What comes after art repatriation

We all want to see Africa's heritage repatriated to the continent. But what happens after it returns?

Benin Bronzes, at the British Museum. Image credit Raj Patel via Flickr CC.

In the film “Black Panther,” the villain Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, asks a British museum curator, eyeing African artworks, “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” As Killmonger reminds us, an enormous volume of cultural artifacts have been taken from Africa. Items gathered by theft, coercion, and looting, as well as for the purpose of research supporting scientific racism, are increasingly recognized as illegitimately appropriated and due to return. The repatriation debate is now high-profile enough to make it into a popular film, along with books by academics, scholarly journals, and popular websites.

The Benin Bronzes are one high-profile case. The sculptures, looted by British military forces from Benin City in 1897,  are now held by institutions and private owners all over the world and, despite the obvious way in which they were stolen, are returning only in a slow, piecemeal fashion. The British Museum, which holds a large collection, continues to resist their return. At the same time as repatriation remains contentious in some spaces, however, it is also gaining ground. Institutions such as the Smithsonian in the US, Dutch heritage institutions, and the German and French governments have made commitments to returning at least some types of cultural property. Even if such efforts are halting or half-hearted, the fact that states and institutions are now feeling the obligation to publicly indicate their repatriation efforts is a positive sign for the process’s advocates, reflecting a broader shift in its favor.

Still, the returns themselves are only part of the story. What happens next?

This question requires us to think about the role of cultural artifacts in contemporary societies. The Senegalese scholar, Felwine Sarr, and French counterpart, Bénédicte Savoy, the authors of Restitution Report commissioned by the French government, say that African nations face a double task: first, restoring memory through reclaiming heritage, and second, a process of “self-reinvention” that connects reclaimed artifacts to present-day societies and their challenges.

Sarr and Savoy’s suggestion is something that scholars of history and heritage have long called the construction of a “usable past” for a nation, something that can be mobilized to address the concerns of the present. The first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, noted how key this project was to newly independent African countries: “We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past are a people without a soul.”

Tangible cultural heritage is a materialization of the past. It makes history visibly, palpably available to contemporary people. Importantly, cultural heritage is not a static or stagnant collection of objects, but a living construction. As the heritage scholar Rodney Harrison puts it, “Heritage is not a passive process of simply preserving things from the past that remain, but an active process of assembling a series of objects, places and practices that we choose to hold up as a mirror to the present, associated with a particular set of values that we wish to take with us into the future.” The return of cultural artifacts provides objects around which what Sarr and Savoy call the “project for the future” can coalesce.

What might this project for the future be? Some results of repatriation are evident already: in South Africa, the return of the bodies of a San couple provided closure for their families and advanced the decolonial project. Other countries provide useful parallel examples. In the US, the Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton has illustrated the role of returns in healing the cultural trauma of Native American communities. We can look, too, to the ways in which African nations are currently utilizing heritage in the interest of present and future societies. Heritage sites are used for economic development and recognition via World Heritage listing, while communities can reconnect with their pasts through archaeology from the ground up.

Such examples indicate that African nations are already managing their own heritage and managing it well. One of the arguments against repatriation is that African countries lack the capacity to adequately care for fragile items. But impressive institutions such as Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations refute this claim. (Indeed, the global North should consider whether its own profiting from colonial theft of heritage brings an ethical obligation to make amends through material support for resourcing and training African heritage institutions.) What Africa lacks is not the ability to manage heritage, but the heritage itself: the Benin Dialogue Group’s planned Royal Museum for dispersed heritage will create a home for repatriated objects, awaiting only the actual returns of what was looted in 1897. Stolen artifacts can return to nations more than capable of both caring for and utilizing them going forward.

After repatriation, then, the next question for African countries is about the future they wish to make through heritage, including the heritage that they are now reclaiming. While researching the Rwandan state heritage sector, I met government employees who were finding ways to make heritage work. In a country consumed with the pursuit of development, these practitioners investigated how heritage could contribute, as one told me, to “the future we want.” This meant giving Rwandans evidence, through museums and public history, of a usable past of which they could be proud—one that would counteract the ethnic divisions instituted by colonialism. Heritage was not just instantiations of history, nor was it a collection of inanimate objects: it was the project of making a new future for Rwanda.

The discussion of repatriation must not stop at simple returns, because these are not the endpoint of the process. They are only the beginning of a new one: mobilizing heritage as the material foundation for constructing understandings of the past that matter to the present and future. Repatriation is, in part, the righting (limited as it may be) of historic wrongs through the recognition of colonial injustice and the return of stolen heritage. But in enabling new narratives that are based on the material past and also responsive to the needs of the present, repatriation opens up new possibilities for the futures that African nations will make for themselves.

Further Reading