Bénédicte Savoy (professor at the Collège de France in Paris) has an opinion piece in Le Monde, reprinted in the Art Newspaper ('The restitution revolution begins ' 16th February 2018) arguing that France's President Macron is ushering in a new era for the return of displaced heritage
In two minutes and 33 seconds, on 28 November 2017, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, swept aside several decades of official French museum policy. He did it publicly, in the crowded lecture theatre of Ouagadougou University, in front of several hundred students, under the gaze of Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Kaboré, and the cameras of the news channel France 24. He did it in the name of youth—of his own youth, evoked seven times in the speech. “I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history, he said, adding: “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.” There were whistles and applause. On Twitter, the Elysée (the presidential office and residence) drives the idea home: “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums.”She hails this as the beginning of a revolution. The move has delighted those who have long called for the restitution of displaced heritage from Africa. In Berlin, Macron’s speech has added power to the 'heated debate about the colonial amnesia that seems to have afflicted the planners of the Humboldt Forum'. 'In a letter to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, 40 organisations of the German African diaspora asked her to react to “the historic initiative of the French president”...'.
Although it concerns Paris and its prestigious collections of African art first of all, the Ouagadougou speech also implicates Europe and the colonial or missionary basis of all its ethnographic or “universal” museums. From the British Museum (which has more than 200,000 African objects) to the Weltmuseum in Vienna (37,000), the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium (180,000), the Humboldt Forum (75,000) and France’s leading ethnographic museum, the Quai Branly in Paris (70,000), the history of African collections is a shared European history—a family affair, if you wish, where aesthetic curiosity, scientific interests, military expeditions, commercial networks and “opportunities” of all kinds contributed to the justification for domination and national rivalries. The museums of our European capitals are brilliant conservatories of human creativity, but they also derive from a darker history of which we are not sufficiently aware.In the museum world, the mere word “restitution” 'sparks an almost kneejerk defensiveness and withdrawal'. Curators feel a certain unease, what if such acts become commonplace? Calls to repatriate items stolen in military actions and colonisation in the past have been hotly contested by museums eager to hang on to such items:
No one in France has forgotten the trench warfare conducted by curators at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2010, when, as a corollary to trade negotiations, the then president Nicholas Sarkozy ordered the return to South Korea of nearly 300 precious manuscripts deriving from a bloody French army expedition in 1866. No one in Italy has forgotten the 50 years of negotiations it took before the return to Ethiopia of the Axum obelisk, seized by Benito Mussolini in 1937. And no one in Berlin wants to return the massive fossilised skeleton of the world’s biggest dinosaur, Brachiosaurus brancai, to Tanzania, where it was taken in 1912 from territories then under the protectorate of the Reich.She discretely fails to mention the Parthenon Marbles, mainly because, shamefully, they still have not been returned to Greece.
The time seems right for such a move. Interestingly, Macron’s proclamation in Ouagadougou —contrary to expectations— has not sparked the institutional outcry that we have been used to in recent years.
On the contrary: the president of the Quai Branly museum, Stéphane Martin, was pleased to bend in Macron’s direction, stressing that “nowadays we cannot have an entire continent deprived of its history and artistic genius”. So a second revolution, an institutional change, has taken place.In the final part of her text she outlines how consensual restitutions of such artefacts should be 'motivated by the dual interests of peoples and objects' and in which the stake would be neither purely strategic nor political, but cultural. She urges a multi-sided dialogue, in which the parties listen to each other. There is no place for the object-centred lobbyists of the market countries dictating to the source countries how they should treat their own heritage, even if they do so masking their smokescreen as due to concerns for the 'safety of the objects':
we must listen to each other. And then we must be careful not to interfere in the decision-making remit of others. After Waterloo, when France returned the works removed to Paris during the Revolution and the Empire from other countries in Europe, it did not dictate to the pope and the sovereign states of Germany, Austria, Spain and elsewhere the proper way of looking after their collections. It often takes decades and much debate for “modern” heritage policies and suitable infrastructure to develop. In Berlin, for example, it was not until 1830 that the works France had returned 15 years earlier were displayed in a public museum. We must give time to those who recover works to find solutions that suit them.