Return of African Icons 2020

How to bring Africa’s looted icons home: Key recommendations for stakeholders

How to bring Africa’s looted icons home: Key recommendations for stakeholders
  • PublishedAugust 19, 2020

The African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) is campaigning to return African artefacts to their countries and communities of origin. Paul Asquith outlines key recommendations for governments, museums and civil society groups for taking this work forward.

In the first half of 2020, the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) carried out research around the restitution of stolen African artefacts and human remains held in UK museums and cultural institutions, as part of its Return of the Icons programme.

184 diaspora community members responded through an online survey and focus group discussions, making this the largest UK survey of diaspora attitudes to the restitution of African artefacts ever undertaken. Interviews also took place with museum professionals, diaspora cultural professionals and African government stakeholders active in this area.

Diaspora respondents were overwhelmingly (nearly 80%) in favour of the return of stolen African artefacts and human remains to their countries and communities of origin.

The principal barrier to the restitution of stolen African artefacts from UK collections is the legal restrictions on national collections preventing their return. The number of formal requests made for the return of objects is quite limited – some institutions have had very few, if any, requests. Not all collections have fully catalogued the African artefacts they hold.

Given the number of technical criteria to be fulfilled around provenance and ownership and perceived capacity issues at some African receiving institutions, the fear of UK policy-makers that restitution risks setting a precedent which will end up emptying UK national collections seems misplaced.

AFFORD’s research identified four main potential pathways for return that will inform future advocacy and campaign strategies:

  1. changes in the law through the UK Parliament
  2. legal test cases
  3. voluntary return agreements
  4. other forms of return (revolving or long-term loans, for example)

The Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018, arguably marked a shift in how European cultural institutions are starting to treat African cultural heritage.

UK cultural institutions risk being left behind if they do not develop appropriate restitution policies and programmes, at a time when the UK’s bilateral relations with Africa and the rest of the world are set to become more important than ever post-Brexit.

A gulf in perception

There appears to be a gap – a gulf even – in perception between some museum professionals and the general public in the UK on the one hand – who have little experience of being dispossessed of their cultural heritage – and African and diaspora communities, for whom this is part of their lived experiences.

But the recent street protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the toppling of statues on both sides of the Atlantic and a renewed focus on issues of structural racism and the legacy of colonialism and slavery, also suggest this gap in perception is far from unbridgeable.

Based on our findings, AFFORD is proposing key recommendations to different stakeholders to strengthen work in this area:


African governments should extend diplomatic and advocacy efforts for the restitution of stolen artefacts and human remains from UK museums and other cultural institutions, including more formal requests for restitution.

The UK, other European governments and the EC should support the capacity-building of African cultural institutions and the development of the culture and heritage sectors in African economies, including the training and professional development of Africa-based museum and heritage professionals through partnerships with UK museums.

Museums and cultural institutions:

Museums and other institutions should identify and catalogue African artefacts and human remains held within their collections with a view to developing policies to enable restitution, in partnership with diaspora and African museums.

The forthcoming Arts Council guidance on restitution and repatriation for UK museums should hear from African and diaspora stakeholders through the hosting of a one-day seminar before the guidance framework is agreed.

Civil society and community groups:

Groups and campaigns for the return of stolen African artefacts should be supported to coordinate more effectively to help build momentum and public support, and to carry out advocacy campaigns.

For the complete set of recommendations, see:

Return of the Icons: The restitution of African artefacts & human remains project mapping report

Return of the Icons: Key issues and recommendations around the restitution of stolen African artefacts

Paul Asquith is Engagement and Policy Manager at the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD).


About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report

This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.

The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.

Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.

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New African

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