Who are Western museums guarding African artefacts from?

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Who are Western museums guarding African artefacts from?

On November 23, France announced it was going to return 26 works of art to Benin illegally obtained after the French conquest of the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 19t century. The decision was made after French President Emmanuel Macron reviewed a report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte Savoy recommending the permanent return of cultural artefacts removed from Africa during its colonisation.

The report has been lauded as a “potential milestone” in the struggle by African countries to recover works of art pillaged by Western colonisers. Others say it might set a tricky precedent that would accelerate the demand from other African countries to have their artefacts returned.

The move by the French government followed a decision by the British Museum in October to return temporarily to Nigeria an undisclosed number of artworks stolen from the Kingdom of Benin (modern-day southern Nigeria).

I suppose these two announcements are a step forward – at least we are having a conversation about the return of stolen art – and I applaud Sarr and Savoy for documenting this appalling situation. But I find it difficult to pop the champagne and declare a brave new world on the return of 26 pieces when 70,000 others remain at the Musee du Quai Branly in France, not to mention the 69,000 at the British Museum, the 37,000 at the Weltmuseum in Austria; the 75,000 at the Future Humboldt Forum in Germany, and the 180,000 at the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium – in addition to an unknown number in the hands of private collectors.

I especially cannot celebrate when the paternalistic narratives that keep the majority of the continent’s cultural artefacts out of the hands of their rightful owners are still alive and well, judging by the significant amount of subsequent comments made rejecting restitution.

Some have expressed superficial regret for the colonial moment, but underscore that the cultural artefacts are “better off” in Western museums where they are preserved “properly” in air-conditioned galleries. Many of these objects are made of wood, they say – how would have they survived in Africa with all the heat and humidity if they hadn’t been taken?

This is the logic of colonialism, a brutalising enterprise that cloaks its cruelty in benign concern that even fails to stand up to the laws of cause and effect. The question should be, how did the artefacts exist until the moment of capture in the first place, if Africans had not been taking care of them for all those years?

We should never imagine that seizure of these objects was incidental or adjacent to the colonising enterprise – it was part and parcel of it.

“The type and quantity of the coveted objects … the close attention paid by European museums and libraries, oftentimes far in advance of the movement of the troops, with certain museums already assigned with the housing of specific objects immediately after their acquisition by the armies, shows to what extent the targeted and plundered locations had sometimes much more to do with the museums than [mere] military plundering,” Sarr and Savoy’s report states.

In any case, fragmentation and enclosure were inherent to the colonial impulse and continues to be perpetuated by a capitalist ethos today. The modus operandi has been, and still is, to destroy the bulk of a resource in order to create scarcity, and then directly control the little that is left, often for a profit.

Furthermore, the argument for “proper preservation” betrays a carceral ethic that should not be left unchallenged. What makes us believe that sequestration and preservation are unequivocally good? For some of these objects, their circulation in the community, and their inevitable decay and replacement is part of their cultural value.

Another argument is that “rich and secure museums around the world are the guardians of culture for those cultures which are not developed enough to reliably preserve and protect their antiquities.” 

I wonder who appointed those museums  (and the white cultures they exist in), “guardians of culture”, and more importantly, who are they guarding it from?

The tendency for whiteness to universalise itself, and elevate its own cultural specificity as a stand-in for humanity’s collective heritage, has devastating consequences for those who find themselves outside it. It creates the absurd situation we have here, where people are seriously arguing that the cultural artefacts need to be protected from the very cultures that created them. The suggestion that African people have to prove that they are worthy of their own cultural heritage is insulting and absurd.

Ultimately, it is rich for a colonising force to turn around and say the culture they had a hand in destroying no longer has the knowledge to safeguard their own cultural artefacts.

The colonial powers absolutely intended to destroy the cultures that they would come into contact with and to simultaneously monopolise knowledge of these cultures. This impulse to preserve the cultural objects “for future generations” that western museums are supposedly doing has benefited greatly by managing to alienate cultural objects from the people who created them. As digital heritage specialist Tayiana Chao said on Twitter, it is like saying: “we admire your genius, but despise your humanity, and for that, you should be grateful”.

As for those arguing that African people do not have the ability or the interest to preserve their own cultural artefacts, they have also been proven wrong. In 2012, for example, as an al-Qaeda-supported conflict raged in northern Mali, local people used donkey carts, boats, and teenage couriers to smuggle out of Timbuktu a priceless collection of manuscripts that were in danger of being destroyed.

These manuscripts were not sequestered in an archive but were kept safe by individual families for centuries – something antithetical to the carceral ethic of Western museums. They were painstakingly smuggled out of the city, one box at a time, in an operation that took months.

This paternalistic view that colonialism was a favour needs to be done away with, categorically. There should be no cooperation, circulation, and long-term loans of these objects: just a clear, unequivocal, restitution. And to restitute – for those in the West who are not aware – literally means to return an item to its legitimate owner.

It doesn’t matter how much Western people love and care for these artefacts, the fact remains that they aren’t theirs. And it’s amazing how Western cultures absolutely love to defend property rights – until it comes to things that belong to Africans.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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