Art from ex-colonies: how to show and protect it?

France's President Emmanuel Macron ordered on Friday that 26 works of art that were stolen by French colonial troops in 1892 in what is today the Republic of Benin should be given back. An expert report had recommended this as the first measure of a comprehensive restitution initiative. Media in Europe and Africa discuss how to deal with looted art.

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Le Pays (BF) /

Looted art doesn't belong in a museum

The daily Le Pays from Burkina Faso refutes an oft-cited argument against giving back stolen artworks:

“We're continually hearing that there are no museums [in Africa] that can adequately preserve or provide sufficient state protection for the works now slumbering in European art galleries. Even if such arguments can't be rejected out of hand, one must admit that the right place for these objects is not necessarily in museums but in the communities that created them not for their aesthetic value, but first and foremost for their functional value. As an example, a mask's place is not in a museum but in a dance arena, where for very specific reasons it interacts with the community that created it.”

L'Evénement Précis (BJ) /

We lack pride in our culture

The daily paper L'Evénement Précis, which is based in Benin, explains what Africa must learn from the mistakes of the past:

“The crux of the debate is that we haven't learned to view our past with pride. In evoking the problem of looted art we must re-examine the facts surrounding those cases in which people were led to sell precious cultural artefacts belonging to their monasteries, to their own families and relatives, without being aware how serious the nature of their actions was. Even if it's clear that poverty also must have played a part in their uncivil acts, we must also not forget the ignorance of many whom the system has not taught to protect and safeguard their patrimony. If there is one challenge facing our society, it is to explain to everyone the responsibility they bear for preserving our cultural assets.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Symbolic repentance won't be enough

Macron's actions also call Germany's cultural policy into question, the Süddeutsche Zeitung observes:

“Museum people also admit that their collections include looted works. But those in charge are trying to avoid the only logical step - large-scale restitutions. They hope that admissions of guilt and symbolic acts of repentance will be enough to ensure that the looted works remain at their disposal. ... But first Germany must renew its colonial worldview. Then it will grasp of its own accord that the looted objects never belonged to us, that they must be given back, and that both sides will profit from a new partnership with the countries of Africa.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Back to Africa only in exchange for guarantees

Simply giving the artworks back is not the right approach, De Volkskrant believes:

“Opponents and sceptics say that the African works held in European museums are better preserved there than they would be in African museums, and that as part of the global cultural heritage these artworks - for the time being - reach a larger audience in Europe. ... Such considerations are not entirely unfounded. Returning objects to Africa should always be linked to a guarantee that they will be housed in a museum. ... To decide which objects could potentially be given back they must undergo a 'forensic examination': how, when, and under what circumstances were they acquired? ... With such information discussion about their final destination can be conducted more appropriately.”

Le Monde (FR) /

Colonial rule far from over

Author Arno Bertina complains in Le Monde about the widespread refusal among European countries to give back artworks taken from former colonies:

“This refusal is yet another sign of Europe's disdain for Africa. In opposing the restitution of these cultural assets whose value is artistic and patrimonial rather than financial, Europe is making clear that this is a matter of principle. Wanting to give back these - for the most part - stolen goods amounts to showing consideration for the countries that lay claim to them. ... The goods are thus the external manifestation of the pillaging that continues to the present day: all the colonial systems have survived in agreements reached between European multinationals and the African states.”

La Croix (FR) /

Cooperation, not revenge

Simply sending the artworks home won't be enough, warns La Croix:

“To answer these expectations [of the African states] several practical requirements must be fulfilled. In particular there must be institutions in a position to take care of such collections. That would be a fine subject for north-south cooperation between museums. More generally it is to be hoped that the spirit behind such initiatives is one of collaboration and not revenge. The arrival of African statues in Europe in the 19th century resulted in an enormous artistic sensibilisation here in Europe. It gave birth to new movements in sculpture, painting, and design. ... This heritage must not be denied, but shared.”

The Times (GB) /

Treasures will be better protected in Europe

The Times explains why artworks from former colonies should be loaned to museums in these countries but not given back:

“The looting of one country by another is not something to celebrate through the display of its treasures. But who is ultimately to say which objects have been lawfully bought or bartered and which have been looted? The histories of the items that find their way into museums are often incomplete and muddled and they rarely turn up with receipts. The best solution is lending objects to the country of origin, but that the artefacts remain in established museums where they can be protected and seen by millions.”

Le Temps (CH) /

Artworks don't belong to just one nation!

Macron's restitution initiative could start a dangerous ball rolling, columnist Marie-Hélène Miauton warns in Le Temps:

“If you follow this logic through to its conclusion every country would be left in possession only of the works of its own artists and its own culture to ensure that it wasn't guilty of plundering the works of others. In that case the Louvre, the British Museum and many others would have to be partially closed down. What an incredible loss! What a reduction of the artistic legacy in all its universality! What a reductionist conception of art it is to see it as belonging only to the nation that produced it rather than belonging to all humanity!”