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European museums are under increasing pressure to return irreplaceable artifacts, looted during colonial times. As an archaeologist working in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research.
I take advantage of the convenience of access by Western museums while I am struck by the ethical difficulties of how they have been taken there by illegal means and by the guilt that my colleagues in Africa can not have the resources to see materials from their own a country that is stored thousands of kilometers.
Benin wants to restore his national treasures, which were taken to France and are currently exhibited at the Quai Branly, a museum presenting African art and culture. Credit: Gerard Julien / AFP / Getty Images
The 108-page study, written by French art historian Benedict Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Fellwin Sar, talks about "theft, robbery, robbery, fraud and forcible consent" through which the colonial forces have acquired these materials. The call for "restitution" reflects the widely accepted approach, which seeks to return the art of the Nazis redeemed to its legitimate owners.
Three British soldiers after the expedition in Benin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The city is burned and the British Admiralty sells the loot – more than 2000 artworks – to "pay" for the expedition. The British Museum received about 40% of the transportation. None of the artifacts remained in Africa – they are now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.
The British expedition of 1867 in the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia, which has never fully adhered to colonial control, was mounted to seemingly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Teodoros II. His culmination is in the Battle of Magdalene and the plundering of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artifacts from the Ethiopian church, which are thought to be needed for eleven elephants and 200 mules to be taken by all. Most of them were in the British Library, the British Museum, and V & A, where they still remain.
Buying, stolen, destroyed
France to return the stolen art of the museum
Although these are the most famous cases, the vast majority of African objects in western museums are gathered by adventurers, administrators, merchants and settlers, with little thought of the legality of ownership. Even if purchased by local owners, it was often a gift and there were few checks to limit their exports. Archaeological relics, like inscriptions or inscriptions, were simply collected and taken away. Similar activities continued in the 20th century.
Make them safe
The argument is often mentioned that when they come to the West these items are reserved for offspring – if left in Africa, they would just rot. This is an appropriate argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow can not be trusted by locals to curb their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.
The Colonial Forces had an inconsistent record of creating museums to keep these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later deprived of funding or experience. Once the African states achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list of national funding and aid and development abroad, while regional museums were almost neglected.
The Belgian Central African Museum was re-opened in December amid protests and a request by the Democratic Republic of the Congo to return stolen artifacts. Credit: GEORGE GOBET / AFP / AFP / Getty Images
Today, many museums on the African continent are semi-abandoned, climate-free, poorly trained staff and little security. There are many examples of stolen or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.
Easter Island is trying to secure the return of a statue, known as Hoa Hakananaya, from the British Museum in London. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / AFP / Getty Images
The Savoy and Sarr report offers the hope that such deals can become something of the past and that Africa's rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted, and restored to the brilliant cultures that have done so.