Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Restitution report – museum directors respond

Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

Tristram Hunt, Hartmut Dorgerloh, Nicholas Thomas, Restitution Report: museum directors respond, The Art Newspaper, 27 November 2018

The French academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr urge President Macron to return African artefacts. But does the report go too far, or not far enough?

Tristram Hunt, Director, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Around halfway through this rich and textured report, the authors suddenly ask themselves: “So why then seek to restitute?” Is it an act of “soft power” aiming to “revalorize” France’s image to an African generation of youth that is less and less Francophile?” … “Or is it to institute a new relational ethics between peoples by helping to give back to them an impeded or blocked memory?”

Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr hope it is the latter: they are certainly not going to let President Macron get away with using provenance politics in his desire to wield influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

As regards their own ethical agenda, the report quotes approvingly the anthropologist Benoît de L’Estoile: the return of objects to Africa does not imply resigning them to a new form of enslavement to cultural identity, but rather bears the promise of a new economy of exchange. As such, the act of restitution cannot imply that “cultural heritage objects only retain their legitimate life within their original geocultural environments”. Museums and their capacity to situate artefacts within a broader narrative might, it seems, still have a role to play.

But for all the accompanying briefing that their conclusions do not imply a wholesale dispersal of African collections from Western institutions, that is, in fact, exactly what their report necessitates. For them, such restitution should be permanent; ongoing; and encompass a very broad account of what constitutes ineligible acquisition. Even if I am not wholly convinced by their approach, Savoy and Sarr should be praised for the honesty and clarity of their recommendations.

This report rightly reinforces how we must be transparent about the origins and nature of our collection.

We will see how the Elysée Palace and the French museums respond, but from my perspective there are some immediate reflections. The Macron report is a consciously state-led enterprise demanding bilateral responses between France and various African states. Within this architecture, museums are presented as instruments of government—and, as such, the restitution discourse is consciously situated within a broader narrative of post-colonial reparations and challenging structural inequality between the Global North and South.

In the UK, although national museums operate more independently as arms-length bodies, governed by trustees, they are also subject to legislation, which currently precludes attempts to deaccession the collection. As a museum director, I continue to believe in the merits of free, open museums able to range widely and share the global story of human ingenuity and creativity.

That said, this report rightly reinforces how we must be transparent about the origins and nature of our collection. As a museum born of the imperial moment, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A is working hard to open up our colonial past—not least with our recent display Maqdala 1868, telling the full story of the Abyssinian Expedition and our Ethiopian holdings. More than that, we are building partnerships and a relational ethic with educational institutions and museums (as well as governments) in societies of origin. Our ambition is to circulate more artefacts on long-term loan and, in the process, build up a richer curatorial and conservation exchange ecology. But we cannot do it on our own and I hope in future years, the British government might use some of its development budget to support cultural infrastructure in the Global South to allow for more partnership and loan activity.

Just as importantly, we are focused on the future. As a partner in the Leverhulme-funded international network, AfriDesignX, we have been developing new methodologies for interpreting emerging design trends in African urban contexts. In a series of workshops across Accra, Nairobi, London and Cape Town, the V&A, as a design museum, has examined the place of a Ghanaian robotic programme, a Kenyan video game and a Senegalese digital textile print within our collection.

Of course, we believe we can do both: confront the legacies of the colonial past with rigour and transparency, and also transform our institutions into learning, partnering, and reflexive organisations cognisant of their place within a process of global cultural exchange.

Hartmut Dorgerloh, General Director, Humboldt Forum, Berlin

Finding a suitable approach for dealing with cultural assets from colonial contexts is a pressing and complex political issue—in Germany as well as in France. The debate about how to treat this important aspect of the colonial heritage is as challenging as it is overdue. Essentially the question is: what is our relationship to people, countries, religions and cultures in America, Africa or Asia, in a world where everything is becoming ever more connected—economically, socially and politically?

One of the goals of provenance research, something that Germany has significantly intensified in recent years and is continuing to develop, is to clarify the circumstances under which objects came to Europe. In particular, it must be established whether injustice was done in the process, even if it will not always be possible to find out. Restitution can be a consequence of provenance research, and indeed in certain cases it is imperative. Looted art must always be returned.

In their report, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr make a key contribution to the current debate. We will evaluate the report very carefully and discuss it with our international team of experts. Together with the Berlin museums, we will examine what these concrete proposals for French museums could mean for similar cases in the Berlin collections and for the Humboldt Forum.

We are also very interested in how the report will be received by the communities in the countries of origin. Whether the issue is researching provenance, undertaking restitution or considering how we at the Humboldt Forum focus on ethnic, religious or sexual minorities: we can only be successful by engaging in an ongoing dialogue and close cooperation with representatives of the relevant communities.

Nicholas Thomas, Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

Emmanuel Macron’s Ouagadougou declaration that the restitution of African heritage to Africa will be one of his priorities, resonated with a sea-change in the museum sector, increasingly supportive of the temporary or permanent return of work to countries of origin, but also leapt ahead of many professionals’ expectations of what might be achievable, what might be actively supported by national governments, in the short term. It might be anticipated that Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, the academics the president commissioned to advise regarding the project, would offer a considered assessment of options. Their document is not that, but a manifesto for swift, wide-ranging and open-ended restitution.

Central to its rhetoric and logic is the proposition that collections from Africa are encompassed by the historical crime of colonialism. The works of art and artefacts that fill ethnographic museums were either literally looted, appropriated in the aftermath of military operations, or in their vision coercively obtained under circumstances of colonial subjection: it is not imaginable that peoples would surrender their heritage if they were truly free to retain it. Yet material culture was not always, for everyone “heritage”.

Their understanding impels a sense that the only credible course of action is restitution, the return of objects to their rightful owners. It follows from a double misrecognition of both colonialism and of the material culture that indeed is represented in vast collections across European museums, and that indeed should be more accessible, globally and for communities of origin. Empire was certainly violent, extractive and exploitative, but it was also a highly uneven and heterogeneous field of interaction, marked not only by oppression and resistance but also by accommodation, collaboration, innovation and interests on both sides in traffic in ideas and objects. In local cultures it generated new cross-cultural art forms, including early souvenir and tourist arts that are extensively represented in museum collections, albeit commonly mistaken for customary forms extracted from the lives of communities. Collections are, in profound senses, expressions of engagement and creativity, not just of appropriation.

Across the European museum sector, and internationally, a commitment to deep accessibility has transformed the work of institutions: ambitious outreach and public engagement programmes, for example, aim to extend participation and inclusion. So far, as ethnographic and world cultures collections are concerned, any commitment to accessibility must place at its heart the capacity of communities of origin to see and to work with historic heritage. Over the last twenty years, collaboration involving community representatives, Indigenous artists and experts has become business as usual and has proceeded creatively, through research partnerships, through the co-collecting of new acquisitions, through the co-production of exhibitions, and through the return of human remains and artefacts, the latter often nominally on a loan basis, but with the expectation that temporary transfers may be renewed. It has to be said that the authors of the report have little awareness of quite how much work is going on, that already exemplifies the ideals of “dialogue, polyphony and exchange” which they cite as future possibilities.

Entranced by the prospect of swift moral victory, its authors fail to think strategically or practically

In their absolutist view, what matters is that collections are returned, that objects cease to the property of the French government and become that of the African state of origin. They dismiss “museum anxieties” but appear indifferent as to what happens once material returns. There are some strong and dynamic museums in Africa, but many institutions have suffered, despite the dedication of staff, from underinvestment and the indifference of governments. The collections they already hold, and those that might be returned, cannot be made accessible, and cannot be of public benefit, unless there are sustained efforts to develop capacity and improve facilities. While Sarr and Savoy reject a paradigm of circulation as merely an obfuscation of the moral imperative, co-curation and co-stewardship could be seen entirely differently, to provide a basis for joint responsibility and joint commitment to care for collections and develop capacity, to realise the potential of great human creations to contribute to education and society in African nations as well as elsewhere. Multicultural Europe, more than ever, needs museums that recognise and affirm the cultures and achievements of peoples worldwide.

The report—and indeed Macron’s mission—is somewhat impoverished through a focus solely on Africa

The report—and indeed Macron’s mission—is somewhat impoverished through a focus solely on Africa. If coming to terms with colonial legacies is so vital, it is strange that Oceania, among other regions, is not included. France is still a colonial power in the Pacific, and the very extensive collections from across that region raise related questions, while recent projects such as Quai Branly’s 2013-14 Kanak exhibition point to the possibilities and power of co-curation and circulation.

The Sarr-Savoy report may be seen as provocative and stimulating, but is unconvincing at the level of detail. Entranced by the prospect of swift moral victory, its authors fail to think strategically or practically about how the arts of great civilisations can be circulated, redistributed, interpreted and made accessible in sustainable ways, that will make a difference in their milieux of origin and elsewhere.

– compiled by Julia Michalska

Meanwhile in France…

Stéphane Martin, the chairman of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, says he is “quite happy” with the president’s response, to call for a Euro-African conference on the subject and to return 26 objects to Benin. Macron struck the “right balance” between the demands for restitution and the need to preserve the museums’ collections. He stresses that his museum proposed “the return to Benin of regalia from his collection, as an important symbolic gesture towards Africa”. The 26 statues and items which were looted by French troops in 1892 are now, he says, destined “to be permanently exhibited in a brand new museum”, which is under construction in Benin. He also welcomes the prospect of a European conference and says he is relieved that “President Macron has put the Culture Minister and the museums at the center of this whole procedure”.

In an op-ed published in le Figaro (“Museums have a vocation to keep their African collections”) France’s former culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, said he is surprised by the “offhandedness” of the authors. The report, he says, is indeed “a manifesto, built on the assumptions and involvement of the authors, leaving hardly any place for contradiction” and leading to “radical propositions”. He continued: “Their implementation would empty the museums, and especially the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, where the works would be replaced by copies!” He pleaded for the culture ministry to take a central role, for a Europe-wide debate, and constant communication with Unesco. Even if “this was not the intention of the authors”, he finds that the principles expressed in the report “confines everyone to national borders”. Instead, Aillagon calls for the “universal discourse” led by museums.

Jean François Charnier, the former scientific director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, says he is “not against the principle of restitution, quite the contrary actually”. But, he warns, that such restitutions “should not be led only by a culturalist and anti-Western view. Colonisation was a complex period, which cannot be reduced to war, violence and pillage. This report is unilateral. It should have accepted the other side that also shows fascination, research and history construction, opening the way to an equitable approach that would not deny the importance of plurality and culture sharing. This fairer view would allow all of us to conceive a contemporary universalism in these times of globalisation, integrating the construction of identities in a mutual relationship. This is the basis of museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This example may also be relevant for Africa, where one or two museums could show not only African works, but also European paintings or Chinese ceramics, and confront them with the great civilisations of the continent, in the spirit of the Musée Dynamique founded in 1966 by Léopold Sédar Senghor.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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