Much is happening in the global debate on the proper place of cultural objects. Not a week goes by, it seems, without a major comeback being announced. Last week it was about the return at a ceremony in Washington DC of the former Gilgamesh tablet, returning to Iraq after it was seized from Hobby Lobby by US authorities. Prior to that, it was the return to Ethiopia of ten important items looted by British troops during a punitive expedition in 1868. The end of August saw the return of over 100 items to Pakistan by the New York prosecutor’s office. , some of the loot confiscated from discredited antique dealer Subhash Kapoor and his Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan (nearly 500 of these pieces have been returned in 11 countries since the start of the year).
In addition to what is happening in the antiques market, governments themselves are taking strong positions on the issue of long-acquired artifacts, many of which are now kept in public museums. Germany seems to be taking the lead. Along with a 2019 statement by federal government officials and ministers from the 16 states on an exciting set of principles relating to cultural objects taken during colonial times, we have witnessed a series of repatriations to Namibia (the former German colony South West Africa) and the announcement in April of the return of bronzes from Benin to Nigeria, which should begin in 2022. The Netherlands and Belgium seem to be moving in the same direction. And France adopted at the end of 2020 a law for the restitution of 27 important cultural objects in Benin and Senegal, which should take place by the end of this year.
In many ways, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who launched the restitution debate in November 2017. In a speech in Burkina Faso, he made an unexpected and unprecedented call for “temporary or permanent âheritage of French institutions in Africa. This effectively alerted the global cultural sector. Even if the report commissioned afterwards, written by academics Felwine Sarr and BÃ©nÃ©dicte Savoy, was hardly implemented, it nevertheless contributed to accentuate the emphasis placed on ‘restitution’: the return of cultural artefacts. as a means of delivering justice for past wrongs.
These developments reveal the growing sensitivity of society to historical injustices and, in the cultural context, to a greater awareness of the power structures at play when materials have been removed in the first place, especially when those withdrawals have been made. by force of arms, clandestine excavations, corruption or outright theft. In the context of African restitution, this has been reinforced by the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing debate over the removal of statues of controversial figures linked to slavery. In this regard, restitution can be seen as an attempt to redress the crimes of history.
But something else is happening too …
The restitution debate has offered some governments a new way to establish themselves through diplomatic ties and geopolitical influence, a particularly cultural form of âsoft powerâ. Macron’s speech in Burkina-Faso can be seen not only as a way to do good, but also as a way for France to reaffirm its validity in French-speaking Africa. Delivered six months after his accession to the presidency, the speech offered Macron’s now familiar characteristics: a break with the past, a renunciation of France’s role as a colonial power in favor of international relations based on partnership and mutual economic interest, and a hint of executive diktat. The objective of expanding French spheres of influence is well served by engagement with African countries around restitution issues.
With the same intention of gaining international influence, other powers engage in restitution in different ways. China, for example, has long sought to salvage its own cultural artifacts that were looted or looted by European armies and adventurers during the so-called âcentury of shameâ of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. An interest in restitution emerged as an important, albeit unexpected, feature of his Belt and Road initiative, the massive global infrastructure investment program.
The impressive new museum in Dakar, Senegal, which now holds material returned from France? Paid with 35 million euros from China. It is perhaps no coincidence that Senegal was the first West African country to sign the Belt and Road, which it did in 2018. And it should be added that the port of Dakar represents an essential hub for deep-water transport at the western tip of the continent.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Greece in 2019, he declared himself a staunch ally in the cause of the return of the Parthenon marbles to Britain. âNot only will you have my support,â he said in a statement, âwe have to work together. Because we have a lot of our own relics overseas, and we try as much as possible to bring them back home. home as soon as possible. ” It was a diplomatically astute way to get in touch with his hosts – it wasn’t a bad move when the Chinese port of Piraeus is a vital pillar of China’s trade with Europe.
As returns of cultural objects continue or multiply, we will see restitution emerge as more than just a series of discrete and disconnected occurrences. Something much larger is happening, a sort of reckoning with history. Countries, institutions, businesses and collectors can decide how they wish to operate in this new landscape. Some may let the moment pass. While others will most certainly use it to their advantage.
Alexandre herman is Deputy Director of the Institute of Art and Law. His book on the subject Restitution: the return of cultural artefacts (Lund Humphries) will be released on September 30.