Africa's Stolen Artefacts: Misuse in Museums

The topic of African artefacts and sacred items being misused, tempered with, sold, stolen and transported without consent across the world is not a new one, many like myself have heard rumours of western countries, predominately in Europe being France, Great Britain, Germany and Belgium, having the most bespoke and profound items sourced from where else... Africa, in their museums. I came across an article that inspired this post, it was about France "loaning" back some very incredible half-human, half-animal statues originally from Benin. Immediately the question came to my mind, "well how did they get there?" - I think we know the answer (without accusing the west of violent, torturing acts of terrorism in quest for colonialism, of course). It did not surprise me that the statues were stolen by French settlers, after France gained colonial control of the region. But something else that sprung to mind when I came across the article was the quote in the film 'Black Panther' by the Killmonger character; he visited a British Museum (fictional) and spotted a piece of Wakandan art, he then said to the curator,

"how do you think your ancestors got these?" the visitor asks. "You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it — like they took everything else?"

Killmonger visits a British museum and confronts the white curator about the origin of an artefact he comes across.
from the Killmonger Museum Scene in the film Black Panther

You know I am actually surprised at how deliberate Marvel were in their attempt to draw out the haunting colonial past of the western world. It really sends a message, that whenever you come across something that originates from Africa in a museum in Europe or America, you should always question how it got there. It does not make any sense, for colonisers to invade people's lands, kill , rape and enslave their communities and by the end of it, once their ready to leave, be given precious African artefacts as a parting gift...It MUST have been taken. So, without further ado this post is going to highlight some misuse of African artefacts across the western world, and pinpoint places where many stolen African artefacts actually reside. "Up to 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s material cultural legacy is outside of the continent" (Sarr and Savoy, 2018), below is a table [by QuartzAfrica] that highlights the extent of how many African artefacts have been misplaced and are currently being misused by people who have no claim to ownership over them. it shows the museum in question and roughly how many African artefacts they are each currently holding:

How many African artefacts are in European museums?

This post also highlights beyond the artefacts themselves, how the western world have misused African people for their own fulfilment or sick form of entertainment. The examples listed below are of instances where European countries have been directly called out about keeping African artefacts after taking them unlawfully.

i. France: A Breakthrough? But too little too late

In what was known as the 'Toucoleur empire' in the Guinea-Senegal-Mali region in 1890, the French staged a bloody siege in the capital, the 'Segou royal palace'. The French siezed the city of Ouossebougou, which marked the end of the Toucouleur empire, and transferred control of the region to French colonial rule. In addition to the murdering and looting that occurred during the siege, French officials plundered over a thousand pieces of significant cultural heritage that belonged to the people—including the sabre of the founder of the empire, El Hadj Omar Tall.

It took France almost 130 years to return this sabre which bears a specific and symbolic cultural and spiritual significance to the people, back to Senegal. So for context, a people were led by their ruler and France came along, destroyed their home and kingdom and killed their leader. On top of that, they stole a personal belonging of the founder of the kingdom that they colonised. Was this supposed to be like a trophy to symbolise what they did in that land? The ancestral family of El Hadi Omar Tall's kingdom had to travel from all around West Africa to attend the very emotional hand over ceremony that "marked a historic moment of victory for the descendants of the anti-colonial hero, who have been demanding the return of his artefacts since 1944" (Kimeria, 2019).

But of course this is not the only item that France has been called to return back to its rightful owners. In 2006, France's Quai Branly museum thought they justified their colonial past actions by “lending” a set of wooden half-human and half animal statues, along with carved furniture to the country of Benin (where it originally comes from by the way). How do you LEND something back to its rightful owner?

"Originally seized from the region by a French military expedition in 1892, they were housed in a Beninese museum called the Fondation Zinsou" (Jacobs, 2019). The statues were loaned back to Benin to be shown in the museum, at much delight to the natives who were keen to see the monumental pieces returned home. Marie-Cécile Zinsou, the founder of the museum, spoke about the response of the local community once the artefacts were on display in the museum in Benin; she said people "lined up for 3 to 4 hours, and that visitors to the exhibition left lots of messages of gratitude in the visitors' book" (Jacobs, 2019). But the visitors also wondered why the objects must be returned to France, how did it make logical sense for Benin to have an obligation to give them back? People were asking "Do you think we could have them back for real soon?" (Jacobs, 2019). It shows the importance of these sacred items being where they belong and how much it means to people that pieces of their culture and heritage are scattered over the world, often as trophies of catastrophic colonial pursuit.

UNESCO also released a report in 2007 stating that up to 95% of sub-Saharan cultural artefacts are housed outside Africa. Many, like the works from Benin, were taken during the colonial period and ended up in museums across Europe and North America.

France have not been so receptive to the idea of returning the artefacts to Benin on a permanent basis, instead they chose to extend the borrowing period of the statues so that they can be housed in a new museum that is set to open in Benin in 2021. So for now, the statues are back in France, and the French govt is prepared to loan them to Benin. The fight to get their key cultural artefacts back on a permanent basis is an ongoing one.

ii. Will Belgium face their colonial past?

It is no secret that Belgium is a country haunted by the blood of the millions of Congolese people who died contributing to allowing Belgium to become the European establishment it is today. So it came as no shock to me when I heard that at the Africa Museum in Belgium, where 85 percent of the museum's collection comes from the Congo — the site of Belgium's former colony in Central Africa. The director, Guido Gryseels says "some were brought by missionaries, others were brought by civil servants... also, some were resulting from military expeditions and sometimes even from plundering." For decades now, Congolese leaders have campaigned for the return of these objects which Belgium have mostly refused. Most of the requests by Congo and other African countries have been rejected, with some exceptions recently, particularly for human remains.

The haunting story of Patrice Lumumba's remains being taken to Belgium after they murdered him is one we are now all familiar with. But in recent reports from Belgium, as recent as last month, the country are set to return the Prime Ministers back to the Congo. Disturbingly, a Belgian police officer admitted to stealing Patrice Lumumba's tooth in 1961 after he was deceased. Eric Van Duyse, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, said in what can be perceived as a lifeless justification for the heinous act said that the tooth would be returned to the DRC and he described it as a symbolic gesture from Belgium, since there was no “absolute certainty” that the tooth was Lumumba’s. “No DNA test has been carried out; it would have destroyed it,” he said (Burke, 2020). The fact that Belgium are basically saying that they will return the tooth as a "nice gesture" because there is no concrete proof that it belongs to Patrice Lumumba, even after an officer admitted to stealing his tooth at the time of his death and taking it back to Belgium, is an audacious attempt to avoid the countries' colonial past.

When you put into perspective just how much African art is housed in museums across Europe, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of objects. There has been press coverage in France expressing how European governments fear that returning the artefacts will leave vacant shelves across museums. To which a French historian of Central African art named Cécile Fromont, responded with:

"that's not going to happen. One way of thinking about it, she says, is that more African art can go on display. As somebody who wants to champion the display and study of the expressive art of the African continent, if we can get more objects on view — in more settings, in more museums, in more places around the world — that sounds like a great solution".

What this sounds like to me is European governments and art collectors trying their upmost to justify these objects being outside of the continent. Almost trying to suggest that the world would learn more about them if they are on display outside of Africa. But this is negating the point that the African countries pleading for the return of their cultural items are making. The artefacts were stolen , or taken without consent, or forcefully taken. Some of them even mark the murders of nationalist leaders of these African countries. Why does the west feel the need and entitlement to hold on to these?

iii. Ethiopia want answers from Britain

In Ethiopia,  the Afromet (the Association For the Return Of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures) has been fighting for the return of cultural items seized by the British army at Magdala in 1868. They received what they described as a bitter-sweet response to their request for the return of the artefacts, including a gold crown and a royal wedding dress which were taken during the battle at Magdala. Britain, like France, agreed to return the artefacts from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, back to Ethiopia as part of a long term loan, which sparked widespread debate about restitution.  The British victory at the battle of Magdala saw hundreds of artefacts plundered, the emperor’s treasury being emptied and 15 elephants and 200 mules needed to transport the looted assets. Just how much did they actually steal?...

The British Museum also house 11 sacred wood and stone tablets. They are Christian plaques, or 'tabots', that "represent the Ark of the Covenant, and they belong—though belong in this case is a contested term—to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who believe only priests should be viewing them" (Trilling, 2019). So the majority of the artefacts from the Ethiopian Crown are sitting in British museums, despite Ethiopia asking for them back for over a century. When Ethiopia enquired about the tabots, which have no use to anyone in England especially considering they belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox church and are sacred; not meant to be seen - the answer was no. The most that Britain are willing to do, is consider a long-term loan.

iv. Misrepresentation in the USA

The oversight of the significance of colonial behaviour and how much of a kick in the teeth it is to Africans to display our art in museums when you have actually stolen it, is something the Brooklyn Museum clearly did not understand. In April 2018, the museum chose to hire two white people to be new curators in the museum; one being a white woman who was specifically hired to oversee the African art collection in the museum.

I think it is completely tone deaf for one, why you would choose to hire any person who is not African-American to fulfil that role. The hiring decision came much to the displeasure of inhabitants of brooklyn and naturally incited a critical response from people of colour. In an open letter to the Brooklyn Museum recovered by Adisa-Farrah (2018) for The Guardian, a member of the public expressed their concern and offense to the white curator role. It read:

"It is not just that people who do not represent my identity and heritage are continually chosen to curate it, it’s that I know there are curators who are part of the African diaspora who are qualified and available. During a time like this politically and culturally it is tone deaf to appoint two new curators whose identity, experience, and gaze are already overrepresented in the art world".

Shockingly, the response of the museum was to not apologise. Many have tried to discount the outrage as a "fight and battle for African heritage" (Okeke-Aguly, 2018) - suggesting that the outrage was not sincere. I empathise with those who spoke out against this, maybe not so much in the same words, as people went as far as to label the woman who was hired as illegitimate and an interloper. However, it is definitely an oversight on the museum's part and they need to answer for it, not the person who got the job. I agree with the sentiment that the museum could have made more effort, to find a person who is more culturally connected to the art, and it did not seem like they cared about that side of things.

So as we can see, there is clear misuse happening in western museums where African artefacts are concerned. Although this post does not account for all western museums and special African artefacts, there are a number of them scattered around the world and they are not in their place of origin. This is a big problem that I wanted to bring to light, and hear what others have to say about it too. Do you know of any artefacts from your country that were stolen? Help raise awareness about this with us and leave a comment below! Check out the thread on Twitter if you have not already.

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