The Democratic Republic of the Congo wants its things back. From 1885, when King Leopold II of Belgium declared himself the sole owner of almost a million square miles of central Africa as well as all the area’s inhabitants, to its eventual independence in 1960, the country was the victim of colonial cruelty astounding even by the standards of the day; its resources were stripped, its population enslaved and murdered, and much of its cultural patrimony––masks, statues, sculptures, musical instruments, the contents of graves––spirited away to the town of Tervuren, where the larger part of the stolen bounty was housed in an institution now known as the Africa Museum. The museum recently underwent a $73 million renovation, but its contents are still pillaged material, and the Congolese would like them back.
Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back, too, and has been agitating for their return for almost a century. Between 1801 and 1805, Lord Elgin stripped these statues and friezes from the Parthenon, eventually selling them to the British Museum. While the Brits are at it, the residents of Easter Island would like them to return “Hoa Hakananai’a,” one of the island’s famous thousand-year-old statues, which was taken by British sailors in 1868. Benin, too, is requesting that its artifacts be repatriated, among them palace trappings and thrones stolen by French soldiers in the late 19th century. Other African nations are expected to follow suit: Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso will presumably be heard from soon. Estimates of the percentage of African historical objects that are held by museums outside the continent are shockingly high: 80 percent by one analysis, as much as 95 percent by another.
All of this would be significant but largely without effect––these kinds of requests have been raised for some time and are almost always denied––were it not for an unexpected move by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, two years ago. He called for the eventual return of African artworks from France to their countries of origin. He then commissioned a report, to be written by Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist, and Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian now teaching in Germany. Their conclusions, perhaps not surprisingly, supported Macron’s viewpoint. “On a continent where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20,” they wrote, “what is first and foremost of great importance is for young people to have access to their own culture, creativity, and spirituality from other eras.”
Macron speaks for France and France alone, but the sort of gesture he’s proposing has a tendency to catch on, which in turn puts museum curators and ethnographers in a bind, sympathetic to the wishes of the requesters, at least in theory, but distraught at the idea of a mass shuttering of institutions across the West. After all, museums exist to collect things, not disperse them, and in America at least, there are strict rules that limit deaccessioning. It would be like asking the residents of Florida to abandon their homes and give the land back to the Seminoles.
Of course stolen artworks should be returned. Art and artifacts are part of a nation’s hallowed history: A country without fully stocked museums has lost a significant piece of its identity, just as individuals deprived of family property have. To this day one hears of paintings seized by Nazis being returned to the families who are their rightful owners (though not without considerable effort on the owners’ behalf).
Things get more complicated when art has no known provenance and no single owner to return it to. Was the object stolen or bought on the black market or simply purchased? From whom? When and where? Bernard de Grunne, former head of the African and Oceanic Art department at Sotheby’s and now a dealer with his own gallery in Brussels, takes a distinctly unpopular position: Colonialism wasn’t all bad, he insists, colonial atrocities have been greatly exaggerated, and the great majority of Africana now housed in the West was purchased on a free market. “Stealing just didn’t happen,” he said. “We have data on certain of the early anthropologists and travelers, and we have price lists.”
It’s clear that stealing did happen, and still does. In February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it was returning a gilded coffin with a faked origin story to Egypt. How often this sort of deception occurs is anyone’s guess, but in the end, explicit theft misses the larger point. In their report, Sarr and Savoy call for the return of objects “taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions,” and they try to reassure their readers that this won’t mean emptying out European museums. But how many heritage objects were acquired through inequitable conditions? “Most of them” would not be an unreasonable answer. Payment does not imply legitimate ownership.
The question of how to handle restitution is more complex. Many current African and Asian borders were drawn more or less arbitrarily by the European powers that colonized them, often with little consideration for kinship networks and the local interplay between tribes. The Yoruba are spread out over at least five nations, from Nigeria to the Ivory Coast. To which countries should the artifacts be returned, especially if it’s unclear precisely where they were taken from? When the British broke the Raj into two parts, they established Pakistan as a largely Muslim state and India as a largely Hindu one, which led to mass migrations across the new border in both directions. What, then, should be done with an Islamic artifact purloined from prepartition Delhi? Return it to the country it came from, or to the people whose history it most directly reflects?
And then there is the problem of conservation. A proper museum is an elaborate device for both protecting and providing access to artworks. It requires climate control, UV-resistant windows, anti-theft alarms, fire protection. Some postcolonial nations––Senegal, for example, which just completed a new museum with considerable financial help from the Chinese––have the appropriate infrastructure, but others don’t. Of course, if the objects are theirs, then they’re theirs to lose, too, but no one wants a repeat of last year’s burning of Brazil’s National Museum. The loss there was incalculable, heartbreaking: entomological specimens, Egyptian mummies, the entire existing object histories of nations and tribes that no longer exist, along with the only known recordings of the languages they spoke. Twenty million items, 90 percent of which are now ashes.
There’s no reason why even the most impoverished of countries (of which, I should point out, Brazil is not one) can’t build a safe place to hold the artifacts of their own history; it’s less clear whether any of them actually will. If the West really wants to make reparations, it won’t be enough to simply box things up and ship them off. Aid and expertise should be exported too.
A more intractable problem comes from returning pieces to conflict zones, and to those at risk of turning into them. We have seen what happens when combatants take advantage of war: the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan and of Sufi mausoleums in Mali, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq after the American invasion. No one in their right mind would return stolen artifacts to Aleppo these days, no matter how much the Syrians might deserve to have them back. Of course, Europe has had its own wars, and is not immune to future ones, and museums are nothing if not long-term enterprises, so this sort of worry may be tainted by a measure of bad faith. Still, it’s a hard one to shake.
When I spoke to Cécile Fromont––an associate professor in the art history department at Yale who specializes in interactions between African and Western art––she pointed out that many of these anxieties can be overcome by reimagining the ways artifacts flow from one continent to another. So far as Macron’s proposal is concerned, she said, “What is really at stake is the reinvention of a new form of conversation between France, specifically, and different parts of the African continent, a conversation that is not marked by condescension or hypocrisy. The objects are important, but what really matters is the relationship.” I asked her for an example, and she pointed to instances in which artifacts had been lent back to their country of origin, not to occupy some sub-Saharan vitrine but to be used as they were originally intended, in rituals and ceremonies.
Gestures like Macron’s are easy to make; it’s much more difficult to follow up on them. They’re born from demands and desires, and tend to die of neglect, choked by a slow, steady accumulation of obligations and obstacles: paperwork, red tape, stubborn constituencies, the natural inertia of behemoth cultures. But if there’s any system or market that can amend itself, it’s the art world, and the museums therein: They are wealthy, transnational, permeable, nimble, imaginative. They can mount huge fairs one day and pop-up exhibitions the next, send blockbuster shows careening across continents and reserve intimate galleries for precious little things, mount well-attended conferences and happily sponsor ethnographic immersions in the remotest places. The process of repatriation will no doubt be faltering and slow, but Macron is right. We have to confront our history sometime. Why not now?