These two articles from the Art Newspaper provide an update on President Macron pushing to return "all" the African art in French museums to Africa. I guess out of fear our colleagues in Europe have not expressed outrage at the potential dismantling of not only Quais Branly but also the exhibition at Lions Gate in the Louvre. Of course, this decision would have a major impact internationally in potentially setting a precedent that would create problems in the museum world. It would be interesting if someone had the courage to ask whether this was about protecting African heritage or French interests abroad.
1. PARIS What restitution experts have to say about President Macron’s pledge to return African artefacts
The French leader’s announcement in Burkina Faso is hailed as historic—but gets a mixed response
29th November 2017 11:15 GMT
French President Emmanuel Macron and Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore sit in a classroom as they visit the Lagm Taaba school in Ouagadougou, as part of his first African tour since taking office Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to return African artefacts housed in French institutions to their country of origin has been called historic by restitution specialists, who also questioned how the new cultural policy will be implemented.
In a speech given yesterday (28 November) at the University of Ougadougou in Burkina Faso, Macron said: “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums. African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.”
In the next five years, Macron stressed that he wants the conditions to be met for the "temporary or permanent" restitution of African heritage to Africa. “This will be one of my priorities,” he said.
Yves-Bernard Debie, a Brussels-based lawyer specialising in cultural property and trade, tells The Art Newspaper that this speech is historic because it breaks with the French legal tradition established in 1566 by the edict of Moulins. “Since that time, the royal domain has become the public domain and is inalienable,” he says.
“I’m concerned because it is a very bad signal to send to all the countries that think they can ask for the restitution of goods that, in their view, have been unlawfully obtained. There is no longer any reason that prohibits these countries from claiming ‘their heritage’ from France. Is this realistic? Yes and no. No because of the principles of inalienability that are enshrined in the law. Yes, because we can always change the laws,” Debie adds, asking: “What does ‘temporary restitution’ mean? A restitution is to return to its rightful owner something that was obtained unlawfully, and, one cannot, on the other hand, return something temporarily.”
On the other hand, Professor Nicholas Thomas, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, argues that this is a move in the right direction. “President Macron's commitment to prioritise the issue will be welcomed by many museum curators,” he says.
Museums in France housing African artefacts may now be forced to draw up new guidelines for repatriation. More than 70,000 items from sub-Saharan Africa housed at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris come from the former Africa and Madagascar collections of Musée de l’Homme and Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris. Museum officials declined to comment on Macron’s announcement.
The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris is embroiled in its own restitution battle with Benin, which called last year for the return of Guezo, Glele and Behanzin treasures in the museum’s collection. The disputed works were seized in 1892 from a kingdom that stretched across what is now Benin and Nigeria when the French army ransacked the royal palaces of Abomey in Benin.
In August 2016, the Benin government formally asked the French foreign ministry to repatriate the works. But the then minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said last December that restitution is impossible because the collection, like those of all French public museums, is “inalienable”.
2. Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris is ready to return African art
Head of the ethnographic institution applauds President Macron’s pledge to hand back African cultural heritage
4th January 2018 09:39 GMT
President Macron with Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian-Kabore Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to return African artefacts is an “awesome challenge”, according to Stéphane Martin, the president of the ethnographic Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris. With curators and museum staff in France—and across Europe—often fiercely attached to the principle of the inalienability of public collections, Martin’s reaction comes as quite a surprise.
In a speech on 28 November at the University of Ougadougou in Burkina Faso, Macron urged that within five years (the term of his presidency) “the conditions be met for the provisional or permanent return of African cultural heritage to Africa”, adding: “It is unacceptable that a large part of this heritage is kept in France or in private European collections and museums.”
He pointed out that, in the past, “in many countries, African curators themselves sometimes organised the trafficking of cultural goods, and these goods were also sometimes saved from the hands of traffickers by European curators and collectors,” and called for “a new common vision” and an end to “old conflicts”. Such a process “will need scientific and museographic partnerships”, he said.
According to official sources, Françoise Nyssen, France’s culture minister, had not been informed of the president’s intentions and has so far not commented on the declaration. The culture ministry is notoriously hostile to any changes on matters of restitution. In 2010, the French parliament voted to set up a scientific commission to study proposals for repatriation, but the ministry failed to act.
The Quai Branly museum has a collection of more than 70,000 artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa, and displays 1,000 of them in its galleries on the Left Bank of the Seine. “There is a real problem which is specific to Africa,” Martin says. “Cultural heritage has disappeared from the continent. In the African art exhibitions we have held since opening in 2006, not a single work was lent by an African museum. We ought to do something to repair that.” But he adds that the return of works to Africa needs to be considered “in the framework of cultural projects”.
The opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi last November marked “a major change in the museums’ world map”, Martin says. “It demonstrated that such a partnership is possible and can change our cultural vision. If together, and possibly with international co-operation with other Western partners, we can build one, two or three safe museums in Africa, I would not even consider transfers of ownership as taboo.”
Martin is prepared to start the process right away. “Think of the Museum of African Civilisations in Dakar, which has been built by the Chinese and has been empty for three years. Why not consider working on a partnership there? It might not be easy but it would be worth trying.”