Emmanuel Macron, President of France, recently announced he wants to return African cultural treasures to where they had been looted from, so they could be shown “in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” not just Paris. The exact details of how this will come about – if at all – are still unclear. Perhaps France will make a series of long-term loans, or there will be swaps, or a simple transfer of ownership.
It’s a fraught question that teeters at the precipice of a slippery slope down into “but what if we had to return everything?” territory, which adjoins the land of “and who really has the right to these objects centuries on, anyway?” Of course, it’s all very well for western museums to raise these concerns when they did all the looting first…
For a different angle on this debate, try Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay Whose Culture Is It? It’s not available online (not unless you’re really good at finding pirated PDFs) but it’s well worth seeking out for his argument that we shouldn’t merely be talking about the return of objects “home” but “a decent collection of art from around the world” so that more countries might have ‘world museums’ like the British Museum:
…when I lament the modern thefts from Nigerian museums or Malian archaeological sites or the imperial ones from Asante, it’s because the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object “home.” Many of the Asante art objects now in Europe, America, and Japan were sold or given by people who had the right to dispose of them under the laws that then prevailed, laws that were perfectly reasonable. It may be a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, we should make sure that those to whom it is returned are in a position to act as responsible trustees. Repatriation of some objects to poor countries with necessarily small museum budgets might just lead to their decay. Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects, I might urge them to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of their contribution to cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.
To be sure, there are various cases where repatriation makes sense. We won’t, however, need the concept of cultural patrimony to understand them. Consider, for example, objects whose meaning would be deeply enriched by being returned to the setting from which they were taken—site-specific art of one kind or another. Here there is an aesthetic argument for return. Or consider objects of contemporary ritual significance that were acquired legally from people around the world in the course of European colonial expansion. If an object is central to the cultural or religious life of a community, there is a human reason for it to find its place back with them.
But the clearest cases for repatriation are those where objects were stolen from people whose names we often know; people whose heirs, like the King of Asante, would like them back. As someone who grew up in Kumasi, I confess I was pleased when some of this stolen art was returned, thus enriching the new palace museum for locals and for tourists. Still, I don’t think we should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen; not least because we haven’t the remotest chance of getting it. Don’t waste your time insisting on getting what you can’t get. There must be an Akan proverb with that message.
There is, however, a more important reason: I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man. And I’d rather that we negotiated not just the return of objects to the palace museum in Ghana, but also a decent collection of art from around the world.
For my part, I wonder whether a transnational trust might be a good way forward. Perhaps museums and governments might be encouraged to transfer ownership of looted artefacts to this trust in return for the right to hold on to them for a few more years, or the right to loans of other objects in return. Anything to get the ball rolling.