Restitution (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of Restitution (ctd.)

Picture: 16th century brass plaque depicting the Oba of Benin, from the British Museum, via FT.com

There's an interesting article by Gareth Harris in the FT looking at the issue of restitution, following President Macron's pledge to return items taken to France from Africa during the colonial era. It was one thing to make the pledge, says Harris, but quite another to persuade notoriously conservative French institutions to actually do something about it:

The issue of restitution, which increasingly dogs western museums, has become an even hotter topic since President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged to repatriate African artefacts. His declaration in Burkina Faso last November that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums” reignited the debate around colonial artefacts.

Macron has since asked two independent experts, the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, to draw up a set of recommendations for repatriation; their report is due in November. But a question mark hangs over how the policy will be implemented.

The French culture ministry is typically hostile to any changes on matters of restitution. “In 2010, the French parliament voted to set up a scientific commission to study proposals for repatriation, but the ministry failed to act,” the journalist Vincent Noce reported earlier this year, explaining that curators at French museums fiercely defend the principle of inalienability.

One presumes that Macron will be slightly less forthcoming about any art taken by Napoleon from various European countries, and now in the Louvre.

Of course, in Britain we face many of the same issues, only they're always supercharged by the Elgin Marbles. Recently, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said he thought they should be returned to Athens. I doubt the Marbles will ever leave Bloomsbury. But Harris reports that the British Museum is slowly inching towards doing something about other items taken in controversial circumstances, such as the Benin Bronzes:

At the British Museum, the wheels are turning. A governmental delegation from Nigeria attended a meeting in March with members of the museum’s Africa section and representatives of other European museums that have Benin collections. “At that meeting, a declaration was proposed that outlined an intention to work towards a permanent, but rotating, exhibition [in Nigeria] of loaned objects from the Kingdom of Benin,” a museum spokeswoman says.

The problem for the British Museum is that restitution is really the thin end of the wedge; once you start returning objects that really shouldn't have been taken from their country of origin in the first place, you'll soon end up with a rather empty museum. 

I used to be a diehard 'keep the Elgin Marbles in the BM' sort of a person. But now I'm more ambivalent about it. In the case of the Benin Bronzes, taken from Nigeria in the most brutal circumstances, I think the case to return them is increasingly unanswerable. I also think the old argument that a place like the British Museum allowed you to see and study so many aspects of the world's culture in one place is actually less relevant in the age of cheap travel, and of course, the internet.

Often, however, the issue of restitution is seen in binary terms; either you believe objects should always stay where they are now, or you believe they should go back to whence they came. If it was up to me, I'd try to work out some kind of protocol to allow us to reach a more reason-based decision. Something like:

  1. What were the circumstances of the object's removal from its country of origin? (If items were sold, or traded, then that might be less evidence in favour of return than if they were stolen by individuals, or looted by an invading power).
  2. How long ago did the removal take place? (There can be no hard and fast rule here, but clearly something looted within the last hundred years has a stronger claim for restitution than something taken in the 16th Century).
  3. If an object were to be returned, is there an appropriate environment in which to display it to the public? (That is, is there a museum with the necessary facilities to house the object, and secure its long term survival?)
  4. Would the object be better appreciated and understood in its original setting? (This follows on from point three - if, say, a statue was taken from a palace that has since been destroyed, then there may be less sense in sending it back to its country of origin. But if that palace was still extant, with a sad gap in the niche in which the statue once stood, then the case is much stronger).

 

There you go. We can call it the AHN Protocol. 

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