The three short years since the publication of the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron have seen returns by European and North American museums that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The past year alone has seen France’s Musée du quai Branly restoring the Trésor de Béhanzin to the Republic of Benin, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC giving back Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, and a formal commitment by the Belgian government to return potentially thousands of cultural objects to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The old narratives of loss or degradation of museums through restitution are giving way to a strong sense of the cultural benefits—seen, for example, both in the celebrations of returns in the Republic of Benin, and also in new understandings of colonial collections generated by Germany’s launch of a new online portal for colonial looted art. But where do the next challenges for cultural restitution lie?
Old narratives are taking time to die away. As recently as 2019, Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, doubled down on the old intransigent retentionist position. “The taking of the Elgin Marbles,” he famously insisted to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, “was a creative act”. It’s hard to imagine such a statement today. Although attempts by the British government to cling to the neo-colonial suggestion that stolen goods might be loaned back are still being made, could any formerly colonised nation now gain popular support for conceding the property rights of the formerly colonising nation in this way, where the ethical basis is little more than possession being nine-tenths of the law? International co-operation and resolve is growing firmer, as seen most recently in December, when Greece’s resolution, “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin”, was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
Progress on African restitutions has so far involved objects from well-known collections or individual Benin objects such as those held by Aberdeen University or Jesus College, Cambridge. But Euro-American displays of African heritage represent only the tip of the iceberg. It’s gradually being understood that much of this story is about what’s hidden away in the storerooms, often very poorly catalogued, sometimes in boxes unopened for a century, even in some cases in ‘orphaned’ collections where there is no African or even world cultures curator on the staff to begin this work. The suggestion that basic provenance work must be done before restitution can be discussed can become a delaying tactic. Even for collections as iconic as the British Museum’s objects from the Benin 1897 attack, no item-by-item list has ever been published. This lack of knowledge is a lack of transparency—which in turn is a lack of investment by the richest and most powerful institutions.
Multiply those gaps and silences across the millions of other African objects held by hundreds of European and North American institutions, and the next challenge for restitution comes into focus. It’s hard to claim a museum is caring for a collection if it can’t produce an accurate list of what it holds and where it came from. How long can museums expect to justify retaining African heritage outside of the continent while failing to document their collections with accuracy and transparency? While these basic responsibilities of documentation and research continue to be shirked at museums, the case for returns that allow that work to happen in African rather than Euro-American settings will grow. Provenance research after all requires resources. And since cases will not include the incredibly detailed levels of documentation that we see for the Benin Bronzes—where the looting was even photographed as it happened—museums may need to lower their standards of evidence in making returns.
A generation ago, European and North American museums laid claim to Enlightenment values of universality as a stopgap to refute demands for returns. Last September, in proceedings of Unesco’s Return and Restitution Intergovernmental Committee, the new director of the Acropolis Museum claimed that “the return of the Parthenon Marbles is a universal demand”. In the case of African restitutions, the false choice between cosmopolitan retentions or returns that benefit only a narrow nationalism or identity politics is similarly giving way to a new internationalism. This is what the Sarr-Savoy report called ‘relational ethics’. In my book, The Brutish Museums, I suggested that the 2020s might be “a decade of returns”. If that potential is to be fulfilled, the challenge is to build relationships that might lead to restitutions of long-neglected collections at a new, more ambitious scale, so the research is no longer solely in Euro-American hands—generating new understandings of colonial collections through equitable relationships between communities, scholars, institutions and nations.
• Dan Hicks is professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford. His latest book, The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, is now out in paperback