The Objects of Empire

How will French museums deal with their colonial past?

By Michael McCullough       January 31, 2019

Occasionally- but lately more frequently- as if to repudiate the complaint that European culture is haughty and unmoored, European intellectuals demand change in the European cultural point of view. Even if you’re bored by this preoccupation, those who work with art and cultural heritage must read the recent report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to the French Government, titled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics.” It proposes a new way of thinking about the restitution of objects forcefully taken by colonial powers, and it may change the way we think about the relationship between the universal museums of Europe and the places from which artifacts originate.

The report is born of President Macron’s statement in Burkina Faso in 2017 of his desire “to see the conditions put in place so as to allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa.” Sarr and Savoy imagine a new paradigm in which former colonial countries view the act of restitution of objects as a form of future cultural survival of both the former colonizer and formerly colonized. To the authors, the crux of the problem is “the system of appropriation and alienation—the colonial system—for which certain European Museums, unwillingly have become the public archives.” They view the act of restitution of cultural property not as the mere return of an object but as an overt act to “open the possibility for the ‘universal,’ with whom they are so often associated in Europe, to gain a wider relevance beyond the continent.” Sarr and Savoy don’t define the “universal” but the report, in places, voices a cognitive universalism comprised of universal values reflected in common thought and language, as opposed to the cultural relativism that often guides the post-colonial relationship.

While the report begins by making very big claims for itself- and largely succeeds- in a fit of self-restraint it limits the discussion of restitution to objects forcefully taken from sub-Saharan Africa, specifically from the four Francophone African colonies of Benin, Senegal, Mali, and Cameroon. I was troubled by the report’s lack of confidence in its own reasoning; if the act of restitution really offers such a profound benefit to both Europe and Africa, then why shouldn’t everything taken by force be returned? Sarr and Savoy make the important and undeniable observation that the forceful taking of property effects “both the individual and the group as part of the foundation of their humanity (their spirituality, creativity, transmission of knowledge)”- like all violence does- with the natural corollary that “the [forceful] acquisitions of cultural heritage should be considered within a different category: that of transgressive acts, which no juridical, administrative, cultural, or economic apparatus would be capable of legitimizing.” Sure, taking money and politics off the table for an issue presented as so profoundly important is tolerable within the context of the proposal, but why then limit yourself to a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa? What about Egypt and Algeria? Why not throw in Asia and the Americas? It’s a flaw from which the report might never survive in the hands of French lawyers and politicians.

I enjoyed Sarr and Savoy’s brief survey of the history of the law in this area. They point out that until the end of the 19th century, “the right to pillage and plunder what had belonged to the enemy” and “the right to appropriate for oneself what one had taken from the enemy”, were the codified and legal practices of war. While these practices became illegal within Europe in the late 19th century, they continued in Asia and Africa well into the 20th century. The report catalogues military raids and punitive expeditions conducted by England, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and France, during the 19th century in China (1860), Korea (1866), Ethiopia (1868), the Asante Kingdom (1874), Cameroon (1884), the Tanganyika lake region and the future Belgian Congo (1884), the current region of Mali (1890), Dahomey (1892), the Kingdom of Benin (1897), present-day Guinea (1898), Indonesia (1906), and Tanzania (1907), that became occasions for extraordinary pillaging of cultural heritage. Thereafter, they turn to a brief discussion of the “Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land”- known today in the art business as the First Hague Convention- signed in 1899 at the Hague by 24 sovereign nations, making the practice of pillaging cultural artifacts during military campaigns illegal.

They divert from their legal analysis, which at times feels obligatory, to an examination of what the world has foregone by limiting the discussion about restitution “to only the juridical aspects and to questions of legitimate ownership.” They want us to consider the implications of choosing a method of restitution not just as a “political and symbolic act, but also as an expression of a philosophical and relational order among people and countries.” One of the more charming ideas expressed in this part of the discussion is how certain artifacts should be viewed as not mere objects but as active subjects. The artifacts, “having become diasporas, are the mediators of a relation that needs to be reinvented. Their return to their communities of origin does not have as its aim to substitute one form of physical and semantic imprisonment by another, that would this time be justified by the idea of the ‘rightful property owner’.” That’s powerful stuff. Yes, it hints of shamanism, but if you are willing to ponder their proposal, why shouldn’t we be open to the artists’ original intentions when they created the works and see where it takes us? It’s no different than listening to a great piece of music or reading a great piece of literature and finding inspiration to address difficult problems. Isn’t that why we look at artwork in the first place?

This discussion of the relationship between object and subject in the context of the relationship between the former colonizer and the colonized forms the basis for the “new relational ethics” that the report espouses. And they don’t limit the discussion to mere restitution; “the thorny question of reparations cannot be eluded. When we reflect on the question of cultural heritage objects, we must understand that it’s not simply objects that were taken, but reserves of energy, creative resources, reservoirs of potentials, forces engendering alternative figures and forms of the real, and forces of germination; and this loss is incommensurable. Simply giving back these cultural objects won’t be the proper compensation. This force arises from a relation and mode of participation in the world that has been irremediably trampled upon. Thus, it’s less a question of reclaiming financial compensation than a symbolic re-establishment through a demand for truth. Compensation here consists in offering to repair the relation.”

Thus, the reparations are not economic- well, they’re economic in a sense- but the suspension of laws and norms that disallow wholesale restitution of objects in the following categories, for which the report advocates:

  • seized in the military contexts, despite the special legal status of military trophies before the adoption of the First Hague Convention;
  • collected in Africa during “scientific expeditions”, unless by consent of the owners or guardians of the objects when the objects were separated from them;
  • donated by private collectors who were colonial administration or their descendants, unless the consent of the seller (commission of copies, purchase at craft markets) can be ascertained; and,
  • acquired after 1960 under proven conditions of illicit trade.

The criteria for restitution in these categories would be swift and thorough without any supplementary research regarding the provenance or origins of objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions, such as:

  • through military aggressions (spoils, trophies), whether these pieces went on directly to France or whether passed through the international art market before then finding their way to being integrated into collections;
  • by way of military personnel or active administrators on the continent during the colonial period (1885-1960) or by their descendants;
  • through scientific expeditions prior to 1960; and,
  • objects housed in certain museums which were initially loaned out to them by African institutions for exhibits or campaigns of restoration, but which were never returned.

Regarding objects that entered into the museums after 1960 and those received as gifts or donations to the museum where there is reason to believe the pieces left African soil before 1960 (but which remained within families for several generations), the report suggests further research. If such research is unable to ascertain the initial circumstances around their acquisition during the colonial period, the pieces should be restituted based upon “justification of their interest by the country making the request.”

The report suggests the preservation within the French collections of African art objects and cultural heritage where the following can be established:

  • after confirmation that a freely consented to and documented transaction took place that was agreed upon and equitable, and,
  • that the pieces acquired conformed to the necessary rigor and careful monitoring of the apparatus in place on the art market after the application of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, in other words, without “taking any ethical risks.” Gifts from foreign Heads of State to the French government remain the property of France except where the heads of state concerned have been ruled against for the misuse of public funds (that doesn’t leave much).

The proposed timing of the exercise exudes haste as well as thrift: the immediate formal submission of the inventory of pieces coming from African states concerned (according to their present borders) which are currently held in public French collections for objects originating from Benin, Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, and Cameroon. The second phase- Spring 2019 to November 2022- would involve a process of inventorying, the sharing of digital files, and an intensive transcontinental dialogue. Restitution, the third phase, would begin in November 2022 and would be open-ended. Since the removal of cultural objects took place over a long period of time, the report argues that the process of restitution should not be limited in time.

Of course, the major problem with the entire proposal is that none of it is legal under current French law. The report- not surprisingly and quite desperately- argues for the “creation, through national law, [of] a definitive path toward restitution, according to the requests, through the creation of an ad hoc procedure proposing the basis for a calm process toward restitution. It will also require the rationalization and the development within a bilateral framework, on a case by case basis, of the diverse actions of cooperation surrounding the decision of restitution and which will then establish a new context of cultural relations between France and each of the African countries.”

Currently, the French cultural heritage code deems objects in public collections inalienable. The report suggests establishing definitive restitution as the “key-element of heightened cultural cooperation, made concrete through the signature of a bilateral agreement, which will legitimize the new procedure of restitution introduced into the code concerning cultural heritage.” Changes to the law would also decide procedure for exceptions to restitution agreements, but- as a parting shot- the report notes that changes to the French cultural heritage code should not be “limited to objects only housed in museums,” a point that has not been lost on the French art market.

Michael Kinsley’s aphorism— “If you’re scared to go too far, you won’t go far enough”— describes the fate of an average political or cultural thinker, but Sarr and Savoy have a highly evolved point of view, and the report, while it could have gone farther, goes quite far enough. In the very least, it should be considered seriously.