Update on restitution: recent returns

Posted on: November 22, 2019 by

After my piece last week on restitution, there have been some interesting developments in the area. First of all, a major non-profit organisation, the Open Society Foundations, has pledged US$15 million to assist groups working to restitute African heritage. The money is pledged over a period of four years. As I said when commenting on it for Catherine Hickley in the Art Newspaper, this could have a major impact on the restitution discourse by providing consistency of funding for groups over a considerable period.

Secondly, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was in Senegal on Sunday and announced the “return” of a historic sabre that had belonged to a renowned West African leader, taken by French troops in 1893. This sword, along with its scabbard, will be on display at the remarkable Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. The only fly in the ointment, as predicted in my post on the topic (above), is that without a change to French law, the sword can only be given over on loan. The item was part of the French public collections and is thus considered inalienable. The idea, it seems, is to introduce a law allowing for its full-scale return. But even that is easier said than done. To see some (brief) comments on this, see the clip below of an interview I did with host of BBC World’s Focus on Africa Peter Okwoche on Tuesday.


And thirdly, the Manchester Museum returned 43 ceremonial items from its collection to several Australian Aboriginal groups. This was accompanied by a reportedly emotional ceremony in Manchester on Wednesday. This particular restitution is important because it is the first time a UK institution has returned a significant number of objects to overseas communities. Of course, UK institutions have been returning ancestral human remains to indigenous groups for years, but a line always seemed to be drawn when it came to ceremonial objects. In fact the Manchester Museum had returned remains to Australian Aboriginals back in 2003. This highlights the relationship that has existed for some time between the museum and the communities of origin.

As I’ve often said, restitution is about precisely this: relationships. In the Manchester case we had a relationship that has lasted over fifteen years and, as a result, the return of the 43 items was made possible. The ground was laid; there was trust on both sides, a clear understanding of the other’s point of view. It is this that forms the basis of almost all successful voluntary restitutions. Museums cannot be expected to give up collection items immediately upon receipt of a claim, nor indeed upon the fiat of government. Rather, the museum must work with the originating community (in fact, the museum has an ethical obligation to do just that) on collaborative projects and a sharing of expertise and research. Restitution then becomes part of a longer relationship. And it isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.

As Esme Ward, the Director of the Manchester Museum, said in her thoughtful introduction to the proceedings on Wednesday: “Our collaboration with all of you has not only resulted in the return of cultural heritage materials but a greater understanding of the aspirations of indigenous communities and a truly unique opportunity to build healing and reconciliation. We look forward to working together over the next decade to build real partnerships and understanding.” Nicely put.

The Institute of Art & Law is happy to be a part of the team putting on a three-part conference series over the next two years, The Restitution Dialogues: A Transnational Conversation on Cultural Loss, Return and Renewal.

Feature image is of the entrance to Manchester Museum by Nick Higham (CC BY 2.5)