Approaches towards the Restitution of African Cultural Properties from Colonial Times


In 2017, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, in his speech at the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), made the official commitment to return the stolen African art from France. Two countries have been selected to be among the first ones to have their cultural properties returned: Senegal and Benin. Similarly, a growing number of European States as well as cultural institutions are now moving forward towards launching such restitution processes.

While the general idea of the return of stolen works is well received, the practicalities of this return are more debatable. A central issue is that of the conservation of returned works in terms of means and preservation. The term “restitution” in its conceptual framework is indeed in itself problematic because it is “museum-centric”. For instance, the restitution debate remains at a State level, even though the art objects in question were produced and used at different levels of society. While these objects can be considered as being part of “humanity heritage”, the question of ownership of these objects is central.

The restitution of cultural properties therefore opens up a number of questions which tackle the history, memory and the decolonisation of knowledge all together. The process also paves the way to the redefinition of the Africa-Europe relationship with a stronger commitment towards the re-imagining of a post-colonial “relational ethic”. How can we envision the restitution of cultural properties as a step towards the development of an African way to look at conservation?

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