Museums Returning Treasures of the Past

Europe’s colonialism in the past is currently a hot topic in the world of art, mostly owing to the debate on whether all looted treasures should return to their countries of origin. In recent years, there have been initiatives for restitution of African art from the museums of Europe.

How has the attitude of both the European political and artistic landscape changed towards this issue over the years, and is full restitution going to happen? Let’s have a closer look at why museums are returning treasures of the past:


Royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey dating from 1890–92 at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, France. | Image source: ctvnews.ca

Europe’s Historical Attitude towards Pillaged Artworks

In the past, the rules regarding the treatment of cultural property were much more lenient if not non-existent compared to today, where we have legally-binding international rules. During wars, artifacts of value used to be fair prey and often a notorious part of the expedition. However, things began to change after Napoleon’s conquest and subsequent defeat in 1815, when the Allies demanded the return of their looted works of art.

Only the custom of restitution and protection of cultural property had been established then. Later, it was provided enforceability by the Hague Convention in 1899, 1907 and major progress cemented in 1954. However, outside the borders of Europe, the powers of Europe kept looting African artworks throughout the 19th and 20th century, especially the British troops that pillaged Maqdala, Ashanti, and most infamously, Benin. Even though looting Africa wasn’t legally forbidden at the time, many prominent public figures did object, resulting in the restitution of Abyssinian art, only four years after the expedition that looted it.

The Louvre and It’s African Art Collections

But even when it was looted, African art seemed to be deemed much less worthy than Western artworks — at least, not divine or interesting enough to be displayed alongside Western art in museums. A museum that exemplifies this approach would undoubtedly be the Louvre, with its history of deciding what art was and what it wasn’t — rejecting African artworks deserved recognition.

While the Louvre always highlighted traditional Western art, the items they gathered through colonialism had no place in the museum’s halls for the longest time. And even when they were featured in other museums of France such as the Trocadéro, they were displayed as “primitive art.”

This practice endured until the ‘80s when there was a push for theLouvre to include African art in its displays. The museum opened the Pavillon des Sessions but still hid it far away from the usual paths of visitors’exploration. Mounting criticism of this practice led to the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly in 2006, which now holds around 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa.


Book “RESTORING AFRICAN HERITAGE” co-authored by an economist Felwine Sarr (at right) and art historian Bénédicte Savoy (at left). | Image source: sinesaloum.info

Savoy-Sarr Report on African Art Restitution

These developments finally led to the political figures recognizing that art restitution is an option worth exploring. It began with the French President Macron, who had stated that he could not accept such a huge part of African cultural heritage being held in France, during his speech in Burkina Faso in November of 2017. President Macron commissioned a report, asking academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr to present a proposal for African art restitution.

The report determined that up to 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently held outside of Africa, mostly in the museums of Europe. Savoy and Sarr suggested that all objects that were looted and brought to France without agreement with their countries of origin should be permanently returned if the country asks for them.

Even though many felt this was an attempt to empty the museums of Europe, Savoy and Sarr have repeatedly stated that that was not the case. They claimed that their suggested restitution practices aimed to balance the way African heritage has distributed around the world and to give African museums a chance to get their significant works of art back.


Patrice Talon, the president of Benin and Emmanual Macron at University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in November 2017.©PRÉSIDENCE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE DU BÉNIN, VIA FLICKR | Image source: artnews.com

Art that Has Returned

These efforts to facilitate the restitution of African art have already yielded some results. France has already decided to return the 26 objects that the French troops looted in 1892 from King Behanzin’s palace in Abomey, Benin. Germany has also made progress in that regard, where the culture ministers of 16 states agreed to return works of art that were taken in “legally or morally unjustifiable” ways. It is especially significant because Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has the second-largest collection of Benin bronzes.

The British Museum, however, has the most extensive collection of Benin bronzes — and has agreed to return some of them, but only temporarily. Benin Dialogue Group and British Museum decided last year to return some of the most iconic pieces to be displayed as a new exhibition at the new Benin Royal Museum in Edo State within three years.


[YouTube] TRT World: The report calls on France to allow the return of thousands of African treasures and artworks, a radical policy shift that could put pressure on other former colonial powers.

Important Influence of African Art

There is no question that African art had a significant historical influence on the modern art movement. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were the first notable European artists who became fascinated by African art — more specifically, by the sculpted figure of the Vili people of the Congo. Both of them had displayed influences of African art — Matisse with Marguerite, Red interior still life on a blue table, and Madame Matisse, while Picasso’s African Period lasted two years.

These influences eventually led to a new art movement, making African art extremely significant — not only in the context of African cultural heritage but also for the global development of modern art.

Even though European countries have had a not-so-laudable track record regarding non-Western art in the past, efforts are being made to wrestle with the implications of their colonialism. Indeed, developments like the acceptance of conclusions in the Savoy-Sarr report signal towards a fairer distribution of influential cultural power of art in the future.

However, it is important to note that these efforts should be led by art historians and the museums themselves, and not necessarily politicians, although their participation is also needed. It remains to be seen whether these initiatives for art restitution will have a deep and long-lasting impact on the world of art.

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