South African Cultural Observatory

Call to Curators – SA Cultural Observatory Researches Debates About The Repatriation Of Museum Artifacts

BY Prof. Jen Snowball and Prof Alan Collins 29.06.20

The debates about the restitution of museum artifacts taken from African countries, mostly during the colonial era, has a long history. However, it was brought to high prominence again recently by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who said, in an address to 800 students in Burkina Faso on 28th of November 2017: “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”.

A follow-up report by Sarr and Savoy (2018) entitled, “The restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Towards a new relational ethics” has also been influential in reigniting the debates about the return of museum artifacts to their country of origin – not just in Africa, but also in Europe. One of the most hotly debated international cases is the request from Greece for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, which were sold to the UK during the time when Greece was occupied by Turkey. In 2015, South Africa took a recorded position on this debate, saying that South Africa “would support the request by the Greek nation for the return of the Parthenon Marbles currently held in the British Museum, as well as requests by other countries that are in similar situations”.

One argument used against repatriation is the idea of “universal museums”, that is, that cultural heritage is a global public good, and that the display and appreciation of artifacts from a diversity of cultures contributes to inter-cultural understanding, and to the value of the artifact itself. Yet African scholars, like Dr Kwame Opoku (2018) point out that most of the peoples whose cultures universal museums claim to celebrate will never be able to see them. Opoku argues that, especially in the case of African artifacts relating to political power (kings and queens), “there is no question of temporary or permanent restitution”. However, while Opoku argues fiercely for the unconditional return of the ownership of African artifacts, their physical location may be negotiated: “It would be up to African States, in discussion with Western museums, to determine which artifacts are to be physically returned whilst those that should remain the Western museums will be symbolically returned, with appropriate ceremonies and events”.

Added to the ethical dimension of the argument is the sheer scale of the situation: more than 90% of the cultural heritage artifacts of sub-Saharan Africa are found outside of Africa, which is what makes it a special case. While the cultures of other regions are also represented in Western museums, a significant portion of their cultural heritage has remained in the country of origin. This makes the establishment of the The Great African Museum, one of the flagship projects of the African Union Agenda 2063, doubly important and challenging. The mandate of the museum will be: “Preserving and promoting African cultural heritage by creating awareness of Africa’s vast, dynamic and diverse cultural artefacts and Africa’s continuing influence on world cultures” (AU website, 2019). The AU Agenda 2063 Plan of Action has as one of its goals that “at least 30% of cultural patrimonies and treasures would have been repatriated and catalogued for future use in the envisaged African Museum of 2035”.

However, Opoku (2018) and other writers (Shyllon, 2013) point out that African countries themselves have perhaps not acted as quickly as they should have to pursue the repatriation of cultural artefacts that were expropriated, stolen or illegally exported. Yet African countries have tried for more than 50 years to advocate to the return of cultural artifacts taken during colonial times, mostly without success. Writing about the journeys African countries have gone on to try to get back some of their heritage objects from international museums, Shyllon (2015:121) notes that: “African countries seeking the return of cultural objects must have the endurance of the long distance runner”.

A large part of the reason for the failure of restitution rests on legal arguments relating to property rights, in particular that, after a certain time period, artifacts become the property of their host nation and are inalienable. Various international agreements and conventions have tried to redress the balance. For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and the 1973 UN General Assembly resolution on the “Restitution of works of art to countries victims of expropriation was passed. It is noteworthy that all 12 of the countries who sponsored the UN resolution were African. However, it has taken a long time for these international agreements to find support. For example, the UNESCO Convention was only ratified by France in 1997, and cannot be enforced retrospectively.

Brodie (2010) notes that cultural property laws have been ineffective for a variety of reasons: poor subscription at the international level to resolutions and conventions; poor enforcement of existing laws, particularly those relating to the illegal export and sale of cultural artefacts; and a lack of funding for long-term advocacy and enforcement.

In addition to the ethical and legal arguments for the return of cultural heritage, there are also important economic arguments. For example, the ownership of important artifacts may attract visitors (tourists) to a country, providing income for the specific museum, but also for those providing related services, such as accommodation, food and drinks, guiding services, arts and crafts sales etc. Important collections also attract public and private funding for a museum, as do research and publications about the collection, which in turn build the reputation of both researchers who have access to the artefacts, and the museum itself. Cultural tourism can provide a sustainable way to fund cultural heritage preservation.

To our knowledge, South Africa does not have a register or list of heritage artifacts held in foreign museums that may be subject to repatriation. A good example of such a database in the Kenyan International Inventories Programme, which is an international research and database project investigating a collection of Kenyan objects held in cultural institutions across the globe.

As part of SA Cultural Observatory research next quarter, we will be exploring some of the interesting debates and questions around museum artifact repatriation by reviewing literature, laws and case studies that could guide South Africa’s developing policy on the Regulations on the Restitution of Heritage Objects, which was Gazetted in August of 2018.

An important research question is what determines the value of a particular culture heritage object – is it the one-of-a-kind uniqueness of the artifact, its age, what it represents, or a combination of these things? We will be engaging with South African museum curators to ask questions like: What would determine which are the top 10 African artifacts held in foreign museums that should be returned or repatriated most urgently? The research will also explore ways in which repatriation could take place, such as through Mutually Beneficial Repatriation Agreements (MBRAs), digital  repatriation, and touring of artifacts, and the issue of reciprocity, not just repatriation.

Are you a museum curator or official who would be interested in participating in this research? Are there artifacts you believe should be resident in South Africa? What would be on your wish list for priority action? If you would like to participate, please sent an email to Sinethemba.Vitshima@mandela.ac.za, so that we can invite you to be part of the project.

 

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