Why are museums still keeping stolen African artefacts? – Ciku Kimeria

Ciku Kimeria’s article delves into the contentious issue of museums justifying the retention of stolen African artefacts, highlighting the moral and legal dilemmas surrounding cultural restitution. From hidden Ethiopian treasures in the British Museum to legal hurdles in returning looted assets, Kimeria calls for a shift in focus towards when and how these artefacts should be repatriated. With grassroots movements and government initiatives gaining momentum, the global dialogue on cultural heritage restitution is intensifying, challenging museums to reckon with the past and engage in meaningful restitution efforts.

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By Ciku Kimeria

If I want to see a wide array of African artifacts, my best bet is to apply for a Schengen or UK visa and catch a $1,000 flight from Nairobi to Europe or Britain, where the majority of Africa’s material cultural legacy is found. As much as 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural artifacts are outside of the continent, according to a 2018 report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron. A significant share is indeed housed in European and British museums.

Even after making a trip to London, one set of treasures I definitely will not get to see are some Ethiopian altar tablets that have been hidden in a sealed room in the British Museum for the past 150 years. The institution is under investigation by the UK’s information watchdog over allegations that it failed to disclose key details about the tablets in response to a freedom of information request in August 2023.

Looted during the 1868 Battle of Magdala, the tablets symbolically represent the ark of the covenant for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They were part of a large number of items seized during the colonial conquest. Many artifacts from the battle have not been returned to Ethiopia, though there have been several requests from the country since 2019 and discussions are ongoing.

These tablets represent the latest controversy in the debate over European museums keeping African artifacts, most of which were seized from the continent during colonial times through questionable and often violent means. In this case, the altar tablets have never been on display and are considered so sacred that even the museum’s curators and trustees don’t have permission to see them. There’s simply no good reason why they should remain languishing in a sealed room rather than be returned to their country of origin.

On a moral ground, the restitution debate is easy. Why should communities that were dispossessed of their cultural legacy, sometimes quite violently, have to prove they are deserving of objects that they never chose to leave their shores?

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Opponents of restitution of looted assets, of course, claim that Europe is doing a great service to the world by preserving these artifacts centrally, that these treasures wouldn’t be cared for properly if they were to be returned, that the ways by which the West came to possess such items should stay in the past. It’s hard to believe, however, that an institution that recently acknowledged the yearslong theft of more than 1,500 objects from its collections is the safest place to hold African artifacts.

Western museums are surely worried about setting a precedent that could empty their tremendous public art collections. But by keeping these assets, Europe continues to perpetuate an injustice that began centuries back when colonial powers looted the African continent of objects as well as people. For Africans and the diaspora, it means they are prevented from learning about parts of their history because this tangible heritage is no longer in the communities that valued it and understood its importance. These objects are history, they are legacy and they are community. And they risk being forgotten.

Isn’t it time we move beyond the question of whether Europe and the UK should return Africa’s belongings, and focus instead on the when and how?

This is critical, because laws in the West have made it difficult for African nations to get artifacts back. In the UK, this is primarily the 1963 British Museum Act, which offers very limited options for disposal of objects. In February, the country also altered a recent restitution law that gave more power to trustees of major national museums to return objects on moral grounds. The new change severely restricts their ability to do so by reinstating approval processes in restitution claims even for objects of low value.

France too has similar laws on inalienability of public art collections, which means they belong to the state and can’t be given back. Political will so far hasn’t been enough to overcome these legal hurdles; indeed, France has only given back a reported 28 items from its large holdings since the release of the restitution report in 2018.

Even when communities successfully advocate for the return of their looted assets, they might only be able to get them as long-term loans that must be renewed periodically. In January, for example, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the British Museum agreed to loan a number of significant Asante gold and silver cultural objects to a museum in Ghana. 

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What gives me more hope are signs of progress from the African side. After the release of the 2018 report, the African Union created the Common African Position on restitution, which offered a guide to member countries for filing claims for lost assets. In 2021, the Republic of Benin successfully got France to return 26 artifacts to the Dahomey state.

Although restitution happens at the state level, some community efforts have fared better than governments in building momentum for it, according to Veronika Chatelain, who co-leads the $15 million Global Initiative for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage at the Open Society Foundation. For example, RegArtLess, a grassroots arts organization in Cameroon, created a global movement using social media (#BringbackNgonnso) to demand Germany return the Queen Mother statue to the Nso — plans for its return are reportedly now underway. And Open Restitution Africa, a women-led activist organization, has created a database where communities are able to file and track claims.

Governments can learn from such examples. Swaying public opinion requires bringing the debate closer to people. Efforts to get artifacts back should therefore prioritize a few at a time and focus on telling a compelling story around them on social media and elsewhere. More public pressure within the continent and in Europe can be the spark to changing blinkered laws.

With each passing year, it will get harder for Europe to justify keeping these looted cultural possessions. In the digital age, it’s only a matter of time before various communities in Africa and elsewhere learn about what was taken from them, protest the continued injustice of it and lend their voices to an ever-growing group of those demanding restitution. 

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