PARIS — Nearly every Western European capital has a massive, monolithic museum designed to project an image of national might and instill ordinary citizens with patriotic pride through expansive collections that stretch across time and place.
In the seats of former colonial powers, these caverns of culture also reflect contested periods of history. They feature items acquired in dubious circumstances or plundered outright. And although the empires have long since collapsed, the objects have remained.
Now, after decades of silence and even obfuscation on the part of many European governments, some of the continent’s leading cultural institutions are beginning to reevaluate colonial-era artifacts and, in some cases, discuss returning them to their countries of origin — under certain terms.
The accelerated push began with French President Emmanuel Macron, who proclaimed while in Burkina Faso in November that France would work toward the “temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
As recently as March 2017, France had rejected efforts by Benin to reclaim thousands of objects looted in the 1890s from what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey — including royal thrones, scepters and statues on display at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. “The goods you mention have been integrated for a long time, some for more than a century, into the public assets of the French state,” the government insisted in a communique obtained by France’s Libération newspaper. “Their restitution is not possible.”
Macron, elected in May 2017, signaled a shift. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he said. “African heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”
There is similar discomfort within Britain. The Victoria and Albert Museum in April staged an exhibit of objects — including a gold crown and chalice — taken by the British army from Ethiopia in 1868. “Even at the time, this episode was regarded as a shameful one,” the museum noted. Ethiopia filed a claim for the artifacts in 2008. This year, the V&A director floated returning the objects under a long-term loan agreement.
Germany, too, has joined the reevaluation and restitution push. The German Lost Art Foundation, established to support investigations of Nazi-looted art, announced in April that it would expand its mandate to include artifacts from former colonies. In May, the German museums association released a code of conduct to guide the research and possible restitution of colonial-era objects. For 2019, Germany has set aside $3.5 million to help museums determine the origins of possibly illegal or illegitimate artifacts.
“The colonial era has been a blind spot in our culture of remembrance for too long,” the culture minister wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, a consortium of European museums known as the Benin Dialogue Group has been discussing rotating loans to Benin City, Nigeria, of artifacts looted by the British army.
All this suggests a dramatic change in attitudes. But critics wonder whether it will lead to much of an overhaul of the continent’s collections. They note that governments are talking less about returning artifacts with sincere apologies and more about long-term loans and joint-custody agreements. They bristle at the idea that European institutions should get to determine which claims are valid and whether other countries have adequate facilities and curatorial expertise to get back objects that were taken from them.
After one museum in Hamburg assessed three Benin bronzes in its collection and determined “there is no question anymore that these bronzes constitute looted art,” it decided merely to shift the bronzes to a different Hamburg museum that could provide “respectful treatment of these works.”
“The big point of contention is whether artifacts brought here with violence can be considered legal,” said Christian Kopp of the nongovernmental organization Berlin Postkolonial. “We need to define what legality means in this context.”
The burden of proof, Kopp added, should lie with European museums and not with former colonial countries. “Museums should have to prove that their acquisitions were legal,” he said.
In Germany, pressure to research and reconcile colonial-era objects comes as Berlin prepares to open a massive new ethnographic museum next year. Little is known about some of the 20,000 items slated to go on display at the Humboldt Forum, although the curators have said they are committed to identifying items that may have been acquired illegally or unethically.
“Every museum should actively search for objects that need to be returned. I’d rather have empty vitrines in the exhibition,” said Gorch Pieken, curator of an exhibit and workshop space within the new museum. Pieken suggested that empty display cases could raise awareness about restitution.
“It’s about reestablishing a pact between society, the object and the patrimony,” said Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, who along with French art historian Bénédicte Savoy has been tapped by Macron to outline a repatriation plan, expected in November.
Sarr is author of a 2016 book, “Afrotopia,” that eschews Western development aid and advocates for an Africa that determines what it wants for itself. He sees restitution of objects taken during the colonial era as a crucial step in that evolution: The objects are signifiers of stolen pasts.
Sarr rejects the suggestion there are not adequate facilities to receive these artifacts and dismisses security concerns.
Some in the art world are haunted by what happened to the “Lydian hoard” — hundreds of gold pieces that were illegally excavated and exported from Turkey, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and then returned to the Usak Museum in western Turkey as part of a legal settlement, after which some of the pieces were sold off and replaced by fakes by a museum director with gambling debts.
“We’ve visited many museums in Africa,” Sarr said. “There are museums prepared to welcome the objects with the professional competence that is necessary.”
But there are other concerns at play, shared even by those who support restitution on moral grounds.
“To me, the works of art are universal,” said Erick Cakpo, an African art specialist at the University of Lorraine. “With restitution, you risk the idea that the works are better in one place more so than another. The works are ends in and of themselves. We have to do a serious examination to ensure that the viewers who see these objects, also see them in their globality.”
Since its establishment in May 1791, France’s flagship museum, the Louvre, has prided itself on being a “universal museum” that showcases the pinnacle of human aesthetic achievement — a status made possible by the colonial exploits of Napoleon, whose successive military campaigns across Europe and the Middle East did much to bolster the Louvre’s collection of antiquities.
In the same vein, the Louvre’s new outpost in Abu Dhabi, which opened last November, has styled itself as the Arab world’s first “universal museum” and has chosen to display similar objects from vastly different cultures together, to emphasize human commonalities.
But some feel privileging an object’s “universal” value can efface the particular history in which it is inscribed, as well as the experiences of the individuals who made it. Restitution, they say, is the only adequate means of honoring those histories, at least for those items known to be looted or plundered.
“History is irreparable. It is incomprehensible,” Sarr said. “What we are doing is merely a gesture of recognition, of saying, ‘This is something that was taken in illegal circumstances.’ It’s just an initial act of recognition.”
Of course, there are complexities, said Louis-Georges Tin, a representative of black associations in France who has influenced Macron’s position on lost art.
“To restitute is difficult,” Tin said. “But not to restitute is even more difficult.”
Noack reported from Berlin.