Following the promulgation of the Act of 24 December 2020 concerning the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal, 26 works have left the museum to return to their country of origin. The aim of this FAQ list is to answer questions from the public on the restitutions of African cultural heritage conserved at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac.
Insights into the restitutions of African heritage conserved at the museum
WHAT IS RESTITUTION?
Although the term can have several meanings, restitution in this context means returning an object that was acquired in an illicit manner (stolen, looted or seized) to its original owner.
WHO CAN RETURN WORKS OF ART CONSERVED IN A MUSEUM?
The French State, as owner of the national collections, may grant the restitution of a work of art in agreement with the countries of origin after submission of an official request by the latter. A bill, enabling the works to be taken out of the public domain and transferred to the requesting State, based on prior historical research into their provenance and acquisition, is then submitted to Parliament by the government. Indeed, an act authorising an exception to the principle of inalienability of national collections has to be passed for each transfer of ownership of a work to the requesting State.
TO WHOM CAN FRANCE RETURN A WORK?
The State can return a work of art to the requesting country if research into its provenance shows that the work was stolen, looted or seized.
HOW IS IT DETERMINED WHETHER A WORK IS OF ILLICIT ORIGIN?
Rigorous and in-depth research is conducted on each object to determine its provenance and history: origin of the work, means and context of its acquisition. This requires the systematic examination of numerous archives and scientific analysis of the objects. This research is conducted by researchers and museum professionals from the countries of origin and France in a reciprocal manner. The results of this research make it possible to determine whether the work was acquired in a licit or illicit manner, or under conditions that remain uncertain if the research is unable to reach a precise result.
FRANCE WILL RETURN 26 WORKS TO THE REPUBLIC OF BENIN: WHY THESE PARTICULAR PIECES AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THEM?
The 26 works of art returned were taken as spoils of war by General Dodds during the French colonial conquest of the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin). The works were looted during the capture of Abomey in 1892 from the royal palaces, in particular that of King Béhanzin, the ruler at that time. These pieces have a very important historical, symbolic and protective value for the Beninese population. The exhibition of the works in Cotonou in 2006-2007 gave rise to the desire to see them permanently returned to Benin. The Beninese authorities submitted an official request to the French State on 26 August 2016. The historical and scientific study of this collection, sometimes referred to as forming part of “Béhanzin’s Treasure”, indisputably proved that the pieces came from these spoils of war. At the Museum’s proposal, the President of the Republic announced their restitution in November 2018, one year after his speech in Ouagadougou, in which he announced his desire for restitutions in order to enable African youth to be able have access to them on their own continent.
Act no. 2020-1673 of 24 December 2020 concerning the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal ratified transfer of ownership of the 26 works to the Republic of Benin before the end of 2021. These works will return to the Ouidah Museum of History and will then be exhibited in Abomey at the Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and Kings of Dahomey (Musée de l’épopée des amazones et des rois du Danhomè) when its construction is completed.
WILL ALL OF THE AFRICAN WORKS CONSERVED AT THE MUSÉE DU QUAI BRANLY - JACQUES CHIRAC BE RETURNED?
The majority of the 70,000 sub-Saharan African objects conserved at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac were acquired in a lawful manner through purchases and donations. It is not a question of returning the collection as a whole, since the objects were not all pillaged or appropriated without consent/by force during the colonial period. However, careful examination and research into the context of the acquisition of these objects is necessary in cases where doubt exists. For this reason, the museum has launched a vast “provenance project” in order to conduct more in-depth research and attempt to retrace the works’ itineraries with the scientific teams of the museums in the conserved objects’ countries of origin.
WHICH COUNTRIES HAVE NOW SUBMITTED OFFICIAL REQUESTS FOR THE RESTITUTION OF WORKS CONSERVED AT THE MUSEUM?
In addition to Benin and Senegal, five other African countries (Madagascar, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad) have submitted official restitution requests. Each request is studied on a case-by-case basis by the competent French authorities, in association with the cultural and scientific actors concerned, and in consultation with the requesting State. Ambitious cultural cooperation programmes are put in place with each of these countries and the museum pursues and develops scientific and cultural partnerships with African museums, indigenous communities and local populations.
ARE OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRIES RESTITUTING WORKS?
Several European countries have defined a policy aimed at the restitution of part of the heritage looted during the colonial period.
- Germany has initiated research programmes on the provenance of collections: the Ministry of Culture (BKM) has created a specific organisation to fund and conduct provenance research concerning plundered cultural heritage (German Lost Art Foundation, Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste-DZK). In October 2018, the German Museums Association published a best practice guide on “handling property in collections originating from colonial contexts”. In 2019, Germany announced the restitution of a number of objects, including human remains, to Namibia and plans to return bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin to Nigeria as of 2022.
- The Netherlands has developed a policy framework for handling colonial collections, which was presented to the House of Representatives in January 2021. This framework stresses the need for a return policy jointly developed with the countries of origin. The project Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums, coordinated by the National Museum of World Cultures (NMVW) and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (VU), will enable the completion of research in order to determine the provenance of the 450,000 art objects conserved by the NMVW.
- Belgium has announced its intention to return numerous objects, acquired by force under the reign of Leopold II between 1885 and 1908, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The AfricaMuseum in Tervuren has published its policy on the restitution of works removed during the colonial period.
INTERNET BIBLIOGRAPHY AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES
- Act no. 2020-1673 of 24 2020 December on the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal
- Bill concerning the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal, Report no. 91 (2020-2021) by Ms Catherine Morin-Desailly, on behalf of the Committee on Culture, Education and Communication (Commission de la culture, de l'éducation et de la communication), submitted on 28 October 2020
- Report made on behalf of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education concerning the Bill (Commission des affaires culturelles et de l’éducation sur le projet de loi), after initiation of the fast track procedure, concerning the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal (no. 3221), Yannick Kerlogot, deputy of the French National Assembly.
Report made on behalf of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education concerning the Bill, after initiation of the fast track procedure, concerning the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal (no. 3221),(Mr Yannick Kerlogot) (assemblee-nationale.fr)
- Speech by President Emmanuel Macron, 28 November 2017, at the University of Ouagadougou
- Official website of the Élysée Palace
- Sarr Felwine, Savoy Bénédicte, Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain - Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle [“Report on the restitution of African cultural heritage – towards a new relational ethics”], submitted to the Presidential Offices of the French Republic on 29 November 2018, 232 p.
- Act no. 2002-323 of 6 March 2002 concerning the restitution of the mortal remains of Saartjie Baartman to South Africa by France
- Act no. 2010-501 of 18 May 2010 for authorisation of the restitution of Maori heads to New Zealand by France and on the management of collections
- The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
- Germany, German Lost Art Foundation (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste), German centre for the disappearance of cultural property
- Germany, Guide pour le traitement des biens de collections issus de contextes coloniaux [“Guide to dealing with goods from collections originating in colonial contexts”], German Museum Association October 2018
- Netherlands, Report of the Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections, Colonial Collection a Recognition of Injustice, published by the Council for Culture (Raad voor Cultuur) in January 2021
- Netherlands, Pressing Matter project
- Belgium, AfricaMuseum, Tervuren, Restitution Policy
- Belgium, Ethical Principles for the Management and Restitution of Colonial Collections in Belgium, report from a group of experts, published by the FARO, Flemish association for cultural heritage
- musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Restitution of 26 works to the Republic of Benin
- Official website of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication
- Study day organised by the French Directorate-General of Heritage in 2020
Study day “Inventory, documentation, provenance research: what is at stake for the extrawestern collections of museums in France?” (culture.gouv.fr)
- Seminar organised by the French National Institute for Art History (INHA) - Parcours d’objets, Études de provenance des collections d’art « extra-occidental » [“Itineraries of Objects, Studying the Provenance of Collections of ‘Extra-Occidental’ Art”]