When unique art has been plundered through atrocities perpetrated by the likes of Leopold II in the Congo, there is little argument against restitution. However, we need to carefully consider how best such restitution can be achieved. Simplistically, it can be made by returning museum pieces. However, it might also be achieved by joint endeavours that acknowledge, protect and expose artefacts to the world, including to their countries of origin.
Some examples are the establishment of well funded and managed museums in countries of origin; returning title of collections to countries of origin while retaining the collections on permanent exhibition in international safe havens; travelling exhibitions, including to places of origin; and greater sponsorship and appropriate international promotion of indigenous art.
So little of Africa’s deep history is written and one of the important ways it has been preserved and conveyed has been through cultural and religious expressions captured in its art. This makes it especially more important to preserve and protect in a continent that hosts the origins of our species.
A great sadness and risk is that, however well justified, the return of some of the rarest and unique artefacts to their places of origin does not guarantee them a secure future. We recall the destruction of the Timbuktu manuscripts by Islamists in 2013, theft by corrupt leaders and their families, or neglect and depreciation through lack of resources.
Oxford and Cambridge have some of the finest collections of artefacts in the world, collected (relatively ethically) over centuries, primarily for learning and research. Yet far more of Oxbridge collections are in storage than on display, and those on display are in cramped, outdated and underfunded facilities — especially in comparison to their American counterparts.
The Vatican also has one of the finest African art collections, accumulated through centuries of missionary outreach, yet so little of it is exposed or travels.
Is it not time to radically rethink how art plundered or collected in colonial times should be returned, recycled, more widely exposed and shared in a responsible and sustainable way, not only for the societies whence it came, but for the greater benefit of mankind?
Chris von Christierson
Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge,
London SW10, UK
Full article at Financial Times