutch curators still wonder about the fate of parts of the Lombok treasure, a collection of jewels and precious stones. The wife of Indonesia’s then President is rumoured to have been spotted wearing part of it shortly after it was handed back in 1978.
But many African countries have made impressive progress, with new museums springing up across the continent. In December, a few days before the Museum of Black Civilisations was inaugurated in Dakar, a new museum opened in Pointe Noire, in the Republic of the Congo, with help from South Korea.
Samuel Mabanza, one of its curators, sees no reason why European countries should refuse requests to return artworks now the country has somewhere to house them. Benin has plans to refurbish the palaces at Abomey and build four museums, although details about funding are hazy.
Some of the most important developments are happening in Benin City in Nigeria’s Edo State. British troops sacked the city in 1897 and looted treasures, including more than 1,000 Benin bronzes that are now in museums across Europe and America. The British Museum has the most. Talks about bringing some back to Nigeria, which have been rumbling on since 2007, have recently gathered pace. In October a group of museums agreed to lend an unspecified number of bronzes to a new museum in Benin City, planned for 2021.
Marie-Cécile Zinsou says that Africa lags behind other regions when it comes to museums partly because many countries simply don’t have much stuff to exhibit. “We don’t have museums because our heritage is not here,” she says. “Most of it is 1,000 miles away in Paris, London or Berlin.” Once museums are in place, calls for returns will be harder to resist.
The work of her foundation in Benin provides a glimpse at what calls to return looted artefacts might achieve. In 2006 it exhibited art from Dahomey temporarily loaned to Benin by the Musée du Quai Branly. It was an outstanding success. From a population of a little over eight million, 250,000 people visited in three months.
“There were so many people queuing in front of the foundation that we couldn’t get in,” says Zinsou. “There was the US ambassador and bank directors, alongside street vendors and school children.”
She remembers that Stéphane Martin, director of the Musée du Quai Branly, also had to wait to get in. When he saw the buzz the exhibition generated, says Zinsou, Martin suggested that the items could return to the country for a longer loan. At the time, the Benin government wasn’t keen.
Now it wants its stuff back – as do many other countries in Africa and beyond.
All photographs Getty Images