Artworks of African Origin Restitutions? Maybe. Our Goal is a Decolonial Archaeology

Restitution – Christian Greco, the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin
Christian Greco, the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin | © Egyptian Museum Turin

In the context of the debate about restitution of artworks with an African origin by European museums to their rightful owners, the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin is encouraging people to view the subject from a different perspective. Christian Greco prefers to speak about world cultural heritage than about national treasures: he is calling for a cross-border approach and the establishment of cooperative projects that will benefit all those involved.

By Kibra Sebhat

On 17th October 2020 the festival Everything passes except the past was held, at which you took part in the opening discussion with Professor Bénédicte Savoy and Professor Didier Houénoudé. They both campaign for the restitution of the artworks stolen from Africa. Are the Egyptian finds an exceptional case?
Egypt has made restitution demands to several museums, but my suggestion would be to pool ideas and come up with an alternative cooperation strategy. Savoy showed us clear evidence that the debate we’re involved in has its origins back in the eighties (!). Two steps forwards, two back, a recent rethink – it’s been going on like that for years. I wonder whether we should maybe try to overcome this split between the West and Africa. We’re all focusing on ownership of the object, which can lead to endless debates and disputes in court, but beyond the object a network of collaboration exists, and we should continue to develop it if we hope to achieve a decolonial archaeology.
What do you mean by that?
We should put a stop to this paternalism on the basis of which Europe perceives itself as the centre of the world, and facilitate a genuine exchange of ideas and transfer of people. The object is conditio sine qua non for research to even be possible – but to what extent are we prepared to share our research data with others, allow everyone access to our archives and databases, permit true mobility? I dream of an experiment: we make the objects available on loan to a particular country on the African continent for five years, thereby causing a colonial wound in reverse, and see what happens when we separate the public from objects they identify with by giving them back to the people we took them from in the first place. That might allow us a different perspective.
And now for a more controversial question: is the Egyptian Museum a place the Italians identify with?
I can answer that with a statistic from pre-corona times. With 900 000 visitors the Egyptian Museum was the most-visited museum in Italy. It’s part of the history of this city, this region, this country. Your question leads us towards an extremely important point: if cultural heritage has been stolen, leaving the country by an illegal route, then it’s right that this wound should be healed. But all too often we forget that the life of an object continues, even on a museum level. A museum is not an empty vessel, it’s more of a physical encyclopaedia that systematises knowledge and with which we interact through fragments of memory from the past. So if we decide to relocate a museum to a different site, to close it, to change it, we aren’t simply closing an empty box – we’re dismantling a place at which the object has a specific function.
Economic aspects play a key role too. The prestige associated with the stolen objects means a commensurate profit in financial terms too. Is it not legitimate to try and return these objects to their place of origin?
The reality looks different. The Louvre, the Metropolitan and the British Museum are companies with local roots that were strategically very strong in past years – especially in the fields of research, awareness, market positioning and communication. As a result the Louvre became a high-profile brand, which sold even in Abu Dhabi. An example: we all remember the conflict over the Venus of Morgantina, which was rightfully returned to Italy because it had been stolen. It ultimately ended up in the Metropolitan, there had been a legal battle lasting many years, and in the end Venus was successfully brought back to Sicily. But the museum there hardly had any visitors. That didn’t change the fact that the return of Venus to Italy was legitimate, but I don’t think we should have allowed ourselves to be guided by economic considerations. The objects are important because they heal a wound caused by removing them, by the loss of an identity that’s defined through objects as well. We experience this at a simple level if we lose our suitcase while travelling, and feel lost because we don’t have our things. Giving back the works is important, but it shouldn’t be viewed as an economic panacea. The Louvre in Abu Dhabi has a brand and a fantastic building – a lot of money was invested in it. Now it needs to compete for a position in the market. These days, visitor numbers are almost at a million – but certainly not 10 million like the Louvre in Paris, and it will probably never reach that number either.
Are there activities run by the Egyptian Museum that you’re proud of, but that aren’t often mentioned?
I think it would be nice if they reported that the Egyptian Museum is doing archaeological digs again. I also think it would be nice if they reported that we have a magazine that’s published online as well. The fact that we have resumed our academic publication activities again and published two editions: one about the digs in Assiut and another about an anthropological study on mummies. I’d like to tell you about the fact that I’ve “reactivated” the library. It was practically non-operational, but we managed to kit it out with an annual budget of 40 000 Euro and make it into a lively place again where students can learn and write their dissertations. I’d like to tell you about having a new office to look after our artefacts, which didn’t exist here before my time. It comprises the Collection Management department, which employs five people, as well as a working group that has undertaken the ongoing monitoring of the collections. These organisational units are not widely discussed, but they form the backbone of a museum.
Why do you, as an Italian, think the Egyptian collection in Italy attracts so much attention whilst the more recent history of Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa is barely addressed?
There was much discussion about wounds at the Everything passes except the past festival. I’m fascinated by the example of Berlin, which has now become more or less established as the cultural and intellectual capital of Europe. There they have successfully integrated the wounds from the Second World War into the new city concept. The Holocaust Memorial is just a few steps away from the Bundestag building – that’s a strong message: nowadays the guided tour remembers the wounds and events from the past. My impression is that our country has lost its awareness of history and is not capable of self-analysis. In this respect we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and I think that the museums – which are at the cutting edge – need to become a link between past and future generations. Their role is to cast a critical eye on the past, enabling a better understanding of the present as a consequence.