“It’s not easy for historians to write the history of missed opportunities, of the stifling and suppression of historical possibilities.” Professor Bénédicte Savoy makes this observation in the opening pages of her ground-breaking book Africa’s Struggle for its Art, which was recently translated into English. Across 200 pages, Savoy documents the efforts of European civil servants and museum directors from the Year of Africa in 1960 — when 17 African countries gained independence — onwards to resist demands for the restitution of cultural heritage to African nations. From London, Berlin, and Paris, new legal barriers were improvised in the decades following decolonization, new myths about the risks of returns were promulgated, and latterly talking shops such as the Benin Dialogue Group were used by some institutions to try to reframe restitution as some interminable debate rather than an action-oriented process. Museums even wilfully lied, Savoy shows through her meticulous archival research, making public statements about the fairness and legality of historic collecting while internal institutional discussions were candid about the reality of colonial looting. “The European men who tried to stem the tide against restitution requests have left a gigantic cultural debt to subsequent generations,” Savoy concludes. In 2022, as returns are finally starting to happen at scale, is that debt starting to be repaid?

On the face of it, the newly-released Arts Council England (ACE) report, titled “Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England,might offer some hope on this score. But equally the many silences in this document, and its attempt to focus purely on technical procedure rather than curatorial practice, may signal a new episode in longstanding institutional inertia and resistance. 

Think back over the history of the strategies that have been used to resist returning African cultural heritage. We might think of each of those strategies as a lasting form of unfinished colonialism. First, there was obfuscation. Here, each demand was presented not on its own terms and merits but tied to much vaguer, existential questions. Claims were presented as a challenge to the validity of the very idea of the anthropological or so-called “world culture” museum. Restitution was painted as a slippery slope, the logic of which would surely strip out not only the Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone and the Rapa Nui moai from the British Museum but ultimately every object from overseas in every collection everywhere. 

Second, there was the claim to universalism. In a watershed moment in 2004, as I described in The Brutish Museums, the self-appointed “Bizot Group” of American and European museum directors issued their Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. Here, demands for returns were framed as driven by the narrow nationalism or self-interest on the part of claimants from Indigenous communities and the so-called Global South — above which Euro-American museums stood as caring for shared cultural heritage for the good of humankind. The paternalistic rhetoric of the Declaration was plain: “Museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”

Third, there was amnesia. The long history of the restitution movement was, as Savoy’s book shows, repeatedly erased and forgotten. Each time it periodically re-emerged in public discourse, restitution was presented as a new idea to be debated from first principles, as if it were a sudden crisis or emergency rather than a longstanding question of cultural justice. Indeed, earlier this month, in his capacity as the UK’s Culture Minister, Stephen Parkinson repeated this position: Discussing the decision by the Horniman Museum to return their collection of Benin Bronzes, he told The Times that “there are at least two sides to every argument.” 

Benin bronze, ancestral head of an oba (a king) at the Bristol Museum (image by Matt Neale via Wikimedia Commons)

To obfuscation, universalism, and amnesia, a fourth layer is added by the new ACE report to instinctive, institutional strategies of resistance to restitution: the strategy of silence. Written by the Institute for Art and Law in collaboration with Janet Ulph, a Professor of Criminal Law at Leicester University, the ACE Report’s call for “proactive action in a spirit of transparency, collaboration and fairness” is welcome. But behind those warm words what, we must ask: What is not being said? 

“Silences,” the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his 1995 book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, “enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).” 

Troullot shows how silence is not just an omission but an act — and sometimes an act of enduring colonial violence — as the production of history proceeds through both “mentions” and “silences.” What then are the silences in play here? Back in January 2020, the procurement document for the report issued by ACE explained that the brief was “focused on objects in Western museums acquired by European nations from former colonies, and links to wider agendas around decolonising museums.” 

And yet, published more than two years after the original timeline, across its 33 pages, the guidance does not once use the words “colonies,” “colonialism,” or “decolonizing.” Also absent are the words “violence,” “racism,” “anti-racism,” “empire,” “slavery,” “looting,” “repair,” or indeed any reference to the Movement for Black Lives. In their place, tired curatorial euphemisms recur on every page. The words “acquire” and “acquisition” appear a dozen times. Stolen objects are described as “controversial items.” The word “Africa” is absent and the word “African” appears only twice, when mentioning the name of a project at the Horniman Museum, and the historical circumstances that led to claims being made from certain regions of the world against English museums are not considered. No Black or anti-colonial scholarship is cited while, incomprehensibly, the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is mentioned on seven occasions. Four case studies are presented, each written from the point of view of museum staff: the Rethinking Relationships project at London’s Horniman Museum; the transfer of a Torah scroll by the Royal Cornwall Museum to Kehillat Kernow; the return of Chief Crowfoot’s regalia to Siksika Tribal Council and Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter; and the refusal of a claim for restitution of four spears violently taken by James Cook from Gweagal people in 1770 in what is today Australia. In this latter example the claimant, Rodney Kelly, is not mentioned by name but referred to simply as “a man of Gweagal ancestry,” and his continued struggle of returns from both Cambridge and the British Museum is not referred to. Two further case studies that had been included in earlier versions of the document circulated in the sector are absent in the published report: the significant returns of locks of hair of Emperor Tewodros by the National Army Museum and of 43 ceremonial and sacred objects to Aboriginal communities by Manchester Museum.

Read on and the silences and erasures multiply. The voices of communities of origin, and those of the various Black and minoritized communities and organizations in the museums and heritage sector — such as Museum Detox, Culture&, Afford UK, or the Black South West Network — are absent. The place of restitution in English museums’ responsibilities under the 2011 Public Sector Equality Duty to “eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different people” goes unmentioned. The claim is made that “it is desirable, where possible, to digitise objects (through multiple high quality images for 3D objects)” with no discussion of the consent of the claimant or the ownership of Intellectual Property in such scans or 3D prints. Provenance research is foregrounded but no consideration is given to who is best placed to undertake such work. The precedent set by the removal of legal restrictions for restitution from national museums in the case of Holocaust spoliation, under the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act of 2009, which was extended as recently as 2019, is not discussed — the Act simply appears in a list of relevant legislation. And the formation of the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Reparation and Restitution doesn’t even make it to the footnotes. 

Instead, the relentlessly procedural nature of the document offers guidance on ‘‘dealing with the media,” “stakeholder management,” “understanding the objects,” “involving stakeholders,” and “assessing the claim.” It suggests outcomes that may include not actual returns of stolen heritage but loans, “rights of access,” and even “legal ownership of the object is divided between the claimant and the museum.” Here, there are echoes of the Museums and Galleries Commission publication from the year 2000 Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for Good Practice, which advised how museums might find a middle way between what it called the “extremes” of retention and return through loans, shared ownership, joint research projects, joint exhibitions, and “special storage arrangements.”

These are not just omissions. They are active erasures of the guiding principles, rationale, and ethos of what cultural restitution has become in the 2020s. The contrast with the Report on The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, written by Felwine Sarr and Savoy for French President Emmanuel Macron and published almost four years ago, could hardly be more stark. Sarr and Savoy underlined questions of colonial violence, cultural dispossession, and duress and consent; the “economic capitalization” of stolen culture through the art market and its “symbolic capitalization” through the museum. They called for “a new relational ethics” through which equitable relationships between African and European nations and institutions could be forged in the field of culture, museums, and the arts. Restitution, they showed, begins with a “recognition of the illegitimacy” of a museum’s claim to ownership, power, and control. In his recent writing, Sarr has expanded his vision of the “epistemic violence” which an urgent African “struggle for cultural emancipation” and the reconstruction of knowledge addresses not just the legacy of colonialism, but its ongoing presence. Sarr joins the dots between anthropological museums and the role of ethnological knowledge as a tool of colonial domination, and calls for new forms of universality that are “inscribed in plurality and diversity; an additive and not a subtractive universal.” 

Brass sculpture depicting a cockerel, object no. 99.239 (courtesy the Horniman Museum)

It’s astonishing that the ACE Report fails to mention the Sarr-Savoy report. Indeed in their vast citational voids, its authors fail to follow the 2015 Museums Association Code of Ethics which advises that on matters of restitution “current thinking on the subject” must be taken into account. But tune in to the silences and you start to hear this new strategy of resistance to cultural restitution under construction. Institutionalized and flattened out, tied up in Western legal frameworks and the provenance research of museum registrars that proceeds at a glacial pace, the report seeks to diminish restitution — to reduce it to some supposedly neutral procedure where in reality control remains with the European museums. Control of access, of knowledge, of process, of the agenda. 

The ACE report is not simply a poorly researched, dry, trite, and bureaucratic exercise in legalese, wholly out of touch with foundational global shifts in cultural restitution. It is a work of counter-insurgency; an act of wilful silencing. Like the conjurer’s trick of misdirection, the institutional impulse is to purge restitution of its anti-colonialism, its anti-racism, its promise of new forms of relational ethics, and its central role in a far wider reckoning with the unfinished processes of colonialism, institutional racism, and cultural supremacy. So will the ACE Report usher in another era of missed opportunities and the suppression of historical possibilities, like the earlier ones Savoy traces over the past six decades? A powerful minority in the more nostalgic parts of the English museums sector will hope so. The report certainly represents a failure of cultural leadership in the urgent task of dismantling the old Euro-American curatorial claim to supremacy — a task that is now unfolding in the museums sector in every other part of Europe. 

But the 2020s are a critical example of the kind of time that Trouillot describes as “the moment of retrospective significance.” A time, in other words, in which history is made. In these times, any attempt to discuss cultural restitution outside of the context of the necessary evolution of curatorial and co-curatorial professional practice will surely fail, because across the public and professional fields restitution is understood to be about the opening up of possibilities for what happens next, including the potential for repair, remembrance, and reparation. Giving back is the necessary first step; but restitution is also about giving something up. In other words, in the 2020s, this decade of returns, the work of cultural restitution must be about what we give up, not just what or how we give back. Giving up, that is, more than just the legal title to a few hundred of the perhaps ten million objects that still languish in England’s colonial museums. Giving up what our museums inherit from the enduring colonial vision of cultural supremacy in all its forms. Giving up on the old pretense that cultural restitution is something other than an integral part of the wider, unfinished, urgent work of anti-colonialism and anti-racism in England’s arts, culture, and museums sectors. 

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Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His latest book is The...

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