The heritage repatriation debate

David Tresilian , Friday 16 Sep 2022

More and more European museums are returning heritage artefacts to countries in Africa and Asia, with the pressure mounting for the return of artefacts to Egypt, writes David Tresilian

Royal statues from the Kingdom of Abomey
Royal statues from the Kingdom of Abomey


The debate on the repatriation of cultural artefacts chiefly, but not entirely, from European and North American museum collections to countries in the developing world took a new turn in 2018 with the publication of a French report that has since become a touchstone for many in the field.

Commissioned by the French government, the report, by Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French academic Bénédicte Savoy, looked particularly at objects originally from Sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections. Was there an argument for sending these back to their countries of origin? If so, which objects should be returned and under what conditions?

The Sarr and Savoy report broke new ground in recommending that all artefacts from the Sub-Saharan African countries in French public museums should in principle be returned to their countries of origin almost irrespective of how they were collected. It made no difference, Sarr and Savoy wrote, whether they were collected by force during the colonial period in the 19th century or as part of anthropological research missions in the 20th when the objects might have been consensually taken or purchased by the collectors concerned.

“We recommend that requests for restitution concerning objects seized in military contexts… be favourably received,” they wrote.

“It is our recommendation to respond favourably and grant restitutions concerning objects collected in Africa during [20th-century] ‘scientific expeditions’ unless there is explicit evidence or information witnessing to the full consent on the part of the owners or initial guardians of the objects at the moment when the objects were separated from them.”

“We recommend receiving requests for restitution that could relate to objects donated to French museums by the colonial administration or their descendants favourably, unless the consent of the seller (such as the commission of copies or purchase at craft markets) can be ascertained.”

All such objects should be returned, the authors wrote, admitting that they have set the bar for “explicit evidence or information” giving full consent for the original removal of objects very high. They even set out a schedule and sample legal agreements on how such restitution might be done. Since the report was published in late 2018, France has accordingly returned artefacts that it had previously refused to countenance returning, including major pieces from flagship public collections.

Twenty-six pieces from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris were returned to the West African state of Benin in November last year, these having originally been collected in the late 19th century from the then kingdom of Abomey and subsequently housed in French public collections. They included objects previously on public display at the Museum, including large royal statues, thrones, and ornamented doors from the former royal palace of the kingdom of Abomey that was once part of what today is Benin.

At the same time, the sword and scabbard of Al-Hadj Omar Tall, a 19th-century West African political leader and Islamic scholar, also kept in the Musée du Quai Branly, were returned to Senegal. Both the Abomey pieces and the sword and scabbard originally came from former French colonies, what today are Benin and Senegal, but this has not always been the case. Some 300 historical manuscripts were returned to the Republic of Korea that had previously been kept in the French National Library in 2010, for example, and if current trends are any indication there will be more repatriations to come.

As Sarr and Savoy wrote in their report, such restitutions, explicitly recommended in the survey of French public collections appended to it, could be just the tip of the iceberg.

As far as the first category of objects is concerned, in “China (1860), Korea (1866), Ethiopia (1868), the Asante kingdom [in present-day Ghana] (1874), Cameroon (1884), the Tanganyika lake region and the Belgian Congo [present day Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo] (1884), the current region of Mali [and Senegal] (1890), Dahomey [today part of Benin] (1892), Benin (1897), present-day Guinea (1898), Indonesia (1906), and Tanzania (1907), the military raids and so-called ‘punitive expeditions’ conducted by England, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and France during the 19th century became occasions for unprecedented pillaging and the acquisition of objects of cultural heritage,” with much of it eventually ending up in European public collections.

These military raids contributed to the 90,000 or so objects originating from Sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections today, 70,000 of these being in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris alone, the main French public collection of anthropology and non-European art. The African Sahel country of “Chad arrives at the top of the list (with 9,296 objects). The second position is held by Cameroon (7,838), followed by Madagascar (7,590), Mali (6,910), Ivory Coast (3,951), Benin (3,157), the Republic of Congo (2,593), Gabon (2,448), Senegal (2,281), and Guinea (1,997),” Sarr and Savoy wrote, adding that while half of these objects were acquired during colonial conquest before 1914, the other half were acquired while the countries concerned were French colonies up until independence in 1960.

The second category of objects, those acquired during scientific missions or in other ways after 1914, cannot be treated differently as far as restitution is concerned, they wrote, since in many cases they were forced purchases made under conditions of implicit or explicit constraint. “Within the colonial context, the authority of the ‘white man’, the pressure of taxes and the threat of reprisals incited or obliged those concerned to accept the offers made by the ethnographers,” meaning that transactions would have resembled “forced methods of purchase, not to say requisition.”

Should the preliminary lists of objects recommended for immediate restitution in the report be followed, then in addition to the 26 items returned to Benin in November last year, we should expect objects taken during the British sacking of Benin City in what is now Nigeria in 1897 and now in the Musée du Quai Branly soon to be returned, along with items collected in what are now Mali, Cameroon, and Ethiopia during French ethnographic missions in the 1930s.  


LEGAL FRAMEWORK: As Sarr and Savoy note in their report, it was only with the Hague Conventions at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that the cultural heritage of countries engaged in armed conflict began to be protected in international law, when the European powers in particular began to wake up to the need for international cooperation in codifying the rules of war.

Following the widespread looting and destruction of particularly the European cultural heritage that took place during World War II, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict made the protection of cultural heritage in times of war an explicit obligation of member states.

Later still, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property sponsored by the UN cultural agency UNESCO sought to prevent the illegal trade in cultural artefacts while also requiring member states to assist one another in its apprehension and return. An Intergovernmental Committee was established with a view to ensuring the return of illegally acquired cultural property. In 1995, the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects sought to strengthen the protection of cultural property further by obliging those acquiring it to perform full due diligence.

However, while these international conventions have added significantly to the legal framework protecting cultural artefacts today, they have little to say on the restitution of objects acquired as a result of armed conflict or in other ways before they came into force. For Sarr and Savoy, the earliest major intervention arguing for the restitution of cultural objects acquired before the establishment of the modern legal system can be traced to then UNESCO director-general Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, who made a “plea for the return of irreplaceable cultural heritage to those who created it” in 1978.

“Peoples who have been the victims of this plunder, sometimes for hundreds of years, have not only been despoiled of irreplaceable masterpieces, but also robbed of a memory which would doubtless have helped them to greater self-knowledge and would certainly have helped others to understand them better,” M’Bow said.

“They know, of course, that art is for the world and are aware of the fact that this art, which tells the story of their past and shows what they really are, does not speak for them alone. They are happy that men and women elsewhere can study and admire the work of their ancestors,” not least in European museums. “However, these men and women who have been deprived of their cultural heritage nevertheless ask for the return of at least the art treasures which best represent their culture, which they feel are the most vital, and whose absence causes them the greatest anguish.”

While there has been some movement since M’Bow made his appeal in the late 1970s, notably in the special case of the restitution of human remains, the overall picture has been what Sarr and Savoy call “a rather long wait.” Very often, this has been because national laws put up legal barriers to the alienation of objects from public collections, sometimes making this impossible without an act of parliament — as was the case in France, for example, when a parliamentary vote was required before the return of the Abomey objects to Benin.

The Code of Ethics of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a professional organisation, recognises this when it recommends that “when a country or people of origin seeks the restitution of an object or specimen that can be demonstrated to have been exported or otherwise transferred in violation of the principles of international and national conventions, and shown to be part of that country’s or people’s cultural or natural heritage, the museum concerned should, if legally free to do so, take prompt and responsible steps to cooperate in its return.”

Much will depend on whether it can be shown that the object in question was acquired in violation of such conventions — the bar can be set rather high — and it is not clear that this cooperation is required in cases where the objects were acquired before the conventions came into force.

Many, perhaps most, museums, are also not legally free to alienate objects from their collections. The ICOM Code of Ethics includes recommendations on how this should be done if and when this is the case.


OTHER EXAMPLES: While international organisations like ICOM and UNESCO provide forums in which the debate on the return of heritage items can take place, the legal instruments they provide, in the case of UNESCO, and the guidelines they recommend, in the case of ICOM, provide limited help to those wanting to see faster action to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin. This has been true even in cases where it is clear that the artefacts in question were acquired as a result of military action or forced purchase, like in the case of the artefacts in French collections reviewed by Sarr and Savoy in their report.

Nevertheless, we may now be seeing the beginning of a change in attitudes to this question, since France has not been alone in returning artefacts collected by Europeans in the colonial period and later to their countries of origin. Some museums in the UK have also begun to return some such artefacts, this time without this being as a result of government policy.

 The Horniman Museum in London, for example, recently announced that it would be returning 72 artefacts taken from Benin City, capital of the former Kingdom of Benin and now in present-day Nigeria, in an echo of the Sarr and Savoy recommendation for French museums. Last month, it was announced that the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford would be deciding soon on whether to return a further 97 objects from Benin City. The world’s largest collection of such objects, dubbed the “Benin Bronzes”, is currently in the British Museum in London.

Museums elsewhere have also been reviewing their collections with a view to repatriating artefacts. Germany returned two artefacts from Benin City to Nigeria in July and formally transferred a further 1,100 artefacts held at five public museums, among them flagship institutions such as the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and Hamburg’s Museum of World Cultures, to Nigeria. The Nigerian government will now be able to negotiate the return of the other objects or leave them in the German museums under custodial arrangements.

Few museums in the world today do not have policies on restitution, usually variants on the ICOM Code of Ethics. The Africa Museum in Brussels, Belgium, formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa and built to contain objects taken from the former Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, says on its website that the museum is “an active participant in the dialogue with [the Congolese and other] authorities and museum policy representatives and with Belgians of African descent from the relevant countries” on the return of artefacts in its collections.

“It is not normal for such a large part of African cultural heritage to be found in the West, given that the countries of origin have moral ownership of such heritage,” the museum says, and “recognises that its collections were acquired in part during the colonial period in the context of a policy of legal inequality: people were forced or placed under pressure to abandon objects, and they were too weak to negotiate the price when they wished to sell.”

The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, part of the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen and one of the world’s most important anthropological museums, says on its website that it is committed “to transparently address and evaluate claims for the return of cultural objects according to standards of respect, cooperation and timeliness”.

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Germany, now housed in the magnificently reconstructed former royal palace of the Prussian Hohenzollern Dynasty, says that its “curators are constantly aware of the need to present exhibits in manners that incorporate multiple perspectives… and seek to fulfil our responsibility to address the past history of our collections and their roots in colonialism.

“Openness and honesty also mean that we are ready to return objects.”

There is also the question of countries not covered by such museums or in the Sarr and Savoy report, which only covers Sub-Saharan Africa, with these almost certainly also suffering from some of the collecting methods the authors set out and that have in some cases filed requests for restitution.

In the European context, the case of the “Elgin Marbles” — the sculptures that originally graced the ancient Greek Parthenon Temple in Athens — has probably been the most famous, with the Greek government having requested their return from the British Museum in London.

Another high-profile restitution claim concerns the famous “Koh-i-Noor” diamond, given to British Queen Victoria by the maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 by the British East India Company and now part of the British Crown Jewels. India has requested its restitution as the successor state, but so have Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, which also believe they have claims.

Egypt’s restitution claims

EGYPT has requested the return of heritage artefacts acquired by European collectors during the 19th-century and later and now in various European public museums. Main restitution requests were outlined by Egyptologist and former minister of culture Zahi Hawass in an interview in Al-Ahram Weekly on 1 September.


THE ROSETTA STONE: One of the most famous of all ancient Egyptian artefacts, the so-called Rosetta Stone, discovered by invading French forces at Rosetta (Rashid) in 1799, is a Ptolemaic stela bearing an inscription appearing in ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian versions, with the latter appearing twice, once in the ancient Egyptian demotic script and once in hieroglyphics.

It helped early French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion to crack the hieroglyphic code, meaning that the script that appears on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples could finally be read after knowledge of it was lost for some 1,500 years.

The Rosetta Stone is currently housed in the British Museum in London, where it is among the Museum’s most-visited exhibits and star of the ancient Egyptian collection. According to British Museum website, the stone has been on display in the museum since 1802, with only one break. “Towards the end of World War I, when the museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other objects,” meaning that it spent several years hidden in the safety of an underground railway station.


BUST OF QUEEN NEFERTITI: As famous as the Rosetta Stone is the bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, removed from Egypt following its excavation by the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912. It is now on display in a specially designed room of the Neues Museum in Berlin, itself magnificently restored by the British architect David Chipperfield in 2009.

Queen Nefertiti was the wife of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) who famously replaced the previous polytheistic Egyptian pantheon with the single god Aten. She appears in iconography from this Amarna Period of ancient Egyptian history along with her husband. Her famous bust, made of painted stucco-coated limestone, is believed to have been made around 1345 BCE and is one of the most-copied works from ancient Egypt.

According to Hawass, the then Egyptian antiquities authorities did not know about the discovery of the bust and its removal from Egypt until it was put on show in Berlin in 1923. Borchardt was accused of deliberately misleading the authorities in order to smuggle the work out of Egypt, and Egyptian demands for its repatriation began in 1924.

CEILING OF THE DENDERA TEMPLE: The ceiling of the Dendera Temple is a bas-relief ceiling taken from the Hathor Temple at Dendera in Upper Egypt. Built during the Ptolemaic period, the Ceiling shows the Zodiac and is believed to be the most important representation of ancient Egyptian astronomy. It is currently in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Ceiling was removed from the temple by French collector Sébastien Saulnier, inspired by an engraving of it in French archaeologist Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte published after his participation in French general Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. It was acquired by French king Louis XVIII and moved to the Louvre in 1922.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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