African Nations Fight to Retrieve Art and Artifacts from Museums in Europe

The complex legacy of colonial-era Africa (1885-1960) continues to have implications for the contemporary world. This period featured direct control of large swaths of African territory by the British, French, Belgians, and Italians as well as white settlers.

Many African nations bear the vestiges of the colonial era. The impact of colonialism shapes the continent as much as it does the realities of the colonizing powers. One of the most clear examples is the possession of thousands of pieces of African artwork and artifacts by European nations, former colonial powers. The struggle by African countries to retrieve this artwork from the West and the negotiations between the two make this process a complicated dance.

According to UNESCO, most of the African art and artifacts reside outside of the African continent. By some estimates, as much as 90 to 95 percent of the artwork is located in various museums in Europe.

Artwork and artifacts were taken from many African countries during the colonial period. The most visible have been Ethiopia, Benin, and the Congo.

Ethiopia recently requested the return of artifacts seized during the British Punitive Invasion of Ethiopia (also known as the Battle of Maqdala) in 1868. The British based their actions on a breakdown in relations with the Ethiopian government and the seizure of British citizens as hostages. This led to the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. British troops numbering more than 13,000 stormed the palace or Tewodros II, freeing hostages, destroying the fortress and seizing precious objects. Rather than being taken alive, Tewodros committed suicide. Locks of hair and his crown were taken to Great Britain. The crown was subsequently returned to Haile Selassie in 1925.

A selection of these materials was placed on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in April 2018. The exhibit titled Maqdala 1868 showcased a number of items including a golden chalice, a three tiered crown and a dress belonging to Queen Terunesh, the wife of Tewodros Il. Although the Ethiopian Embassy is collaborating with the British, the Ethiopians and British are in talks to facilitate the return of the artifacts.

The Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures reports that of the 480 items known to have been taken from Ethiopia, only ten have been returned. The British Museum has expressed a willingness “to consider any loan requests” from the Ethiopian government.

Similarly, in Benin, the British engaged in a “punitive expedition” against the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Designed to ostensibly stamp out “objectionable practices of human barbarity,” a review of diplomatic correspondence reveals that the claims of barbarity were a ruse to disguise British intentions to control trade in the region and to profit from palm oil production and distribution.

The British pillaged, looted, and removed thousands of the famed golden statutes. Despite repeated requests by the Nigerian government, the statutes remained at the British Museum. Plans are now underway to construct a museum in Southern Nigeria to house the artifacts. The British Museum has signaled its openness to the idea of a loan of the materials--not a return.

In Belgium, the Africa Museum of Belgium’s holdings are comprised of more than 85 percent of material from Africa.

The museum’s director Guido Gryseels noted the material was amassed as a result of conquests and military expeditions, missionary activity, civil servants and plunder. Congolese officials have made repeated requests for these materials. Most of these requests have been refused.

Some European museums have argued that they are best positioned to house and exhibit African art and make it accessible to broader audiences. Critics of this approach point out that it is rooted in racist ideas about who can own and preserve the past. They also point to the fact Europeans did little during the colonial period to support African art locally. In cases where museums were built, primarily in colonial capitals, they were not adequately supported or staffed.

Efforts to return African artwork and artifacts has picked up steam in recent years. In France, President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a study to determine how best to address the reparations question as it relates to African Art.

The 252-page report thoroughly explored the social, cultural, political, economic and intellectual implications of returning African Art. The report has ignited an international debate about the relationship between African nations and European countries. This effort has led to the construction of an African museum in modern day Benin, which was formerly the site of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries.

France has agreed to return 26 artifacts and fund the construction of the museum. They have committed 20 million euros from the French Development Agency and will make a 116-acre site--UNESCO World Heritage Site--attractive to visitors. In the case of Benin, the British Museum held a summit to discuss how to return bronze artifacts looted from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 in 2017.

In October 2018, the Benin Dialogue Group presented plans for a new Benin Royal Museum. The Dialogue group consists of museums that acquired artwork from Benin, including the British Museum, Berlin’s Ethnology Museum, Vienna’s Welmuseum and the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden. It will display historic artwork from the region and the bronze statutes plundered from the region during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. More than 4,000 pieces are believed to have been plundered. In the Netherlands, similar projects are underway to return African artifacts. A conference on this issue occurred at the National Museum of Ethnology in the Netherlands in 2018. Most recently, in March 2019, the Netherlands National Museum for World Cultures announced it “will generously return art taken through colonial theft to their countries of origin.”

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.