France no longer has an excuse to hold on to African cultural heritage

The point of Senegal's new Museum of Black Civilations (Musée des civilisations noires) in Dakar.

19th Century Dahomey statues at the Royal Palace of Abomey that France is returning to Benin. Image credit Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (CC).

On Thursday, December 6, 2018, Senegal’s president Macky Sall inaugurated the Museum of Black Civilizations (Musée des civilisations noires) in Dakar, the culmination of a half-century-old dream by Senegal’s first President Leopold Sedar Senghor. The museum, directed by Hamady Bocoum, the former head of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, features space for as many as 18,000 exhibits.

The goal of the museum is to demonstrate the cultural heritage of Africa and Africans, intentionally defined to include diasporic communities globally. For those interested in seeing parts of the museum, Le Monde has a two-minute “guided tour” of the museum (and the BBC has a series of photos in its article on the museum’s opening).

Though the museum’s construction began in 2011, it opened after a year of intense public discussion and debate about the return of African cultural heritage to the continent. In a speech in Ouagadougou in November 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron declared that items from France’s former African colonies should be returned to those countries. This March, Macron reiterated his pledge, announcing the appointment of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to investigate the process for repatriating artifacts held in French museums.

In late November, Sarr and Savoy delivered their report. The report recommends that objects taken without consent be returned permanently to their countries of origin, but only if those countries ask for them (an interview in French with Sarr and Savoy on the report can be viewed here). The report estimates at least 88,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in French museums, with about 70,000 of these held in the Quai Branly. The day the report was delivered, Macron agreed to return 26 items to Benin taken by the French military in 1892, an important first step, but a drop in the bucket compared to France’s total holdings. So far, Macron’s promises are little more than empty gestures.

Stéphane Martin, the head of the Quai Branlycame out against restitution because it “puts historical reparations over the contributions museums make.” He complained that the report painted all items acquired during the colonial period “with the impurity of the colonial crime,” even if those items had been acquired legally. How Martin intends to define the legality of a given acquisition was left unanswered.

The issue of African cultural heritage in Europe extends far outside of France. The collections of the Humboldt Museum in Berlin, scheduled to open in 2019, includes 75,000 artifacts taken from the continent during Germany’s period of African colonization, which ended when German was forced to give up its possessions after World War I.

Savoy herself even resigned from the board of the Humboldt Museum due to the lack of reflection on Germany’s imperial past, asking to know “how much blood is dripping from a work of art.” Some of the most notable items include sculptures looted by British troops from the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria, and sold to Germany.

There are nearly 69,000 African items held by the British Museum and 37,000 at the Weltmuseum in Vienna. In addition to the numerous atrocities committed by Belgian colonialism in Africa, 180,000 items from Africa remain at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside of Brussels. The museum reopened to the public on Sunday, December 9, after a period of reckoning to “decolonize” the museum. However, the question of whether Belgium will return any of these items is still up for debate.

Perhaps the most contentious holdings in European collections are the physical remains of individuals taken from Africa to be studied and displayed in European museums. It was only in August 2018 that the German government finally returned skulls of victims of the Namibian genocide. In Tanzania, the descendants of Mangi Meli still await the return of their ancestor’s skull, after he was executed in 1900 for his role in an anti-colonial rebellion.

The German government is only now attempting to identify the skull in their collection of human remains, which includes 5,500 skulls, 200 of which originated in Tanzania. In the notable case of Sara Baartman, it took nearly 200 years for the French government to return her remains to South Africa.

Since the opening of the Museum of Black Civilizations, France has lent the museum the sword of nineteenth century political and religious leader Omar Tall, which Bocoum said was “extremely expensive.” However, after the Sarr-Savoy report, he says, “Now we will claim it.” Anticipating French claims that they hold the artifacts in the name of historical preservation, Bocoum notes that the museum features temperature and humidity controls to protect its collections.

Major European museums are filled with collections of African artifacts of greater economic value than any found in African museums themselves. With the opening of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, self-interested European claims to historical preservation ring even more hollow. It remains to be seen if the recommendations of the Sarr-Savoy Report will be fulfilled, or if Macron will renege on his promises to France’s former colonies.

Regardless of whether Macron lives up to his word, the inauguration of the Museum of Black Civilizations serves as an important public reminder that African countries are (and have been) ready to display their cultural heritage, if only they are given access to items previously taken from them. In 2020, four museums are already scheduled to open in Benin in some of the country’s historic towns. It seems likely that the 26 works being returned to Benin will be among the prominent exhibitions.

Further Reading

Museums, another “sight” for struggle

The exhibition Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 17 to  May 21) may be over, but it is sure to carry long-lasting effects. The curatorial statement described this exhibition as intending to explore “what took place between 1652, when Jan …