By Kelley Tackett. 

On December 17, 2020, French legislators passed an unprecedented bill pertaining to the permanent return of objects violently looted from Benin during colonization (“the Bill”).[1] The Bill, which passed through the National Assembly in July 2020, received unanimous support in early November from the French Senate.

The Bill envisages the return of 27 specific cultural artifacts to Benin from the Musee du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in Paris within a year. They include 26 pieces from the Treasure of Behanzin (the last king of Dahomey, Benin) and a 19th century saber formerly belonging to the anti-colonial leader El Hadj Omar Tall.

The passage of the Bill was delayed due to continued internal debate concerning the process of restitution and the precedent the legislation may set. This bill, and the debates surrounding its impact and implementation should be understood in light of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report, which called for the documentation and ultimate repatriation of the more than 90,000 artifacts removed from their countries of origin by French forces during colonization.[2] 

Wording in an earlier draft called for legislators to establish a National Committee to review repatriation efforts, whereas the final Bill makes explicit that it is not intended for general application to all stolen materials held in French museums. Rather, the Bill was described as “strictly exceptional, ad hoc and [of] limited character.” Addressing the Sarr-Savoy report recommendations will require a wider-ranging set of laws concerning permanent restitution, applicable to circumstances beyond the 27 cultural objects addressed the Bill. Further, the Bill notably avoids the term “restitution” and its connotations of underlying theft, instead using the more neutral word, “transfer.” 

The Import of the Sarr Savoy Findings on French Repatriation

Two days following the Sarr-Savoy report’s publication in November 2018, French President Macron set the first concrete recommendation in motion,[3] with a promise to return 26 artifacts looted from Benin by French colonial forces.[4] Responses to Macron’s words ranged drastically from museum professionals bemoaning a future of empty exhibition halls, once all looted objects are returned, to activists and archaeologists insistent he still had not gone far enough.[5]

Two years following the Sarr-Savoy report’s publication, none of the 26 Benin artifacts have been formally repatriated, nor have any other cultural objects. In 2019, the 19th century saber formerly belonging to the anti-colonial leader El Hadj Omar Tall did arrive in Senegal on a five-year loan, part of an already existing cooperative system where European museums loan artifacts to African institutions with documented dates for return to the metropole.[6] The Museum of Black Civilizations in Senegal is one of many African cultural institutions constructed to house the cultural heritage stolen by European countries during colonization, the very scheme flying in the face of claims that emerged after the Sarr Savoy report that Africa has insufficient institutions properly to care for and display repatriated artifacts.[7] There are abundant methods to care for, study, value, and protect cultural objects that do not mimic the European universal museum model,[8] but even within that framework there are museums across Africa standing ready to display returned treasures.[9] The system of loaning cultural objects exists as an alternative solution to the lack of a general law allowing for permanent repatriation, but does not substitute for the actual act of return.[10] French law does not allow for museum deaccession, which requires passing continued exceptions or amendments to complete, drastically slowing down the repatriation process.

The Wider Framework: Other European Countries

In Britain, looted artifacts are similarly provided legal protection from deaccessioning, with the law making no exceptions for objects taken by colonizers. The British Museum alone holds more than 73,000 cultural artifacts looted from sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of summer 2020 protests, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, many European museums face mounting pressure for artifact restitution, alongside calls for the removal of colonial statues. The British Museum is among those to recently undertake efforts in piecemeal, voluntary restitution, in its return of ancient Samarkand statues to Uzbekistan in 2020, and over 5000 cultural objects to Iraq in one of Iraq’s largest repatriations to date.[11]

Other European countries are also taking steps to confront their colonial collections. In Germany, cultural ministers announced a resolution acknowledging the need to further study looted objects held in national museums.[12] In 2018, prior to this resolution, Germany voluntarily repatriated nine funerary objects to the Native Alaskan Chugach Tribe, and later returned a few artifacts and several human remains to Namibia. The resolution will provide $2.1 million for further provenance research. Much like the other European countries whose efforts were previously outlined, Germany’s funds and pledges are centered on research and further communication, rather than prioritizing the permanent material return of artifacts. 

A government committee in the Netherlands has recently released a detailed report of colonial looting. In early October 2020, the Netherlands culture ministry released its own report, compiled by Dutch heritage experts and lawyers, concerning artifacts looted from colonial contexts currently held in museum collections. The report outlined the need to reevaluate hundreds of thousands of artifacts, focusing on three of the country’s major museums: the National Museum van Wereldculturen, the Museum Bronbeek, and the Rijksmuseum. All three institutions possess the majority of Dutch cultural objects looted during the colonial era, including the 70-carat Indonesian diamond taken from the Sultan of Banjarmasin prominently displayed as a Rijksmuseum treasure.

The Dutch report’s steps to restitution begin with the colonizing country’s “readiness” to acknowledge the objects as looted and in need of return. To achieve the report’s long-term goal, the permanent and total repatriation of colonial artifacts in Dutch museums, there must be a collective desire to turn laudable words into concrete action (i.e. restitution). That being said, the funding and prioritizing of the documentation of looted objects and making public their numbers and identities is a step in the right direction.

The Dutch report also uniquely extends to the cross-border movement of looted artifacts even following their arrival in Europe, which makes space for a much wider array of restitution claims. 

Activist Responses and Global Calls for Action

The slow progress of French repatriation legislation, social sentiment, and governmental efforts to return looted artifacts has encouraged some individuals to pursue extralegal measures to achieve their goals of repatriation, whether in full or centering on particular artifacts. In September of 2020, activist Ogundele “charged [at] the display” of Benin Bronzes in the Museum of London Docklands exhibit, “London, Sugar, & Slavery,” on loan from the British Museum. English colonial forces looted the bronzes in 1897, when destroying the royal palace in Nigeria. Ogundele’s protest involved knocking the bronzes from their pedestals in the exhibit, declaring his intent to return them himself since the British government would not commit to restitution.

The public protests against looted artifacts, where activists have felt that the progress of legislators and voluntary government efforts for repatriation are not fast enough, are often coordinated and not isolated events. When Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza and four others tried to steal a Congolese funerary pole from the Musee du quai Branly, they documented their attempt in a half-hour livestreamed video.[13] This was the third such action the protestors carried out in 2020. In the video, they narrated their actions, cited particular abuses of the museum, and assured viewers that they understood the consequences of their actions as they were led away by police. Diyabanza and the four other activists were greeted with cheers as they left the police station, released following serious pressure by community organizers. Though on October 14, 2020 Diyabanza was charged with attempted theft and fined, during their trial, the activists had always insisted that they never planned to steal the work, only call attention to its presence in a British institution.[14]

In addition to this, academics, activists, and heritage professionals around the world continue to pressure European governments to act more quickly to address calls for reparations and repatriation. As Diyabanza’s defense lawyer noted, decades have now passed since the African countries calling for the return of cultural objects freed themselves from colonial rule. Also addressing the slow response of French officials and museum curators to the Sarr-Savoy report, Columbia professor of African art Zoe Strother suggested “finding some means for institutions to address ethical claims across international boundaries without necessarily involving nation states, which do not always have a good record of respecting the perspectives of Indigenous peoples.”[15] Protests such as those by Ogundele and Diyabanza emphasize the question of whether efforts to repatriate artifacts outside of legal channels should be viewed as a political statement rather than a criminal act, given that it appears incontrovertible that the possessor countries looted these objects from their places of origin and therefore cannot themselves have a valid claim as owner. 

What Comes Next?

The French Bill passed in mid-December is understood to be the first step in a broader process of colonial reckoning. It is one that Benin’s president recently remarked was a “strict minimum.”[16] In facing the more than 90,000 looted objects currently held in France, the return of 27, without legal structures in place to address the rest, will not comprehensively challenge the composition of French museums and cultural institutions. Former African colonies are explicitly asking for the permanent restitution of objects looted by European colonizers, calls to action which are not new to the present moment. Moving forward, France and other European countries would be advised to embrace the kind of wider-scale legal re-evaluations that could meet these demands of restitution, and actively provide reparations for centuries of undisputable colonial theft, looting, and violence. 


Endnotes:

  1. Loi 2020-1673 du 24 décembre 2020 relative à la restitution de biens culturels à la République du Bénin et à la République du Sénégal [Law 2020-1673 of December 24, 2020 relating to the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal], JOURNAL OFFICIEL DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE [J.O.] [OFFICIAL GAZETTE OF FRANCE], Dec. 26, 2020.
  2. Felwine Sarr & Benedicte Savoy, The Sarr-Savoy Report On the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage Toward a New Relational Ethics, (Nov. 23, 2018); Clara Cassan, The Sarr-Savoy Report & Restituting Colonial Artifacts, CENTER FOR ART LAW (Jan. 31, 2019).
  3. Naomi Rea, On the Heels of a Dramatic Restitution Report, France is Returning 26 Artifacts to Benin. Will Other Countries Follow Suit?, ArtNet News (Nov. 26, 2018).
  4. Naomi Rea, France Released a Groundbreaking Report on the Restitution of African Art One Year Ago. Has Anything Actually Changed?, ArtNet News (Dec. 11, 2019).
  5. Kate Brown, “The Idea Is Not to Empty Museums”: Authors of France’s Blockbuster Restitution Report Say Their Work Has Been Misrepresented, ArtNet News (Jan. 24, 2019).
  6. Naomi Rea, France Returns to Senegal a 19th-Century Saber That It Looted During the Colonial Period, ArtNet News (Nov. 18, 2019).
  7. Dionne Searcey & Farah Nayeri, Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home, N.Y. Times (Jan. 15, 2019).
  8. Mobile Museums — Greater Accra, ANO (Dec. 2019).
  9. Jacob Kushner, In Germany, a new museum stirs up a colonial controversy, National Geographic(Dec. 16, 2020).
  10. François Soudan, Benin — Patrice Talon: “I took the risk of being unpopular”, Jeune Afrique (Sept. 29, 2020, 12:11 PM).
  11. Naomi Rea, The British Museum Is Helping to Return Hundreds of Looted Ancient Artifacts to Museums in Iraq and Afghanistan, ArtNet News (July 9, 2019).
  12. Christopher F. Schuetze, Germany Sets Guidelines for Repatriating Colonial-Era Artifacts, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 2019).
  13. Kate Brown, Five Activists Were Arrested After Trying to Seize a 19th-Century Artifact from Paris’s Quai Branly Museum and Return It to Africa, ArtNet News (June 15, 2020).
  14. Id.
  15. Rea, supra note 4.
  16. Soudan, supra note 10.

About the Author: Kelley Tackett is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she earned A.B. degrees in Archaeology, Middle East Studies, and Linguistic Anthropology. Her research interests include cultural heritage law, repatriation, decolonial praxis, and community-based archaeology.

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Noor Kadhim, international disputes lawyer and freelance journalist, for her precious help in writing this article.