26.4.2020   |  words by Elisabetta Roncati | Art Nomade Milan

Non-European art and exhibitions: new challenges for ethnographic museums

The old ethnological and ethnographic museums are undergoing a radical transformation. The most visible change is that of the name: Museum of “Cultures”, Museum of “Civilizations”. Almost no one know how to re-named them.
Researchers are afraid of committing mistakes, hurting one community or another.
Moreover, in the era of mass communication, criticisms are around the corner and the “scandal” is just a click away. Staying within the boundaries of politically correct obliges you to be “tightrope walkers”: you are always afraid of falling and doing wrong towards this or that social reality.
In addition to the re-definition of the name, the collections of the former ethnographic museums need to be rethought.
How did those artworks arrive in Europe?
Was it a legal or illegal way?
Were the owners originally forced to separate themselves from these symbolic and worship objects?

But let’s take a step back: with ethnology we mean the part of anthropology that deals with studying and comparing the populations currently existing in the world. Ethnography refers to the method of field research in the ethno-anthropological sciences.
We are, therefore, speaking of “tribal” art…it already seems to me that I have hurt someone by defining it in this way .
In short, masks, statues, worship and ceremonies objects, but also things of daily use (books, document) typical of non-European cultures. (Fig. 1)

In this overflow of information and theoretical discussions, there is a story that I want to tell you.
Three years ago, in November 2017, the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron was on an official visit to Burkina Faso and, during a speech at the University of Ouagadougou, he made some memorable statements.
He said that “African heritage cannot remain like a prisoner in the European museums”. The process of definitive or temporary restitution of African artworks conserved in French public institutions would begin in less than three years.
A historical declaration that would involve not only France!
In fact, it is calculated that almost all of Africa’s historical and artistic heritage is located outside the continent.
A large part of France, but not only.
Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Austria and Italy have many archaeological and historical finds in their public institutions.
If we calculate what is left in its homeland, inside the Museums, we arrive at about 3,000 pieces.
There are cultural institutions in Africa that need artworks.
Of course, not all 54 recognized states have developed museum structures.
However, speaking about the sub-Saharan part, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Namibia and South Africa are at the top of the ranking by the number of modernly organized cultural institutions.

Non-European art and exhibitions: new challenges for ethnographic museums. Map of cultural institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, courtesy of “Restituer le patrimoine africain”, Philippe Rey / Seuil, 2019.

Yet African artworks remain in European museums.
As many as 70,000 at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris;
75,000 objects at the Humboldt Forum, Berlin (expected opening: September 2020);
180,000 at the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, Tervuren (Belgium);
69,000 works in the British Museum, London;
37,000 at the Weltmuseum, Vienna;
70,000 in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City (Italy).

In these calculations are missing the artworks preserved in small-town museums, in private ones and in religious brotherhoods institutions.
When did this export of artworks begin?
Around the end of the 19th century, when, after the Berlin Conference (1884/1885), the division of Africa by the European powers began.

Thus Emmanuel Macron’s statements in Ouagadougou have also provoked effects in other European states, especially within the ethnographic museums’ workers.
Many African associations have asked similar measures from their governments, mainly in Germany.
These aren’t new requests: in the early Sixties, some recently established African nations put forward similar requests.
It was the period of colonial independence: Ghana was the first black African state to obtain it, in 1957.
UNESCO also became interested in the topic in 1978.
However, a government decision is not enough to trigger the process. Adequate studies are needed to move the artworks.
France officially assigned the task to a team of researches, who set up an action program summarized in the publication “RESTITUER LE PATRIMOINE AFRICAIN”, written by F. Sarr and B. Savoy, published in November 2019.

Therefore what are the main difficulties that researchers have encountered in this process? A complexity that all European states will encounter once they join this process.
Very often, within national constitutions, clauses exist which hinder possible restitution, especially permanent ones. Returning to the French example, the “inalienability of the national heritage” is one of the knots still to be solved in order to put the movement of goods into practice.
If many artworks were acquired during the colonial period, in not legitimate ways, others were purchased on the antique market. Is their acquisition legal? A distinction must be made between legally obtained goods, including ones acquired through presents from non-colluded heads of state, and goods from illicit sources.
The number of artworks in Europe is unclear. As mentioned above, the goods kept in small-town museums are missing. Clearly, the French project does not include museums and private collections. In addition, beyond the sculptures and other forms of artistic expression, there are also documents, manuscripts, books: records kept in European archives would deserve a separate research program.

Once the above points have been resolved, a bilateral team of researchers must be set up to transport and relocate the objects. In addition, a tested administrative system will be needed to facilitate the forwarding of return requests by individual states.
Bureaucrats, anthropologists, psychologists, art historians, jurists: numerous professional figures will have to be involved.

At the moment I have no news regarding the progress achieved on the restitution path by the French Republic. I hope that, after so many talks and researches, it won’t all end in nothing.
The European population is getting older, the African one is really young.

If we want to bring development to the continent we must help them in the reconstruction of their roots.


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