Should Africa's looted art be returned?

Trevor Grundy on French President Emmanuel Macron's call for the West to hand back stolen artefacts

Heads of Western Museums are considering how best to respond to the French President’s repeated insistence to repatriate all works of art plundered from Africa during the colonial era.

Mr Macron made the call again first in November last year and then again last month and the head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, is scratching his head, wondering how to respond without appearing to Africans and others as the keeper of stolen goods in the one-time citadel of imperialism – London.

In November 2017, President Macron said that he wanted to see Africa’s cultural treasures on show “in Dakar and Lagos,” not just in Paris. He said: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

Last week the Victoria and Albert Museum opened a display of royal and religious artefacts that were looted by a British expeditionary force after the 1867-1868 Battle of Magdala in the former Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Hunt told “The Times” (April 5, 2018) that a restitution claim by the Ethiopians was not being “strongly pressed” and asserted that the museum was currently conducting a review of its catalogue entries to ensure that the at times contentious history of artefacts was referenced.

“This is a step-by-step item-by-item” he told the paper’s arts correspondent, David Sanderson. “To have a Macron-style ‘all-guilty’ approach is a very reductive approach because you have to take into account the history of each item. And I would like to make the point that there is great strength in having a cosmopolitan collection, an extensive encyclopedic collection.”

“The restitution of artefacts, “ wrote Sanderson, “is complicated by concerns over whether institutions in Africa are able to meet Western conservation standards.”

The British Museum has been in the front-line of fire for several years because of its possession of the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes, along with many other artefacts that draw visitors to London from all over the world.

The Museum’s director, German-born Hartwig Fisher, has rejected demands for the return of various artefacts, in particular for the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, arguing that their presence in London allows visitors to explore other objects made in different parts of the world at a similar time to consider what he called “the connectivity of culture.”

The most controversial items looted from different parts of the world and now held in the UK include the Benin Bronzes: the Elgin Marbles dating from the 5th Century BC and “acquired” in the 19th Century by Lord Elgin. Greece angrily continues to lobby for their return: the Koh-i-noor diamond which is kept in the Tower of London which came into Queen Victoria’s possession after the 19th century conquest of the Punjab. India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have all claimed ownership: the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. It was the key to hieroglyphics. The Stone was found by Napoleon’s army in the Nile Delta and ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801.

In an episode of the new BBC Two television series ”Civilisations”, the Nigeria-born historian David Ulusogu said that when Victorians first saw the Benin Bronzes it turned their world upside-down.

“They came to marvel at the art of an alien culture produced by supposedly savage peoplehe told viewers. ”The very existence of these works of art represented a challenge to the dominant ideas of the time. The public were fascinated and troubled by what they saw. What bothered them was that this was the world of an African society and almost everyone in the 19th Century believed that Africans lacked the technical skills to produce great art and the cultural sophistication to appreciate it. It was, in fact, widely believed that the people of the Dark Continent had no history and no culture and were incapable to generating this thing called civilisation.”

Examining the West African treasures, he said- “They are loaded with a sense of loss because they’re not in Nigeria among the people whose ancestors made them. They’re here in London in the British Museum.”

For how much longer, is the question.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern, Southern and Western Africa from 1966-1996.