African museum directors on Wednesday welcomed an expert report calling on France to allow the return thousands of African treasures and artworks, a radical policy shift that could put pressure on other former colonial powers.
Calls have been growing in Africa for restitution, but French law strictly forbids the government from ceding state property, even in well-documented cases of pillaging.
French President Emmanuel Macron raised hopes in a speech last year in Burkina Faso, saying “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”
He later asked French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to study the matter, and they are to present Macron with their report on Friday.
According to a copy seen by AFP, they recommend amending French law to allow the restitution of cultural works if bilateral accords are struck between France and African states.
The change would apply in particular to works held in museums which were “transferred from their original territory during the French colonial period,” the report said. Britain too has faced numerous calls to return artefacts to the countries they originate from, including the Elgin Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
On Tuesday, the governor of Easter Island in the Pacific tearfully begged the British Museum to return one of its famous statues. The London museum has held the Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s stone monoliths, for 150 years. Elsewhere in Europe, the French experts said 37 000 objects from Sub-Saharan Africa were at Vienna’s Weltmuseum and 180 000 were at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren.
The report said such collections were effectively depriving Africans of their artistic and cultural heritage. “On a continent where 60% of the population is under the age of 20 years old, what is first and foremost of a great importance is for young people to have access to their own culture, creativity, and spirituality from other eras,” it said.
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“We propose changing heritage laws so that all types of cases can be taken into account, and the criteria of consent can be invoked,” Sarr told French daily Liberation in an article posted late Tuesday.
The report was welcomed by advocates of the restitution of works which were bought, bartered or in some cases simply stolen.
“Today it feels as if we’re just a step away from recovering our history and being finally able to share it on the continent,” Marie-Cecile Zinsou, a daughter of Benin’s former prime minister and president of the Zinsou Art Foundation in Cotonou, told AFP.
Her sentiments were echoed by the director of the Museum of Black Civilization in Senegal’s capital Dakar, Hamady Bocoum. Noting that the works under discussion were taken “in the context of colonisation and subordination”, he said: “It’s a good decision that reflects the march of history.”