Restitution of African Art: the Recent Wave to Decolonize Museums

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How must one reconcile with the mistakes of the past and the systems created because of them?

As you enter the main floor of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, you’re greeted by pieces of dazzling gold and silver jewelry that resemble the native animals of Côte d’Ivoire. To your right are intricately patterned terracotta figures from Chupícuaro, Mexico while behind you lie hundreds of works from varying tribes and ethnic groups within Asia and Oceania. [1] What do these—and the tens of thousands of others held by the quai Branly—have in common? Put simply, they were taken from their place of conception at the hands of colonial power, often through the means of violence and bloodshed.

Amid the growing push for social action, from #BlackLivesMatter to Occupy Wall Street, people, businesses, and governments have all been forced to reconcile with the ways in which the past has laid the foundation for the established systems today. Art galleries and museums aren’t exempt from this growing trend either, with the rising political will for the return of looted artefacts mirroring those of other social movements. In fact, just recently, the Musée du quai Branly began the process of returning 26 of its stolen items back to Benin amid rising pressure on the world stage. [2] From statues to thrones to ceremonial hatchets, these objects pose as items of significant cultural heritage for the West African country.

Despite this recent action, these 26 objects represent just an abysmal proportion of the estimated 90 percent of existing African art that was taken from the continent since the start of colonization. [3] In fact, the Musée du quai Branly of France holds over 70,000 artefacts from Sub-Saharan Africa alone. [4] This consequently poses the question as to what role, if any, do former colonial powers have in returning looted artworks.

Legally, few codifications exist that require colonial powers to return these items. Those that do exist are solely ones created by the colonial power itself, oftentimes without the input of the recipient. [5] Instead, repatriation exists on a framework of a desire to right a wrong. In doing so, however, this in turn also demands an admission of culpability and capitulation that few countries are willing to make.

What are the benefits to returning looted art then? Morally, there is a sense of restorative justice in doing such actions. The stolen art often serves as a cultural artefact for its native people. It is a unifying medium for both the identity and the expressions of the group. [6] To hold on to these works would be akin to perpetuating neocolonial ideas that only act to further delineate former colonial powers from that of former colonies. Oftentimes looted art today is connected to underground and illicit trade activities that work in tandem with ongoing political conflict in less developed states. [7]

However, despite the moral argument, few countries are willing to return these objects on this basis alone. Looted art serves as a powerful economic and social tool to boost a country’s status. [8] Instead, activists rely on other incentives to promote repatriation. In the case of France and the Musée du quai Branly, returning the stolen works to Benin acts as a show of soft power, one meant to improve the relations between France and its recipients for future diplomatic purposes. Similarly, under mounting social pressure from his populace, and nearing reelection for presidency, French President Macron’s decision to return the art can be argued to be personally motivated. 

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French President Emmanuel Macron (L) watches a 19th century royal statue of a half-man half-bird, representing Benin’s King Ghezo, exhibited at the Quai Branly museum before being shipped to the West African country. October 27, 2021. [9]

This instance only acts as one of many testaments to the role art can play in international relations. Outside France, in 2009, Greece constructed a museum dedicated to housing its looted art taken throughout the state’s history. This decision came after years of failed deliberation with the United Kingdom which argued that the country lacked inadequate housing necessary for returning its art. [10] In turn, while morality may play a role in a state’s decision to return these looted works, further political and economic incentives may provide a bigger insight into the rationale of these figures.

Even so, museums and galleries are reluctant to give up many of the objects in their collections. Concerns of the safety of the artworks once returned, especially for recipient countries that are in times of conflict, are commonly cited. For some of the objects, the tribe or kingdom which created them no longer exists, merely just the country the group was located in. What’s more, these institutions argue that these objects help to educate their citizens to better understand the vastness and culture that exists throughout the world. By this argument, to give the works back would be to lose a potent tool that facilitates an understanding of this richness in diversity.

In spite of this, it can be argued that safeguarding these works once returned can be done through monetary and political support. While the group that made the object may no longer exist, its impact on the state—historically, culturally, and even socially—cannot be denied and thus is worthy of the state claiming the artwork as its own. While the loss of the art may hamper a museum’s ability to teach its audience the span of the world, accurate replications or works conscientiously purchased from the group the art belonged to can still retain its original means of education.

So when you walk through the Musée du quai Branly in the future, you might not be greeted with the same works that have always stood there. In lieu of the looted jewelry, statues, and paintings, you might instead be gazing upon a different set of artwork—one that was acquired with good faith that strays away from neocolonial sentiments. At the same time, in a different part of the world, a native inhabitant is able to go and admire his or her cultural artefact—one that no longer simply tells a story of culture and history alone, but rather now tells a new story that is intertwined with colonization and a decision to right a wrong.

Works Cited

[1] Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. “Museum Maps.”
[2] Al Jazeera. “France Returns 26 Treasures Looted from Benin.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, November 9, 2021.
[3] Felwine Sarr, and Bénédicte Savoy. “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” Philippe Rey/Seuil, November 21, 2018. [4] Nayeri, Farah. “Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 21, 2018.
[5] Roodt, Christa. “Restitution of Art and Cultural Objects and Its Limits.” The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa 46, no. 3 (2013): 286–307. [6] German, Senta. “Repatriating Artworks (Article).” Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Accessed December 3, 2021.
[7] Evans, Richard J. “Art in the Time of War.” The National Interest, no. 113 (2011): 16–26. [8] Balfe, Judith Huggins. “Artworks as Symbols in International Politics.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1, no. 2 (1987): 195–217. [8] Balfe, Judith Huggins. “Artworks as Symbols in International Politics.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1, no. 2 (1987): 195–217. [9] Photo by Michel Euler / BELGA / AFP) / Belgium OUT (Photo by MICHEL EULER/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)
[10] Poggioli, Sylvia. “Greece Unveils Museum Meant for ‘Stolen’ Sculptures.” NPR. NPR, October 19, 2009.