European Museums Have Played for Time on Restitution Requests for Decades. Now, It Is Their Responsibility to Act

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Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened forty years ago. Nearly every relevant film had already been made and nearly every demand had already been formulated. Even the most recent viral videos on social media about the spectacular “taking back” of artworks from museums, as filmed on mobile phones in France and Belgium in the summer of 2020 by the Congolese activist Emery Mwazula Diyabanza, had already been scripted in many minds by the mid-1970s. What do we learn from this?

Firstly: The European men who tried to stem the tide against restitution requests from formerly colonized countries after 1960 left an enormous legacy cultural debt to the following generations. By arguing that collections that were accumulated in Berlin, London, Paris, Brussels and so on during the colonial era needed to be preserved for scholarship and future museum visitors, they offloaded the responsibility of finding fair solutions to future generations. They knew perfectly well that they were playing for time in bad faith, since they kept referring to “slowing things down,” spoke of time that could be gained through cooperative projects and promises, or of the course of history, which was likely to lead to restitutions one day regardless. These men also knew, as they put it in writing, that their strategy of denial would cause frustration and “desperation” for the supplicants. Nevertheless, they preferred to sit out the problem and delay an appropriate solution to the point when the matter would sort itself out (or they would be retired).

But cultural assets that were lost through war or colonization release collective emotions in the dispossessed and cause wounds not healed by time. On the contrary, historical distance seems to bring about a hardening of positions, doggedness and mistrust instead of rapprochement. In 1979, the German newspaper FAZ dubbed restitution as a “specter” haunting Europe. The phantom pain caused by the loss of cultural property outside Europe has been felt since the 1960s. It shapes our present and becomes more acute over time. It is up to our generation to assume responsibility and to finish the work that museum directors and culture officials of the 1970s and ’80s deliberately left undone: a sincere and swift restitution of objects brought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during colonial occupation. We must do it now, and we must not shift the responsibility again to our children and grandchildren.

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