The campaign to return stolen African artefacts to the continent, backed by high-profile support from New African, has finally broken the barriers and many Western countries are now returning objects. But resistance, especially by the UK, remains.
Since the publication last year of New African’s Return of the Icons special supplement on looted African artefacts and imprisoned human remains, the issue has gained widespread traction.
Germany has been the first major Western country to commit to returning all its African artefacts, opening the floodgates. The Dutch have also made some positive noises about return, as has the Smithsonian in the US. The French have already returned items to Benin, Madagascar, and Senegal. Meanwhile individual cultural institutions such as Jesus College, Cambridge and Aberdeen University have also unconditionally returned important Benin bronzes.
A number of recent events have reinforced the long-standing demands from African countries, resulting in this moment of profound change. The first was the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, which recommended return and sent a thunderbolt through western museums.
This was augmented on a popular level by the Rhodes Must Fall and global Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the latter following the murder of George Floyd in America. As statues toppled, the issues of structural racism and the legacies of slavery, empire and colonialism were thrust into everyday conversations.
Finally in the academic sphere critical race theory and de-colonialism has provided the intellectual ballast for the return of icons.
The heightened atmosphere for return has reinvigorated the African museum sector. There are plans for new world-class museums, such as architect David Adjaye’s design for the Benin Museum to house the returned bronzes, and greater interest in the artists and ideas that produced the artefacts in the first place
However, despite the increasing Western openness to return there is still significant resistance, especially from the British government whose museums, universities and cultural institutions are full of important cultural artefacts.
They are handling the request for return as part of an extended culture war where they accuse so-called ‘woke’ activists of being part of a conspiracy to undermine Western culture and civilisation. Rather than remove statues and return artefacts, they argue instead for a policy of ‘retain and explain’.
Even if one accepts this policy, in order to know what is being explained, one needs to know in the first place what has been retained. At present, many of the British institutions which have huge collections from Africa and elsewhere do not know what is in their basements. The objects on display are only a small portion of their overall collection.
In addition, the UK government has not committed any additional resources to cataloguing or conducting a proper audit of what it loudly declares that it is seeking to retain. Without this initial forensic auditing one fundamentally doubts the sincerity of the ‘retain’ part of the policy.
Meanwhile on the ‘explain’ part, some institutions are reaching out to African communities both in the diaspora and on the continent, in order to involve them in retelling the story of the objects from a non-colonialist perspective.
The explaining needs to be much more proactive in the reshaping of the narrative as part of a robust, decolonial policy of understanding what the objectives really mean in the context of changing African cultures and sensibilities.
Perhaps the most damning part of the ‘retain and explain’ policy is the retention of human remains and their continuing offensive display in museums. Despite the existence of legislation calling for the return of human remains in UK collections, the law does not cover remains that are more than 1,000 years old. So the British Museum continues in this day and age to display the remains of African kings and queens and high-ranking officials in its Egyptian Mummy section, humiliating them and eroding their and our dignity.
Despite the British government’s resistance and culture wars, the momentum of return is now irresistible. The moral argument has been lost: the issue is now increasingly being factored into diplomatic and trade issues between African and Western institutions.
Following the impact of Ghana’s Year of Return, African countries have discovered the financial potential of heritage tourism; the African Union has established a heritage committee with membership drawn from some of the most influential African countries including Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia; finally, if one also factors in diaspora activism, it is clear the issue is likely to remain high on the agenda. And victory will be inevitable.