In late November of last year at the University of Ougadougou in Burkina Faso, President Emmanuel Macron stated that within five years, “the conditions be met for the provisional or permanent return of African cultural heritage to Africa […]. It is unacceptable that a large part of this heritage is kept in France or in private European collections and museums.” Now, Stéphane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris, has revealed that the ethnographic museum is ready for the challenge of possibly returning African artworks to Africa – a notion that contradicts the long-held principle of inalienability of public collections.
Martin notes that the continent has been largely robbed of its cultural heritage and that in its several African art showcases since 2006, no work has been lent from the originating continent. With many African works subjected to trafficking, despite some European collectors and curators able to “save” works and artefacts, Martin expressed that it is time for a “new common vision” under museographic partnerships, with specific reference to the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Marking “a major change in the museums’ world map,” Martin told The Art Newspaper the Louvre Abu Dhabi “demonstrated that such a partnership is possible and can change our cultural vision. If together, and possibly with international co-operation with other Western partners, we can build one, two or three safe museums in Africa, I would not even consider transfers of ownership as taboo. Think of the Museum of African Civilisations in Dakar, which has been built by the Chinese and has been empty for three years. Why not consider working on a partnership there? It might not be easy but it would be worth trying.”
While institutions may be onboard with the move – keeping in mind cultural projects and existing French institutional collections – Françoise Nyssen, France’s culture minister, reportedly had not been informed of the intentions prior to and has not yet released a statement. However, the French culture ministry has historically been opposed to restitution, most recently exemplified by a failed proposal in 2010.
Quai Branly currently has a collection of over 70,000 artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa, with around 1,000 on display at any given time.