The legacy of colonialism and empire looms large in Europe.
In recent months, museums in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have begun to address the fact that large portions of their collections are, well, not theirs — and were stolen from other countries during the colonial era.
But there’s no consensus on how to deal with the issue. And as the Washington Post reports, some museums are proposing “loaning” the artifacts back to their countries of origin for limited periods of time — rather than actually returning them.
Countries like Benin and Ethiopia, among others, have long requested that artifacts that were plundered or looted by European armies be returned. Since the 1960s, Nigeria has been calling for the return of about 4,000 ivory and bronze artifacts that the British army looted from what is now southern Nigeria in 1897.
These requests have generally been ignored or denied.
“Museums fight against having to reveal the provenance of objects precisely because they know that many of the objects in their vast collections have illicit histories behind them,” author and journalist Rafia Zakaria wrote for Al Jazeera last year. “This secrecy, accepted as a norm in the world of art and antiquities, has, of course, enabled the world’s large museums to build up enormous collections.”
Cultural attitudes in Europe seem to be shifting
During a visit to Burkina Faso in November, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that returning artifacts to countries in Africa was a top priority for him.
“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he said during a speech in the capital, Ouagadougou. “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
Macron later appointed two experts, one of whom is Senegalese, to oversee the repatriation of African artifacts currently held in French museums.
Other countries and museums in Europe have since taken up the issue.
In May, Germany’s culture minister and the association of German museums released a “code of conduct” for museums that included guidelines for how to research where their artifacts actually came from and how to return objects that were taken from other countries during the colonial era. Germany has also put aside more than $3 million to assist museums in determining the origin of objects taken in an illegal or illegitimate way.
In the UK, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is considering returning thousands of objects, including gold artifacts, to Ethiopia “on a long term loan.” The artifacts were taken from the country by the British army in the 1800s, the Post reports, and Ethiopia filed a claim for their return in 2007.
The Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of European museums, also has plans to loan a series of objects to Nigeria and Benin that were taken by the British army during an expedition in West Africa in the 1800s.
Restitution, or permanently returning the artifacts, however, is not part of the current plan.
The idea of loaning back artifacts has received mixed responses
Nigerian officials have signaled that they’re open to the idea of “borrowing” the items back from Britain. Godwin Obaseki, governor of the Southern Nigerian state of Edo, told Reuters that “whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations.”
The founder of a campaign to take back the Ethiopian treasures from the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum also welcomed the idea of a loan. “This can only be a great improvement on what has happened before,” professor Andreas Eshete told the Guardian in April.
But this approach has, understandably, rankled some, who object to the idea of a loan rather than the rightful return of stolen artifacts to people whose ancestors produced them.
“This is not an acceptable plan by all standards,” Peju Layiwola, a professor in the creative arts department at the University of Lagos, told the Guardian Nigeria about the proposed Benin cultural artifacts loan.
“We will be happy if those stolen artifacts are brought back to Benin,” Eric Ogbemudia, a sculptor, told Reuters. “But they stole them. Those items are the works of our forefathers and they are very unique to us.”