The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: repairing a historical debt

When Emmanuel Macron announced his will to restitute part of the African artistic and cultural heritage in November 2017, a heated public debate emerged in France. Even with some people arguing that some national collections might be destroyed, it seems that the French government is making progress in its initiative to restitute artistic and cultural artefacts, considering the recently delivered report on the topic. However, unfortunately, France is an exception in the post-colonial context in Europe, since most states seem to suffer from “colonial amnesia”, denying – at least partially – their violent past. In that context, this article aims to briefly analyze (i) the constant extractions of African cultural heritage; (ii) the damages of this violent past for the African youth; and (iii) some difficulties of the restitution process.

The extraction of African cultural heritage

During the colonial period, the appropriation of cultural property and heritage was a usual practice on dominated lands. According to Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, the confiscation and the transfer of objects of worship, as well as artistic, religious and cultural artefacts from the colonies to the metropolis, have always been at the heart of the colonial enterprise. The so-called “developed nations” aimed to deculturize the colonies and impose their own customs over the dominated people, trying to dehumanize them and to ease domination.

Before 1899/1907, when the “Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land” and its annex “Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land” were signed in The Hague, the pillaging and plundering of cultural artefacts were a common habit during military campaigns. Although these conventions aimed to “diminish the evils of war”, by, for instance, prohibiting pillage and stipulating that family honors, private property and religious convictions must be respected (Article 46 and 47), they were not very effective on the African continent.

Considering the asymmetrical power relations on the colonial context, the acquisition of cultural objects and their subsequent transfer to Europe kept happening, furthered by the so-called artistic and scientific “curiosity” (mainly driven by racist ideas) alongside with the high value of the alien artefacts (many precious artefacts were stolen, for instance, the Bangwa Queen, once known as the world’s most expensive piece of African art). Nowadays, even after the independence of the former colonies, this phenomenon still takes place, when, for example, a museum purchases objects bearing an illicit origin aiming to expand their art collections and to become a “universal museum”.

The consequences to African youth

In this context of centuries of cultural exploitation, it is important to analyze the consequences of this violent colonial past to the African people. It is well known that culture is a cornerstone of human dignity and identity, and must, therefore, be guaranteed to every human being, as stated in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for instance. Although there is not a single definition of culture, the general comment No. 21 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN) emphasizes that culture is a “broad, inclusive concept encompassing all manifestations of human existence”, embedded in a dynamic interaction between past, present and future. Consequently, it is composed by many elements, such as spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional aspects of a given group.

That said, considering that physical objects play an important role in the definition of culture, how is it possible to guarantee, to the young people living in the African continent, full access to their culture considering that hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts are being held in European museums?

This is one of the main issues caused by the constant pillage of African cultural heritage throughout history: the African youth are often unaware of the richness and creativity of their legacy and are unable to see, to touch or to be moved emotionally by their ancestors’ artefacts. It is not correct to deny these people their own culture and to restrict access to their history by keeping many sacred African artefacts thousands of miles away from their origin. For that reason, it is the responsibility of “developed” countries, as the descendants of those who plundered Africa, to restitute the stolen artifacts and, by doing so, to repair (partially) their historical debt.

The difficulties of the restitutions

Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, in the report commissioned by Macron, described two major legal challenges concerning the restitution process that can be applied to the whole European context. The first one consists in the lack of information about the conditions of the initial acquisition of the artefacts and the little information about their exact provenance. A large part of the African objects in European museums were inherited by these museums or donated to the museums by descendants of the colonizers, who often did not have precise knowledge about the provenance of these African objects. The deficiency of knowledge about the artefacts requires a deep investigation to discover if they were acquired legally, and, if not, which people they were taken from in order to restitute them.

The second challenge is that several objects found in museum collections were illegally and violently taken from the colonies prior to the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907, when collecting spoils of war as “trophies” or collecting objects on scientific expeditions were still acceptable in international law. Nevertheless, considering that the Hague conventions do not have an ex tunc effect, the “military trophies” may have a special legal status that makes it more difficult to restitute the artefacts from this period to Africa. That is because these practices cannot be legally quantifiable as crime, since it occurred before the ratification of the treaties (differently from the Nazi spoils, for instance, that violated many international treaties already in place when the cultural violation occurred).


Finally, considering the historical pillage of the African continent and all the damages generated to its people, the restitution of African cultural artefacts is a very important step toward a partial reparation of the historical debt of the European countries. However, besides the legal aspects, many other challenges may arise from the process of restitution, for instance the re-socialization of the objects and the definition of whom the restitution should be directed to (museums, universities, governments).

The process of (partially) repairing the historical debt, after centuries of exploitation, will not be done overnight. However, it is very important for European countries to make the first step and to take responsibility for their violent past in order to assure to African people one of the most important rights: full access to its rich and diverse culture.

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