The bronzes of Benin will return home. At least, those who until now remained in German territory, as announced by the country’s Ministry of Culture at the end of April. The decision to return these precious 16th and 17th century busts and reliefs, which were looted by British settlers who later sold them to different Western countries, could usher in a new era in relations between the great European museum institutions and the African continent. The Humboldt Forum, the new ethnographic museum that opened its doors a few weeks ago in Berlin, will have to display reproductions and archival documents, instead of the original 400 bronzes, which will be returned to their country of origin.
“Starting in 2022, substantial quantities of Benin bronzes will be returned,” confirms the museum’s director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, who specifies that the presentation of other pieces of dubious origin will be accompanied by an inscription: “Restitution is possible”. “I am convinced that the decolonization of cultural knowledge and practices are essential. We do it because we recognize it as a social mandate and because we want to stand up to the criticism that comes from society, ”says Dorgerloh in an email from Berlin.
The unexpected announcement by the German government, which had been several months in the making, comes just over two years after the publication of the controversial Sarr-Savoy report, which was commissioned by Emmanuel Macron in 2018 from the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine. Sarr. His main recommendation was that, every time an African country makes a demand for the restitution of a work or object, France should accept it if it cannot prove that it was not stolen or looted.
“Museums are at the center of the debate, in front of a public that no longer believes that they can or should be neutral, but rather anti-racist”
Criticized then for its maximalism by several European museum leaders, faced with the threat of seeing their collections emptied of thousands of works of irregular origin, the report has ended up making its way as a road map in a Western world where the critical examination of the Colonialism is becoming more and more important. “It is a decision that is inscribed, without a doubt, in the sense of history. The political powers are beginning to understand it, ”says Cécile Fromont, professor of Art History at Yale University and specialist in African art. “The restitutions are part of a social climate that aspires to imagine another world, driven by generational change. Museums are at the center of the debate, in front of a public that no longer believes that they can or should be neutral. Some aspire to see them turned into institutions that transmit an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and feminist discourse “, adds Fromont, for whom” the supporters of the the state they are in the minority ”.
The largest depository of bronzes in Benin remains, despite everything, the British Museum, which does not plan, to this day, to follow the path opened by Germany. Among other things, because the return of the African works in its collection would be made difficult by a 1963 law that determines that the institution cannot sell or dispense with them under any circumstances. Despite everything, other countries, such as France, have circumvented this impediment by passing laws or decrees to this.
The center defends that the presence of these works in its rooms does not prevent a critical dialogue from emerging about their origin. The London museum “fully acknowledges the devastation and looting suffered by Benin during the British military expedition of 1897 and the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of these objects are explained in the museum’s panels and on its website,” according to a spokesperson. of the institution, which admits that the 2018 report marked a turning point within the museum. “It led to a renewed focus on the history and provenance of our collection. We are continually investigating its origin and have made this investigation public, ”adds the same spokesperson. In addition, the museum appointed an investigator a few months ago who will be specifically in charge of examining any demand for return.
“The African States do not make precise requests and the civil societies of the continent do not pressure them”
Souleymane Bachir Diagne
Contrary to what was believed at the time, these have been, in the last two years, quite rare. Both because of the administrative slowness and the inertia to stop any initiative that goes in this direction and because of the absence of requests from the former colonies. Very few are counted, apart from the objects returned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to Indonesia and Sri Lanka or the works that France will return to Benin in the coming months, in addition to the saber that former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe delivered in hand during a visit to Senegal. “African states have not made precise and coherent requests, and the continent’s civil societies have not put pressure on their governments to accelerate them. Intellectuals have mobilized, but the population has, right now, other reasons for greater concern, ”laments Senegalese intellectual Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who heads the Department of African Studies at Columbia University (New York). The situation could change when developing museums in different parts of Africa are inaugurated, such as the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar (Senegal), which opened its doors in 2019, or the future Edo Museum of Art of West Africa, which projects the architect David Adjaye in Benin City (Nigeria) for 2025. “When these infrastructures exist, the demands will be amplified,” predicts Diagne.
The social and political debate of recent years, in which the thorny issue of colonial heritage has re-emerged as a primary and inevitable issue, also explains this shift in the third. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron announced in Burkina Faso that he would make the restitutions of African works of art one of his “priorities”, without having received any specific pressure on the matter so far. It seemed a political position that sought to symbolically repair France’s relations with its former colonies. “It is not very daring to bring it closer to the gestures of other presidents in matters of memorial policy, such as Jacques Chirac when he recognized the responsibility of the French State in the Holocaust,” says Diagne.
From the Jews to the Parthenon
Will these gestures, for now limited to the old African colonial space, the preamble to a stage of generalized returns of any work or object stolen or looted in other contexts? “There are already other mechanisms to return works beyond those that were stolen during the colonial period, as happens with works and objects belonging to Jews during World War II,” recalls Fromont, who also adds the very helpful Unesco convention. , signed in 1970, which regulates the illicit import and export of cultural property.
“France has endeavored to circumscribe returns to sub-Saharan Africa, being the only region in the world devoid of its major works, since about 90% are abroad. They are contrived moves so that restitution remains limited, but it will never be able to be. Once works begin to be returned, a precedent is set ”, says Diagne, who does not rule out that this process affects other geographical areas in the short term. Including Europe itself, where the undue expropriations of the historical heritage of others abound, led by the explosive case of the Parthenon. “My forecast is that the issue will be Europeanized. If Greece made a claim, it would surely be resolved within the framework of the European Union. What changes now is that, suddenly, everything becomes possible ”, concludes Diagne.