Tiered Seder Plate, 18th-19th century. Brass: cast and engraved; wood: painted and stained; ink on paper; silk: brocade; linen; cotton, 13 3/4 × 14 inches. Gift of the Danzig Jewish Community. The Jewish Museum, New York

In 2021 many nations and people saw demands for the restitution of cultural artifacts become reality. Disputes over ownership of these artifacts have taken on increased urgency during the past few years, gaining momentum with France’s 2018 report on restitution, titled “Toward a New Relational Ethics,” which promised to return 26 objects looted from Benin in the 19th century. With mounting pressure from the public, institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Berlin’s newly opened Humboldt Forum have also agreed to return Benin Bronzes in their collections.

Although the return of these artifacts is a landmark step in the fight by African countries to recover looted artifacts, there is still a long road ahead for many nations. Restitution advocates argue that the current pace and scope of these efforts are not enough. According to the 2018 report, about 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage objects are believed to be held in Europe. Recently, countries such as Nepal and Greece have begun to demand the return of stolen religious and cultural artifacts. As public opinion sways in favor of restitution, and governments and institutions, predominantly in Europe and the United States, are forced to reckon with their histories of colonization and cultural extraction, the future of what restitution will look like is being called into question.

Marc Chagall, “Purim” (c. 1916-17), oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 28 5/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

Perhaps a look at past efforts can inform present initiatives. A recent exhibition at the Jewish Museum illuminates the inner workings of one of the largest cultural restitution projects in recent history — the restoration of looted objects stolen by Nazis during World War II. Through individual cultural artifacts, Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art excavates the underpinning infrastructures of ethnocide. Exhibition visitors are taken from the Room of Martyrs, a replica of the viewing room in the Jeu de Paume, where German officials decided the fate of “degenerate” artworks, to the railways where Free French forces halted a Germany-bound train filled with looted artwork and furniture, to the Munich Central Collecting point, one of many depots where art historians and government workers carried out the monumental endeavor of restoring these objects to their original owners. 

Afterlives sets about the difficult task of materializing absence. Each object is a symbol of countless others lost to systemic cultural devastation. The exhibition is strongest in its portrait of the immense administrative undertaking behind restitution. Here, painstaking bureaucracy and paperwork take on a sense of quiet heroism. Alongside books collected from the New York Public Library with Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) bookplates are correspondence from philosopher Hannah Arendt, who served as the head of research for the JCR. These letters, though sometimes mundane, evidence the careful work that goes into the process of restitution.

Orphaned ceremonial objects in temporary storage at the Jewish Museum, c. 1949( archives of the Jewish Museum, New York)
Johannes Felbermeyer, photograph of artworks in storage at the Central Collecting Point, Munich (c. 1945-49) (Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles). These images document the process of repatriation of works of art after World War II, depicting both the people involved and approximately 500 European paintings and sculptures of known and unknown provenance.

Elsewhere, absence is being represented in a different way. In March of 2021, an exhibition opened at the Nairobi National Museum in which a row of empty glass cases was displayed. The exhibition, titled Invisible Inventories, served as a clarion call for European countries to return looted cultural artifacts belonging to Kenya. According to a database compiled by the International Inventories Program (IIP), a collective of Kenyan and European scholars, activists, and artists, at least 32,000 cultural artifacts, the majority of which were stolen during the 70 years of English colonial rule, reside in European and American museums and institutions. When Invisible Inventories traveled to Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany, the glass cases were filled with 82 Kenyan objects acquired by the museum between 1956 and 2006. Like many other looted cultural artifacts, the majority of the objects had never been exhibited beforehand. For the International Inventories Program, the organizing group of artists and researchers behind the exhibition, restitution is simply the beginning of a long fight for cultural heritage and the right to remember. 

The degree of action and responsibility that museums must take in the restitution process has been highly contested in recent debates. As many institutions continue to grapple with their legacy of cultural colonialism, some remain reluctant to part with looted objects. In Afterlives, joint efforts by the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization to redistribute salvaged ritual silver objects from European art institutions imagines a new role for the museum, one of cultural stewardship. As a heritage museum, the Jewish Museum is able to adopt an approach from a position of advocacy and activism. In some African nations, those seeking to accelerate slow-moving restitution efforts have recognized the role that establishing heritage museums can play; through these cultural institutions, the nations have the power to redefine and advocate for narratives that have long been eroded by colonization. The Museum of African Civilizations was opened in Dakar, Senegal, in 2018 to create room for restituted objects and apply pressure to institutions holding these objects. Construction has also begun on a David Adjaye-designed Benin Royal Museum in Benin City, which is being built to hold returned Benin Bronzes. 

Max Pechstein, “Landscape” (1912), oil on canvas. Estate of Hugo Simon (© Pechstein Hamburg / Tökendorf / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo by Philippe Migeat)

In an interview with Reuters, Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of the Ahiamwen Guild, a group of Nigerian artists and bronze-casters who have offered to donate artworks to the British Museum in exchange for the museum’s collection of Benin Bronzes, stated, “Part of the crime that’s been committed … is the fact that you’ve portrayed our civilization as a dead civilization, you’ve put us among ancient Egypt.” While current conversations about restitution center the past, framing efforts as an act of restoration, restitution can also serve as a midwife for alternative cultural futures. By unmooring global perception of the art and culture of countries like Nigeria from colonial narratives, restitution furnishes contemporary artists and creatives with the foundation for imagining new cultural infrastructures.

Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through January 9. The exhibition was organized by Darsie Alexander, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator, and Sam Sackeroff, Lerman-Neubauer Assistant Curator, The Jewish Museum. Abigail Rapoport, Curator of Judaica, assisted in selecting ceremonial objects for the exhibition.

Invisible Inventories: Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums continues at the Weltkulturen Museum (Schaumainkai 37, Frankfurt am Main, Germany) through January 9. The exhibition was organized by the International Inventories Programme.

Isabel Ling is a writer and researcher originally from the Bay Area, who is currently based in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in publications like The Outline, Eater, and The Verge. You can find...