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Repatriation of African artefacts from French museums will require huge research effort

Graduate students from Africa could benefit from such efforts, but it is not clear who will pay for them.

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African statues on plinths in a Parisian museum, children sit on the floor looking at the exhibit.

African statues on plinths in a Parisian museum.Credit: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty

Tens of thousands of African artefacts in French museums should be handed back if African countries request their return, concludes a report commissioned by the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

The report — written by economist Felwine Sarr at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and historian Bénédicte Savoy of the College de France in Paris — calls on France to amend its laws to allow for the repatriation of cultural artefacts acquired during the colonial period in Africa, from the late nineteenth century until 1960. The report also recommends the repatriation of artefacts later acquired illicitly.

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone holds at least 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa.

In their 23 November report, Sarr and Savoy recommend that a small number of artefacts should be returned as quickly as possible, because they can be tied to looting and African countries have asked to have them back. The items include thrones, statues and other royal regalia taken by French troops during the 1892 sacking of Abomey in present-day Benin.

Further returns will require substantial inventorying and dialogue between French officials and African countries interested in reclaiming artefacts. “The process of restitution should not be limited in time,” the authors write.

This will require a lot of research into the acquisition history of tens of thousands of objects, says Anne Haour, an archaeologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who has worked extensively with colleagues in Benin. “It strikes me that a huge amount of research effort would be required in order to do it properly.”

One key detail missing from the report, Haour says, is how such research will be funded.

She says the work could be a “brilliant opportunity” for graduate students — especially those from the countries where the artefacts originate — “but where are they going to mobilize the human, let alone financial, means for this?”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07560-1
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 30 November 2018: An earlier version of this story misspelt Felwine Sarr’s surname.