While the Paris museum returns African treasures looted, will others follow France’s example?

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While 26 works of art looted by French colonial troops return to Benin on Wednesday, other European countries are following suit. Germany and Belgium have started similar proceedings with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the United Kingdom, whose British Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Benin bronzes, is turning a deaf ear to calls for their return.

A growing number of countries have taken steps to return works of art looted during colonial eradication since French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to “return African heritage to Africa” ​​during a visit to the United States. Burkina Faso in 2017. His promise began to take shape on Tuesday when France signed a historic agreement. transfer of ownership of 26 works of art from Benin to the Republic of Benin.

A day later, huge crowds gathered in Cotonou, the largest city and economic capital of Benin, to once again welcome historical treasures.

“President Macron surprised everyone with his promise, we did not expect it. All of a sudden, France started to move,” Marie-Cécile Zinsou, president of the Zinsou Art Foundation, told AXADLETM. .

For the Franco-Beninese binational, specialist in African art and daughter of former Prime Minister of Benin Lionel Zinsou, the push towards the return of works of art is first “a global movement, which will now be difficult. to avoid “.

“France has ignited a spark”

“France has probably ignited a spark” for other countries to follow, she added.

As the debate intensifies, African countries are making themselves heard more and more assertive in their pursuit. “It’s a big international problem now,” Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Museums and Monuments Commission, told Al Jazeera in October. “Wherever we meet these objects, whether in private collections or in public institutions, we will claim (…) of which we are sure. “

Benin’s neighbor Nigeria has actively joined the rendition campaign, negotiating deals with museums and institutions in the United States, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom, including the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the National Museum of Ireland and the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.

In the latest development, the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC said last week that it had removed bronzes from its collection from the Kingdom of Benin, a territory in present-day Nigeria, which included the current Lagos.

The American cultural institution is now considering starting a process of repatriation of 16 pieces identified as objects looted during a British expedition in 1897 – without any formal request from Nigeria.

At the end of October, two British universities also returned to Nigeria objects looted from the Kingdom of Benin. The University of Aberdeen, Scotland returned a bronze sculpture purchased by the institution in 1957 and taken from the same loot from 1897.

In Cambridge, Jesus College returned on October 27 a bronze sculpture of a rooster that had been in the hall since 1905. The statue had been donated by a parent of a student who had participated in the colonial expedition. Students on the UK campus have been calling for his return for years, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The British Museum opposes restitutions

But the institution with the largest collections, the British Museum, has so far refused to follow the trend. With 928 works, it houses the world’s largest collection of bronzes from the ancient kingdom of Benin – among some 73,000 African objects – and has no plans. to return them.

More commonly known as Benin bronzes, the ivory, bronze and brass sculptures and plaques are not only works of art, but also testify to the history of the African region. Nigeria asked for restitution, as late as last October, but the British will only take a loan.

According to British art historian John Picton, who worked for both the British Museum and the State Museums Commission in Nigeria, the main official reason the institution keeps the pieces is “the lack of ‘facilities to actually house this material,’ he said. German public radio Deutsche Welle. “I’m afraid I’m of the opinion that just sending it back without worrying about storage, safety, conservation, climate control and the like is just irresponsible.”

The British Museum Act also protects the institution. The 1963 law prohibits the museum from transferring its holdings, except in very specific circumstances.

According to Marie-Cécile Zinsou, the reasons given are only a pretext. “The British Museum refuses to return Beninese works because [the British] fear that Greece will seize the opportunity to claim the Parthenon friezes, ”she said. The Greek government has long demanded the return of the iconic marble laid by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.

Without such artefacts from all over the world, many of which accumulated during the heyday of the British Empire, the museum’s collections would be much smaller.

The British Museum nevertheless declared that it was “engaged in a series of dialogues with different parties in Benin (…) and is aware of the high hopes for future cooperation,” he told Al Jazeera.

But discussions between the British Museum and African authorities have often ended in deadlock. The British government preferred to adopt a posture of “preserving and explaining” for state institutions, rather than returning pieces: monuments, objects contested and claimed are to be kept by the former colonizer but contextualized.

Nigeria’s Independent Museums Commission – created in 2020 to act as an intermediary with foreign museums – is also negotiating the return of three objects held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – a decision announced in June: two bronze plaques from 16th century Benin and a 14th century Ife head.

He hopes to start talks with other countries, according to Al Jazeera

Germany plans refunds in 2022

Efforts to recover works of art have made greater strides in Germany. Following the example of France, the German authorities signed a memorandum of understanding with Nigeria in mid-October setting a timetable for the return of around 1,100 Beninese sculptures now kept in German museums. The first repatriations are scheduled for the second quarter of 2022.

All over the world, “a lot of people have wondered where these pieces come from,” Zinsou explains, “but now we have acted.”

Belgium studies the origins of some 40,000 objects

All over France, museums have started to create posts specifically dedicated to studying the provenance of their collections. This is the case at the Quai Branly museum, as well as at the Angoulême museum, which has a large French collection of African and Oceanic art bequeathed by a local doctor and great art collector in 1934.

Belgium, which has a troubled colonial past, has also embarked on a long process to identify and study the provenance of thousands of objects from its former colonies. The country’s AfricaMuseum (formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa) houses some 85,000 objects from the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Thanks to scientific programs initiated by the museum, and with the help of the National Archives, some 35,000 to 40,000 pieces have been examined, or about half of the Congolese collection of the museum. Between 1,500 and 2,000 works of art have already been classified as ill-gotten goods and are therefore eligible for restitution.

Objects “acquired by force and violence under illegitimate conditions”

The approach is part of a larger program unveiled in July by the Belgian Secretary of State for Science Policy, Thomas Dermine. He called for the return of “everything that has been acquired by force and violence in illegitimate conditions”. “Objects that were acquired illegitimately by our grandparents and great-grandparents do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people, ”he added.

“Belgium has initiated a radical change of course, even if it was one of the last countries to face these challenges,” notes Zinsou.

Officially, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not filed a request for “restitution” with the Belgian authorities. “Their approach is different,” Zinsou explains.

Kinshasa rather evokes a “reconstitution”, which is “a less ethnocentric vision”, she underlines. According to this logic, Belgium would help the Congolese authorities to reconstitute only the missing pieces of the collections representing specific ethnic groups.

The repatriation of this heritage is organized at their own pace and according to their own criteria. The claimed pieces will be housed in the new National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inaugurated in 2019 by President Félix Tshisekedi. In any case, for the moment, it can only accommodate 12,000 pieces in optimal storage conditions.

This article was adapted from the original in French by Henrique Valadares.

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