BY JULIA FRANKEL
CLAREMONT, Calif — Anthropomorphic statues lined the hallways of Abomey’s main palace, located in the capital city of the kingdom of Fon in modern-day Benin. The statues – half-animal, half-human – recounted Fon legends and battles, histories and myths, and stood for nearly 300 years, welcoming guests into the grandest building in what was known as the Dahomey Republic.
In 1892, French colonial forces raided the palace, killing civilians, stripping the building of anything deemed valuable and taking the statues to Paris.
Nearly 130 years later, and 60 years after Benin cast off its status as a French colony, the statues remain in Paris, in the Musee du Quai Branly.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the 26 remaining statues would be returned to Benin. The announcement was made exactly one year after Macron gave a landmark speech in Burkina Faso, pledging to set the conditions for the full restitution of African artifacts held in French museums within five years.
But over the past year, only one artifact – a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century military officer – has been returned to Africa. The 26 Benin statues remain in France.
Once a studiously avoided topic, the repatriation of African artifacts has recently occupied academics, curators and government officials in former colonial powers across Europe ever since a report commissioned by Macron found that up to 95% of African cultural heritage lies outside Africa.
“The question of restitution is being increasingly debated in Europe, Africa, and the United States by intellectuals, artists, civil society, researchers. It’s become a central question,” said Felwine Sarr, an economist and co-author of the report.
The report, released in 2018, recommended that all African cultural heritage – art, archives, ceremonial objects, human remains, natural history specimens, photographs and more – be returned to their countries of origin, if they are requested. The report found that, at most, there are 3,000 cultural heritage items currently located in Sub-Saharan African museums.
But in France, the report’s findings haven’t found footing in policy, and communities requesting the return of their cultural items face significant legal barriers to restitution, namely laws stating that public art belongs to the state and cannot be returned.
They also face opposition from French government officials such as Culture Minister Franck Riester, who stress that the report does not formally commit the administration to permanent restitution. Riester says that “heritage of humanity” should be available to all who seek it, and formal ownership over such heritage does not matter.
Sarr criticized this bureaucratic resistance.
“Things are not moving as fast as we would have liked,” Sarr said. “The French government is striving for a middle way that would be a mix of restitution and circulation. From a historical standpoint, that’s a retreat.”
Similar debates have taken root in Germany, where the opening of the new Humboldt Forum in November drew criticism from activists who said the museum had not fully researched the colonial histories of objects in its ethnographic collections. The protests even provoked the resignation of Benedicte Savoy – another co-author of the 2018 report – from the museum’s advisory board.
In March, the German government and culture ministers set guidelines for returning wrongfully obtained artifacts back to their original owners and designated 1.9 million euros ($21 million) for research into the origins of art found in national museums, but created no formal framework for restitution.
Berner Wolter, a spokesman for the Humboldt museum, said such guidelines would “change very little for us.”
Over the last year, Germany has returned to Namibia human remains from the massacre of the Nama and Herrero people under German colonial rule, a Bible and whip belonging to a Nama chief, and a Stone Cross artifact, but many artifacts in German museums still await deliberation. Critics say that Germany has done significantly more to atone for art looted during the Nazi era than it has for artifacts plundered from Africa during the colonial period.
In the U.K., restitution is prohibited by law. The British Museum, which holds 73,000 objects from Sub-Saharan Africa, has decided to loan pieces of cultural heritage to museums in Nigeria, Benin and Ghana, rather than give them back permanently.
Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum also agreed to return cultural items seized by the British army as a long-term loan, while still retaining permanent ownership over the pieces. The museum did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite recalcitrant government officials and slow-moving progress, a new frontier may be emerging for communities seeking the return of their treasures, one outside official government channels.
The Open Society Foundation, run by billionaire George Soros, pledged $15 million to assist the return of African heritage items to African nations, enabling investigation into whether artifacts can be returned without express permission of nations.
Zoe Strother, professor of Africana studies at Columbia University, is an advocate of such investigations.
“The new frontier lies in finding some means for institutions to address ethically claims across international boundaries without necessarily involving nation states,” Strother said. Governments “do not always have a good record of respecting the perspectives of indigenous peoples.”
(Written by Julia Frankel; Dec. 12, 2019)