Museum cooperation Rethinking the colonial legacy

Historical doors from an African royal palace in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris - one of the objects to be restituted
Historical doors from an African royal palace in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris - one of the objects to be restituted | Photo (detail): Michel Euler © pciture alliace / AP Photo

Returning artefacts and cultural assets from the colonial era to their countries of origin in Africa has been a subject of New approaches to working with museums debate in various forums for a long time. However it increasingly appears that these discussions are not leading to a specific outcome. Has any identifiable progress been achieved at all? What still needs to be done to bring this matter to a close in a way that’s acceptable to all parties?

By Thomas Laely

It’s now almost exactly two years since the start of the widespread discussion as to what should happen to the ethnographic artefacts and items of scientific relevance that are stored in Europe’s museums and also occasionally displayed. One of the driving forces early on – if not the cause – was a high-publicity speech on this subject delivered by France’s President Emmanuel Macron at the end of November 2017 at the university in the capital city of Burkina Faso, dubbed the “Ouagadougou Discourse”, which attracted attention – especially within the relevant circles of museum employees and museologists, as well as amongst art dealers and cultural policy makers. A report on this subject commissioned by Macron was published just a year later, written by Senegalese economist and author Felwine Sarr and Franco-German art historian Bénédicte Savoy and entitled Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationelle (simultaneously published in English as The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics).

Effects of the Savoy-Sarr report

Where has this led us over the past two years? The debate is becoming increasingly virulent and has thrown the ethnological museum scene into turmoil – and yet quite a few of these museums have been campaigning for modernisation and more openness under the auspices of “New Museology” since the 1990s, and have been seeking partnerships with communities and experts in the countries from which these collections originate.

Felwine Sarr (left) and Bénédicte Savoye Savoy Felwine Sarr (left) and Bénédicte Savoy | Photo (detail): Thilo Rückeis TSP © picture alliance
Since then, the theme of postcolonial society and demands to decolonise various areas of life has been approached with a new thoroughness and the question has arisen regarding the function, or indeed justification of existence, of museums with ethnological collections, their activities and orientation in general. To quote an example of these far-reaching changes and new sense of self-awareness: even five years ago German-speaking ethnological museums were involved in a highly controversial debate about how far they should make their collections public and accessible online – yet these days general accessibility is considered a broadly shared consensus. Admittedly there are different opinions as to how fast this should happen and under what conditions. Should errors and missing information in the databases be resolved first, for instance through provenance research, or would this be far easier to achieve by the very act of opening them up?

More than just restitution

There’s still plenty to do. One thing is certain – regulating how the collections are handled and the best form of “decolonisation” will keep the ethnological museums busy for several decades to come. And this is despite and independently of the fact that demands from the origin countries for the return of artefacts have thus far been and still are very sporadic, according to museums. It has already been pointed out repeatedly that it isn’t simply a question of returning the artefacts concerned, or deciding on a place to keep them. It’s more a matter of recognising that the countries, nations and communities of origin have a right to be more intensively involved in the discussions about what should happen to the artefacts, as well as where and in what form they should be kept in future – in fact they should have the deciding vote. With these questions of recognition, property, ownership and disposal it isn’t enough to talk about multiple co-ownership, easier circulation of artefacts or a “shared cultural legacy”. A shared interest and co-responsibility instead of dividing the collection up sounds like a good principle and it’s the right approach.

Building of the Ethnological Museum Zurich on the site of the Old Botanical Garden Building of the Ethnological Museum Zurich on the site of the Old Botanical Garden | Photo (detail): Roland Fischer © CC BY-SA 3.0 As long as the situation of imbalance between the two parties due to equipment, resources and opportunity to access the collections remains as it is today, this cannot be sufficient. There are various options and proposals for changing this – just one of which is that after restitution of the ownership rights to the countries of origin, the loan fees payable by the European museums should contribute to improvement of structures and capacities in the origin countries. A purely bilateral process should be avoided here, not everyone needs to duplicate finding solutions for the same questions. Instead, the aim is to achieve a broad consensus that’s accepted by both the African and European sides. This would mean on one hand the involvement of the relevant multilateral organisations on the part of the Africans – in particular the International Council of African Museums, AFRICOM, which was revitalised in 2019, but also the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain (EPA) in Porto Novo, Benin, and the Centre for Heritage Development (CHDA) in Mombasa, Kenya – and on the other the definition of general guidelines and policies in line with the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998.

One thing is certain – regulating how the collections are handled and the best form of “decolonisation” will keep the ethnological museums busy for several decades to come.

We need to let go of the simplified idea of restitution – purely relocating an artefact from a neatly labelled museum drawer to the place it “originally” came from. The fact that there frequently are no clear allocations of artefacts and places doesn’t just mean that returning them generally involves a multi-strand process. It also lays open a broad range of possible solutions that can be arrived at by means of negotiations and dialogue.

“Decolonisation” with purpose

If it is not to remain an empty catchword, the precept of “decolonisation” needs to be filled with content. The core of the decolonisation process is opening up to external partners and collaborating with them. As well as any discussion about material restitution, willingness to become involved in mutual obligations on partnership terms is needed. First and foremost it is the European museums that are duty-bound here, and they should – perhaps even through clearly symbolic acts – indicate their willingness to make changes and contribute towards decolonisation. In doing so they will encounter museums in Africa where they have made radical changes to their working concept and ethos in recent years – in many cases they are far removed from the still-prevalent image of institutions founded in colonial times and now outdated.

The countries – in this case African ones – by no means escape responsibility here either. They are required to make a significant contribution to the cultural infrastructure. This demand is insisted on again and again, especially by African stakeholders. In general it’s a good idea to allow significantly greater scope for African opinions and perspectives to prevent the restitution issue from becoming a one-sided European debate. During this process it will become clear that restitution claims are not really the word of the moment. In many cases the African nations and museums responsible approach such efforts very cautiously, because they can often bring to light awkward internal social conflicts. In Ghana or Uganda for instance, restitution claims from subordinate political units and kingdoms pose a threat to the national museums in those countries.

The benefits of lasting partnerships

In view of developments on the part of the African museum scene, European institutions will also profit quite significantly from cooperation and partnerships. It’s important for all parties involved to get past the upcoming debates on the handling and ownership of ethnological collections and work towards a new form and orientation for the museum – whether it should now be called “post-ethnological” or “postcolonial” – with the aim of making it more transparent to external interest groups and providing a more open and easily accessible structure to accommodate social functions. To achieve this, it’s essential to do more than just tidy up and refurbish. What they really need is a museum that’s completely redesigned in terms of structure, functionality and content orientation. Such an establishment would also be in a position to negotiate on the commonly cited “equal terms” with partner institutions, for instance in Africa, to find new ways of working. Close cooperation, interaction and exchange of knowledge in both directions would be essential for that to succeed.