The Restitution of Cultural Property

Editorial
The Guardian, 26.12.2018
  • The world in 2019: The vexed politics of our times has obscured the view ahead. Over the holidays we will examine some big issues on the horizon. Today we look at a cultural right to return

The Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, on display at the British Museum in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

In November, a story hit the news about one of the most emblematic objects in the British Museum – a sculpted head from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, made in around 1200. Hoa Hakananai’a, as it is known, meaning “lost or stolen friend”, is a looming and powerful presence. On its back it bears a carving of a winged figure, witness to the complex history of the object – over time the religion of the islanders changed, and they began to honour “birdmen” instead of the great carved ancestor figures.

Later, Hoa Hakananai’a was collected, under circumstances that the British Museum website does not make entirely plain, by Richard Ashmore Powell, commander of the British navy frigate HMS Topaze. It was then given to Queen Victoria, from whom it came to the museum. This autumn, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, the governor of Rapa Nui, made a tearful request for the sculpture’s return. “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul,” she said. What was less publicised was the fact that the governor was there at the invitation of the British Museum and that meetings will continue in 2019 in Rapa Nui.

Such stories appear regularly in the press, and always have done. Indeed, the history of imperial powers helping themselves by fair means or foul to precious artefacts goes back at least to the Roman empire. Greece’s temples were stripped of their ritual objects by their Roman conquerors. Transferred to the villas of the wealthy, these sculptures became aestheticised into something else: “art”, the status symbols of collectors.

 

Identity politics

Such news stories will arrive with ever more intensity in 2019 and the years to come. Calls to restitute cultural property, like calls to topple Rhodes, decolonise university curricula, or stop cultural appropriation, are part of a wider societal trend that can be placed under the heading of identity politics. And, like identity politics, demands for restitution are not going away. Both for ethical and pragmatic reasons, they must be taken seriously.

The debate about cultural restitution has been stirred up in the past month by a report  commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, as the direct result of a speech he made last year in Ouagadougou declaring that the restitution of African heritage to Africa would be a “top priority”. The radical and forthright report, by the scholars Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, has had a mixed response. Some have welcomed the authors’ conclusion that all objects collected under colonial conditions ought to be restored unless evidence can be provided that they were collected legitimately – reversing the burden of proof so that it is borne by the former colonial power rather than the former colonies. Many have applauded the clarity with which Professor Savoy and Professor Sarr have described the long-term effects of the appropriation of artefacts. The removal of cultural property not only affects the generation from whom it is taken, they write,

it becomes inscribed throughout the long duration of societies, conditioning the flourishing of certain societies while simultaneously continuing to weaken others”.

The report has received a less hearty welcome among the museum directors of northern Europe, however. Some point out that it was commissioned not from a sense of responsibility by Mr Macron but as a means of furthering his nation’s interests in sub-Saharan Africa (the report, indeed, limits itself to that region, excluding former French colonies in north Africa and elsewhere). Others say that the blanket assertion that any and all acquisitions for museums made under colonial conditions are wrong is a gross simplification. Items entered museum collections for all kinds of reasons, they argue. These range from cases of obvious looting (as in the example of the Benin bronzes taken in the 1890s by European troops from the royal palace in Benin City) to items that were perfectly legitimately traded, or indeed freely given. They say that the report gives little or no attention to the real-world, on-the-ground cooperation between museum professionals in northern Europe and their colleagues in other parts of the world.

 

Imperial past

All of this is sensible. At worst, however, western museum professionals can convey the notion – even if it is not uttered out loud – that objects are somehow “better off” in Paris, London or Berlin than elsewhere, where they can, according to this unspoken assumption, be properly cared for and admired. It is unhelpful that major museum directors in this context remain almost invariably white men of similar background and education – an “all-male choir”, as one African commentator has put it.

Disputes over cultural property cannot be seen in isolation. They must be taken together with an understanding that the imperial past is not dead but is a set of narratives that are still alive, still unresolved, and still bringing real-world consequences. In the end, resolving ownership of artefacts is one part of a broader project: that of former imperial powers finding the language to deal properly with the dark periods of their history. In Britain, this work is urgent, and it has barely begun.

 

Provenance research

There is no point pretending that there are simple blanket rules, or simple possible answers. It is a meaningless absurdity to suggest that all objects held in museums should be returned to their point of origin; in most cases it would be impossible as well as undesirable (think of those Greek sculptures acquired by Roman conquerors now in Italian museums). To suggest that none may go is equally absurd: there are thousands of objects scattered through Britain alone, and very few are subject to restitution claims – there is no immediate danger of après moi le déluge. Equally, this is not a question only for national museums but significantly, in Britain, for regional collections and university museums such as Glasgow’s Hunterian and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers.

There can be no resolution without knowledge. This is not glamorous, nor is it cheap; it is the slow, arduous work of provenance research, and museums must be equipped and resourced to undertake it. History, memory and dignity must to be restored to artefacts. Better, deeper stories need to be told to the public; the archive needs to be enriched. Where items are found to have been acquired wrongfully, restitution must follow. Museums lie at the root of these difficult and painful disputes over memory; they are also the places best able, in the end, to resolve them.

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