Looting, museumification, restitution… African cultural heritage experts are calling out … and rebelling. Egypt, the instigator of an international protest movement has, for several months now, adopted only one watchword: the “restitution” of its treasures, displayed in museums across the Western world. The rallying cry has become a leitmotif of concern that has attracted many other countries to follow Egypt’s lead. Syria, Nigeria, Peru and even Greece have joined in the dance, raising a critical question: Would the prized artifacts remain safe in their hands? A controversial issue among both policy makers and African cultural heritage experts.
The statue of Ramses II, the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone… have all contributed to Egypt’s current position on cultural heritage restitution. An international conference on restitution of “stolen” artifacts scattered across the world took place in Cairo last April. The participants sought to draw up wish lists of important artifacts that need to be sent back to their countries of origin. Of some twenty-three countries present, only seven have drawn up wish lists of items they want returned. The question of restitution has triggered concerns among Western museum curators who insist that they have the necessary facilities to safeguard the longevity of artifacts without damaging them. The issue of safeguarding the priceless historical artifacts brings another ethical question to the fore: Who is the rightful owners of these objects, all too often acquired by Western museums under, more often than not, fishy circumstances?
An old story
The looting of African artifacts, a centuries old phenomenon, began in the 1450s when Portuguese colonialists discovered African arts and crafts with utter amazement. That is when they began engaging in profitable business ventures to obtain artifacts which would eventually end up in princely courts and cabinets of curiosities, where they served as a scientific proof of the existence of “savages” in the remote parts of Africa. Observers reveal that most objects traded at the time were Afro-Portuguese ivory salt cellars (shakers), spoons, and hunting horns ordered by 15th and 16th century travelers from sculptors in Sierra Leone, Benin and the ancient kingdom of Congo. Several missionaries, who came to evangelize in those countries, also contributed to the collection and transportation of these objects.
But it is somewhere in the 20th century that the looting reached a disgraceful peak. Indeed, African museums and archaeological sites have constantly attracted thieves. According to Abdoulaye Camara, curator of Dakar’s African art museum, “Curators are not always to blame. They do what they can with the means accorded them under peculiar circumstances… poverty and corruption.” The National Museums of Kinshasa, DRC, have witnessed their collections reduced by over 50 per cent due to frequent thefts attributed to low surveillance and corruption among poorly paid curators who do not hesitate to abscond with original pieces and have them replaced with copies. The national museum in Bangui, Central African Republic, only has two masks left in its entire collection! “In Africa, the artifacts are neither listed nor photographed, so one never knows which of them has disappeared, illegally. Africans must work to protect our artifacts in order to prevent them from being smuggled across the continent’s borders and also secure our museums. But all this calls for means that we do not have,” Abdoulaye Camara argues.
Museumification and restitution at the heart of an ethical debate
The systemic failures of African museums raise the question of the museumification of its cultural heritage. Some items that have come to be regarded by Westerners as veritable works of art have been ignored in the African showcase: kitchen utensils, objects of worship, etc.. Nonetheless, the concept of cultural heritage is not seen as irrelevant in Africa, contrary to the belief of certain Western curators. It may also be noted that local museums suffer from the fact that ownership of some of the historical properties of their various countries are claimed by their former colonial masters.
The massive ethnographic museums in Germany, the United Kingdom and France highlight the magnitude of the issue. Recent primitive art ownerships have also been attributed to black-market practices. This is the case of three Nok statuettes, from Nigeria, which can be found at the Paris Musée du Quai Branly, a.k.a. “primitive art museum”. They reemerged after having been stolen in Nigeria. They were bought for about 20 million francs from a Belgian art dealer of dubious repute. “Let’s buy everything and accumulate them en masse in our museums to save savage civilization artifacts from destruction,” Adolph Bastian, a nineteenth century German anthropologist, wrote. With what is happening, Bastian’s outrageous remarks cannot be considered as obsolete, two centuries after they were uttered.
Indeed, why are so many demands for restitution being rejected by European curators? Is it really because of the fear that African museums are unable to keep take care of their own artifacts without damaging them? And is it fair to African countries who find extensive sections of their history kept outside their borders? A non-contextualized heritage alongside communities deprived of huge chunks of their cultural and historical identity: This is the environment in which many African countries have been commemorating the 50 years of their independence.
Non-exhaustive list of items returned to Africa:
Tanzania: Makonde Mask, arrived at Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, in 1985, returned to Tanzania May 10, 2010.
South Africa: Remains of Saartjie Baartman (Hottente Venus), taken away from her native South Africa in 1810. Returned by Musée de l’Homme, Paris, in 1994.
Angola: “Lwena” statue – part of Luanda Museum’s collections. Seized by French police at a public sale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, March 24, 1996. Returned to Angola 28 October 1997.
Ivory Coast: “Bete” statuette: Stolen from the National Museum of Abidjan in the 1970s during a traveling exhibition in Europe. Returned to the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire in Paris, December 6, 1995.
Madagascar: “Sakalava” statuette seized at the Salon de Mars in Paris in March 1995. Returned to the Embassy of Madagascar in Paris, 3 May 1995.
Morocco: Two architectural elements (a double door and a wooden panel) from Morocco. Appeared on Sotheby’s list for auction, October 17, 1996, in London. Moroccan authorities requested the return of the objects based on a legislation that prohibits the export of antique furniture.
Mali: A Ram offered to Jacques Chirac in 1991, looted from Thial excavations in Mali. Returned by France in January 1998.
Nigeria: Three terracotta heads stolen in November 1994 from the National Museum Gallery, Ile Ife, Nigeria. Seized by French police and returned to Nigeria in May, 1996.
Zambia: Nalindele Mask stolen from the National Museum of Livingstone in Zambia. Entrusted to Belgian police in June 1996. Returned to Zambia 28 November 1997.
Libya: Venus of Cyrene, white marble statue dating from the second century AD, kept in Italy. Returned to Libya in April 2007.
Egypt: Over 31,000 artifacts of all kinds recovered from several countries, since 2002.