Metope of the Parthenon (5th century BC). Louvre Museum. Paris, France. (Photo by: Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Is restitution racist?

Returning cultural items can be vice clad as virtue

Artillery Row

In a recent speech given before a state visit to Africa, French president Emmanuel Macron renewed the commitment he launched five years ago. He intends the restitution of African cultural items that ended up in French museums due to events of the French colonial past. There is more to this than words, as demonstrated by the restitutions already enacted. Most notable are some bronzes from Benin, correlated with a program of cultural partnerships with the African countries. Most recently, there was the announcement of three draft laws to be discussed in the coming weeks by the French Parliament. These steps, Macron explains, “are framed into a wider European dynamic, modelled on the French-German fund we have launched to promote provenance research on the African items that have entered our collections”.

France is not the only place to repatriate African cultural objects. The Smithsonian Institution has already sent home a number of Benin bronzes, and the same happened in Germany and the UK. This migration is not only affecting African items; there are also cultural objects travelling back to the Americas or Australia. Some other European countries have started following the French example, with the Belgian and Dutch governments ordering reviews of the African heritage they hold in their museums. 

Napoleon’s plunder found its way to Paris from the four corners of Europe and beyond

Whilst some players in the international art markets are concerned about the seismic effect this movement is having on the landscape, where buyers are scared off by the prospect of future postcolonial reevaluations (or rather devaluations) of their purchases, the majority of the public is delighted. People will tell you that these governments are finally doing “the right thing”, that this is “justice” in action and redresses “past wrongs”. There is a distinct smell of payback in the air, fuelled not just by the French president but also by movements like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. The European white privileged are under pressure to hand back what they have supposedly extorted by way of colonialist oppression. 

Supporters of these repatriations may well be jumping from the frying pan straight into the fire. In this game of musical chairs, I notice the absence of repatriations involving the European states as both origin and receiver. Centuries of wars in Europe, not to mention an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of moving boundaries and changing ownerships, have produced their fair share of movements of objects of cultural heritage. France itself is a case in point, with Napoleon’s war plunder finding its way to Paris from the four corners of Europe and beyond. Even places not directly affected by Napoleon’s acquisitions are listed as the origins for much of what has pride of place in the Louvre. Are these items not supposed to return to their countries of origin? More importantly, what differentiates the African collections in Paris and Berlin from the rest of the European-born treasures that anyone can admire in these two world capital cities? 

The answer is as simple as it is unsettling: these African objects do not share the cultural identity of their collectors. They don’t hold the same power to tell the European viewer a part of his own history in the same way as a painting by Titian or the Venus of Milo can. Whilst Greek and Roman antiquities and Old Masters paintings were collected in the quest to piece together a visual description of our shared identity, objects from faraway lands outside Europe were collected as curiosities first and scientific documents later. Since the days of Herodotus and Thucydides, our culture has been accustomed to basing the narration of history upon some form of material or logical evidence, what the Greek historians called tekmerion (proof). The objects coming from Europe and the Mediterranean basin are evidence that our own historical constructs are solid and make sense to us, but the other items are just proof that other people exist, different and distant from us in space and in time. To use a term much abused in the restitution debate, the first group of objects “belongs” to us, whilst the second simply does not. 

If this holds true, then it is clear why a difference is almost naturally made in how the frequent repatriation claims are handled, according to the origin of the objects and the people they represent. The bronzes from Benin become a “nice to have” that can be sent back if there is a sufficient incentive, whilst the Mona Lisa is a “must have” and non-negotiable. For the same reason, museums in the U.S. can be persuaded by mounting pressure from the public to return African objects voluntarily, but it takes long-drawn legal battles to return Roman sculptures to Italy or Geometric vases to Greece. Some of the objects in our museums simply mean more to us than others. Some tell us something we are proud of, whilst others point at us with an indicting finger.

Is restitution of cultural objects just a cleaning of the cupboards?

I am sure it has not escaped you that almost every week now, reports are published about the most heated repatriation controversy of them all: the case of the Elgin Marbles claimed back by Greece. Amidst the overwhelming coverage regarding the part of the Parthenon sculptures legitimately owned by the British Museum, the minor detail that three fragments of the monumental building decorated by Phidias are owned by none other than France is often left unmentioned. It may be an oversight, of course; not many people are aware of the whereabouts of every single fragment of the Parthenon. Alternatively, it may be because there is sadly nothing to report on. The enlightened champion of the restitution battle, this leader in supporting the rights of the countries of origin, has so far failed to engage with the Hellenic Republic to promote the restitution of the three minuscule fragments they own. 

Is restitution of cultural objects just a cleaning of the cupboards? Is it a way to get rid of items whose current problematic status makes the prospect of alienation a far more appealing alternative, than the uphill struggle of a “retain and explain” exercise? It looks like that slightly mouldy avocado in the back of the fridge: it may well be exotic, but not nearly that essential; hence it gets thrown away. Better still, why throw away stuff that can be recycled into a charitable donation that solves a problem and makes us look good in the process?

We are still to understand the details of the three draft laws due to be discussed in the French Parliament this spring. Should they fail to address restitution in a way that is applicable universally, with no distinction of race, culture, religion, historical period or country of origin, it will not be possible to consider them other than as a national PR exercise. They would be using objects of cultural heritage for aims that have nothing cultured about them. 

Dismembering museum collections only to nourish what are often nationalistic revendications by the recipient countries, whilst cleaning up the public image of the country that gives back, is not a zero-sum game. What gets sacrificed on the altar of public perception is culture and history, the memory of events that we all may well prefer not to be reminded of when we enjoy our quiet afternoon at the museum, but which happened nonetheless. The very presence of difficult items in those polished glass cases on our soil is physical proof of our past, and it should be a nuanced reminder of who we are now through what we have been, with lights and shadows. They are not a mark of shame but a reminder of how far we have come. This is, ultimately, the essence and function of every monument and the reason why we build museums around them.

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