Return of cultural goods: a new heritage cooperation policy between France and Africa
Some African cultural heritage is located outside of Africa. The return of artistic works on view in French museums is an important focus of cultural, scientific and museum cooperation between France and African countries. In his Ouagadougou speech on 28 November 2017, President Macron reiterated France’s desire to work towards the return of African works to African countries. The process, which involved a collaborative approach and now has a legal framework, is underway for Benin and Senegal. The return of cultural property illustrates the desire for a new heritage policy based on joint projects.
Public collections in France reflect France’s history, including its colonial past. Some of Africa’s cultural heritage is therefore situated outside Africa, depriving African citizens of access to essential aspects of their culture. African artistic works, most of which were legally incorporated into public collections, have long been included in the French State’s public movable property. Pursuant to French legislation, these works are inalienable, imprescriptible and guaranteed against seizure. These essential measures ensure the protection and conservation of cultural goods. Artistic works therefore cannot be transferred or marketed; however, they can be loaned to public and private organizations. The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, which receives return requests from foreign authorities, is working in this area in close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, the guarantor of the integrity of public collections.
In recent years, several African States, starting with Benin, have made official requests for the return of cultural property. These requests gave rise to reflection on the possibility of transferring ownership of certain works to their countries of origin. In his Ouagadougou speech in November 2017, the President called for “the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.” These returns involve the implementation of unprecedented scientific and museum partnerships between France and its African partners.
These shifts not only concern France but also its European partners, such as Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom, which also wish to consider their public collections and their means of acquisition differently and engage in constructive dialogue with African authorities on these matters.
During the visit of Patrice Talon, President of the Republic of Benin, on 21 March 2018, President Macron announced the appointment of two experts to look into these issues. Bénédicte Savoy, a professor at the Collège de France and art historian, and Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese writer and academic, drafted a report that was submitted on 23 November 2018. The report, entitled The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Towards a New Relational Ethics shed new light on the circumstances of “heritage grabs” and the specificity of African heritage, setting out proposals for the implementation of return processes.
At the occasion of the report’s submission, President Macron announced that he had decided to return 26 artistic works which the Beninese authorities had requested. These works were taken by General Dodds as spoils of war from the Royal Palace of Abomey, after the battles of 1892.
On 24 December 2020, the National Assembly adopted an Act on the return of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal. France has undertaken to transfer ownership of the 26 items of regalia* from Abomey that were placed under the guardianship of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum. The administrative authorities have one year to carry out the transfer.
Through this law, France is also returning the sword of El Hadj Omar Tall to the Republic of Senegal. A deposit agreement was also signed on 5 November 2020 between France and the Republic of Madagascar in response to its official request for the return of the crown-shaped decoration from the dome of the dais of the last Malagasy queen, Ranavalona III.
Before leaving for Cotonou, the 26 regalia items from Abomey will be showcased during a Beninese cultural week at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum. Artists and academics will take part in the event, presenting Benin’s history and culture to the public. Two Beninese curators will come to the museum so that the regalia’s journey can be prepared jointly.
In Benin, the works will be exhibited for several months at the Fort of Ouidah, which is currently being renovated, before being transferred to the future Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and Kings of Dahomey (MEARD) in Abomey. The construction of this museum, supported by France, is part of a wider project to renovate the palaces of Abomey, UNESCO World Heritage sites, which will draw on the expertise of local craftspeople.
At the same time, France will support the efforts of the Beninese government to develop training provision for heritage trades in the country, through the support of several technical experts. Lastly, the “sites and museums for regional development” project under the Solidarity Fund for Innovative Projects, Civil Society, Francophonie and Human Development (FSPI) is being implemented by the Embassy of France in Cotonou. It seeks to build a coalition of Beninese and French public and private actors to support Benin’s museum and heritage policy.
All these projects aim to foster close heritage cooperation between Benin and France, which will stimulate exchanges between curators, students and academics in the two countries and contribute to showcasing Benin’s rich heritage.
Above and beyond this example, France wishes to strengthen its heritage cooperation with all African countries, which involves investing in training. The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs will put in place a short-term training programme for African heritage professionals in various fields, in addition to existing schemes.
The New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier in October 2021 will be an opportunity to develop dialogue on heritage returns to African countries from European countries, with a dedicated event on 8 October 2021. The Summit will also strengthen museum cooperation and identify further opportunities for joint projects.
*Regalia are objects symbolic of royalty. Each monarchy has its own regalia, which often have a legendary history. They are kept as treasures and are formed through successive additions.
Updated: September 2021