Action at last? France renews promise to return looted artefacts to Benin

Posted on: January 23, 2020 by

President Emmanuel Macron originally promised to return 26 artefacts, currently held in the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, to Benin in 2018. These objects were taken as spoils from the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1892, as part of French colonial military action. Macron’s promise was made in response to the publication of the Sarr-Savoy report: ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics’. The IAL blog has followed the progress of these French promises (see here, here, and here), noting that the recommendations of Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr have not been universally supported and that there has not yet been a successful and complete restitution (on a permanent basis) from a French public institution to an African country.

Map showing the Kingdom of Dahomey and the borders of present-day Benin

Nonetheless, we may be seeing some progress at last. As reported in The Art Newspaper, the French culture minister, Franck Riester, has reasserted Macron’s original promise to return the 26 artefacts whilst on a recent visit to Benin. This time, the promise comes with a timeline – the items are to be returned by 2021. Even more encouragingly, a spokesperson for Riester told the press that the government is attempting to set an agenda to enable the requisite laws to be passed, allowing restitution to occur. As noted by Alexander Herman, legal barriers have so far stood in the way of restitution efforts since, under French law, publically owned artefacts are ‘inalienable’. This means that they cannot be deaccessioned from museum collections without a change in legislation.

Prior to this recent announcement, there has been growing criticism of the French government for reneging on its position on the restitution of colonial loot. As reported in The New York Times, Sarr commented late last year that solutions which fall short of actual restitution should be understood as a retreat. The same article also included statements from Riester who clarified that the President and government were not obligated to follow the recommendations of the report, suggesting that the full-scale restitution that Sarr and Savoy had recommended was unlikely to materialise. As noted in previous IAL blog posts (here and here), Macron had shown more willingness to commit to temporary returns and long-term loans. Unlike restitution, these solutions do not require transferring ownership back to the object’s country of origin. However, with a clear commitment to both the timescale and the methodology of the return of these 26 items, we can be slightly more hopeful that restitution will occur.

Entrance to the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

What might have triggered the renewal of Macron’s year-old promise now? One possible reason might be that Stéphane Martin is leaving his post as president of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac this month, as reported on the website ARTNews. According to this report, Martin, who had been the museum’s president for more than 20 years, was strongly opposed to Sarr and Savoy’s recommendations, stating that full-scale repatriation was an act of ‘self-flagellation’. Better to share the objects with African countries than to hand them over entirely, he asserted. Repatriating objects from the Quai Branly might be more easily achieved with someone who views restitution more favourably at the helm. The museum is estimated to hold around 70,000 African objects and so will inevitably remain in the spotlight as restitution continues to be debated in France. Given the contents of the Quai Branly’s collection, it is obvious why its senior staff might be hesitant to embrace restitution wholeheartedly. However, the slippery slope argument that restitution will lead to the emptying of Western museums can be seriously questioned when only 26 of 70,000 objects appear to be on the table. It might seem preferable to positively engage in restitution discussions than to hide behind such arguments.

Another potential spur for Riester’s renewed promises could be increasing public pressure. More and more countries and institutions are making restitution efforts. Cambridge University’s Jesus College recently returned a bronze cockerel to Nigeria, a decision which received a positive public response. Additionally, significant funding has been provided for initiatives aimed at restituting looted cultural heritage to African countries: See the recent pledge of $15 million from the Open Society Foundations in this regard.. Providing funding will not only be of practical benefit to these initiatives but may also pressurise states into co-operating with these endeavours. Such vast sums of money demonstrate that these issues are to be taken seriously.

Lastly, Benin is building a new museum to house repatriated cultural objects. The French Development Agency, a public funding group, is loaning €20 million to help this project. Initiatives such as this help to assuage arguments which question the ability of African countries to care for their own heritage.

Despite all this, we cannot be certain that the 26 objects will find their way back to Benin on a permanent  basis until we see a change in French law. Legal barriers remain a recurrent theme within the topic of restitution. The way forward depends upon co-operation at many different levels, not least involving museums and governments working together to seek fair solutions for cultural heritage taken in problematic circumstances. France may soon demonstrate how this can be successfully achieved.

Image credits: Map via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); Musée du Quai Branly via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 – Andreas Praefcke);