Art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr on stolen objects, exchanges with African and European colleagues, and expectations and fears on both sides.
African heritage should no longer be a prisoner of European museums, France’s President Macron announced in 2017. He was serious and asked for expertise on what a restitution could look like. At the time, Emmanuel Macron commissioned the art historian Bénédicte Savoy, who teaches in Berlin and Paris, as well as the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr. DW talked to both.
DW: President Emmanuel Macron has announced that France will return looted objects from the former colonies. Both of them have written feasibility assessments on behalf of Macron. What did you suggest?
Felwine Sarr: The National Museum Collections in France contain about 90,000 objects. We were able to prove that two-thirds of them arrived in the collections during the colonial period. The appropriation took place as war booty, in scientific expeditions, through purchases, donations, estates. When appropriation took place against the will of the people, we learned whether there was a demand for restitution of these objects in African countries of origin.
Bénédicte Savoy: And that’s why we recommend that these objects, if there is a return requirement, be restored without much difficulty. And there must be legal arrangements or a change in the law, which we also recommend.
Is your recommendation really about returns, or is there an alternative, so that the objects move or remain on loan in French museums?
Felwine Sarr: For traveling exhibitions and loans there is already a cooperation tradition between European and African museums, there is no need for new negotiations. But our job was to deal with the restitution. By suppressing this term, one also displaces any thought of colonial history and the nations that are reclaiming these objects today.
Great royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey from the years 1890-1892 in May 2018 in Paris. Dahomey was a West African kingdom, from which today’s Republic of Benin emerged. No gift, but booty, says the local government.
For your research, you traveled to Africa several times in the past year and talked to politicians, scientists, communities, and many different people in the countries of origin. Are you open doors?
Felwine Sarr: In some countries, the communities were already very busy with the topic, in others the interest was not so lively before the report was published. Now there is a real hype about the problem of restitution. The individual states have written lists of objects that they wanted to reclaim. The theme is experiencing a renaissance.
Bénédicte Savoy: We always talk about Africa as if it were a unit. Africa is not a unity. That means that the reactions were different. In the Republic of Benin, for example, the memory of the destruction of the kingdom by the French is still very intense. Everyone remembers that there was a king, that he was exiled, that a palace was burnt down. And on the occasion of this plunder also 2000 objects came to Paris.
There are other areas where the objects are slightly less present because they are not from a royal palace. For example, fishing nets: In Senegal we talked to a museum director. He said mathematical formulas were linked to these fishing nets, which they would now decipher in a research project at the university. Old forms of knowledge that have been forgotten, but that can be reconstructed in these putties. We talked to the museum director in Bamako in Mali. He told us, “We want to have certain categories of objects that we do not have here. But we have a lot of others – we do not need them. She can keep France. “That means we had very sensible reactions.
Postcard of the former “Colonial Memorial” in Bremen before 1945 (could be seen in the exhibition “The Blind Spot” 2017 in the Kunsthalle Bremen)
Felwine Sarr: The African conservators have also considered how to fill the gaps that would be created in the European museums through the return. This shows that there is a relationship. Not only were people interested in getting their objects back, they were also thinking about how to fill the void left by the objects. For me it was a reflection on the relationship, the exchange between Africa and Europe.
In the debate, it was often heard that museums feared that the showcases would soon be empty. Can that be like that in five years? What is your assessment?
Felwine Sarr: No, that’s unrealistic. It also assumes that the countries that make claims want everything back, which does not seem to be the case. More likely, they want to have some objects of high symbolic value – and that’s not thousands, but probably less than a hundred. It is likely to be all over a long period of time and at different speeds: some countries need more time to prepare for skills and infrastructure. The desire does not seem to be to sweep the museums. Here a horror scenario is staged to spread fear. But that’s not realistic.
In her highly acclaimed book “Afrotopia”, which has just been published in German, you describe how Africa is always described from the outside as dying or declining. What is the current debate about returns on Europe’s current view of Africa?
Felwine Sarr: Interestingly, one hears now where the debate on the restitution of cultural assets is going, arguments that reveal a deep-seated condescension. If you say about Africa, there are no museums there or you are unable to manage your own artworks. That one can not be sure that the objects of cultural heritage are safe. Not everyone says so, but large parts of the population are convinced that the properties in Europe are much safer – and that it might even be for the good of Africa if they were kept there. This means that there is a lot of work to do in order to “decolonize” the gaze.
Emil Nolde, 1913/1914: “Men’s Head” (also from the exhibition “The Blind Spot” of 2017)
The Humboldt Forum is scheduled to open in Berlin at the end of 2019. Controversy over the Museum of Ethnological Art, a prestigious project of the Federal Government, has been around for a long time. Ms. Savoy, you have publicized the debate on the return of objects and artefacts from the former colonies in the summer of 2017 with their noisy resignation from the scientific advisory board of the Humboldt Forum in Germany. Today it is one of the great topics of cultural policy. What is your fundamental goal, what is your concern?
Bénédicte Savoy: So for a long time I was concerned with the transparency of the history of the collections. The dark side of the museums, which usually only show their golden side, was important to me. And it was important for the public, especially the younger generation, to be happy about the beauty of the objects – fully aware that this joy has a downside. The wider public did not know that, I did not think so. But now the debate is over, now everyone knows that these collections have difficult stories behind them. I think that was a huge step in that direction. Restitution is a political decision that politicians must make.
The interview was conducted by Sönje Storm on 17.01.2019 at the Literaturhaus München.