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Q&A: Racial Justice and Restitution

People standing near a chair and other artifacts on exhibit
Visitors to the Center for Arts and Culture, in Cotonou, Benin, on January 17, 2020. © Prosper Dagnitche/AFP/Getty

Inspired by the belief that reckoning with the past is a crucial step toward addressing the injustices of the present, the African Foundation for Development works to return objects to Africa that were looted during the eras of colonialism and imperialism. Recently, Open Society’s Mai Lynn Miller Nguyen spoke with Onyekachi Wambu, the African Foundation for Development’s executive director, about why the restitution of cultural heritage is so important.

What is restitution, and what are the goals of the movement behind it?

Demands for restitution are part of a series of connected movements, led by Africans and diasporic communities, in response to the economic, social, cultural, political, and spiritual legacies of slavery and colonialism and towards constructing a more just future. By calling for restitution, we are asking for the return of objects that were taken from the African continent through conquest, plunder, theft, and colonialism. We also believe that objects that were taken through legitimate-but-unfair trade deals need to be reassessed. 

How many objects are we talking about? 

To give a sense of scale, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris alone has a collection of 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Many sources, including the influential 2019 Sarr-Savoy Report, refer to an estimate that 90 to 95 percent of African heritage is held in major museums outside the African continent. This comes from remarks made by Alain Godonou, then director of the Porto Novo School of African Heritage Benin, at the 2007 UNESCO Forum on Memory and Universality. Even if that estimate may be contested, it’s enough to know that there’s a significant imbalance between what is in collections on the African continent and what is in Western museums. 

And what kind of objects are they?

One example would be the Queen Idia of Benin Mask, which the British Museum has refused to return and which is one of 4,000 artifacts looted by British soldiers during their conquest of the Benin Empire. Claims for restitution also cover human remains, including skeletons and body parts from human zoos and the most well-known forms of human remains taken from Africa for UK collections—the Egyptian mummies.

How has the African Foundation for Development pushed the movement forward?

One of our key initiatives is called the Return of the Icons program. It works to achieve restitution of stolen African artifacts and human remains from museums and other cultural institutions in the United Kingdom. As well as engaging and negotiating with museums and cultural institutions in control of collections of stolen artifacts, our program is also raising awareness amongst the diaspora, especially the young, and creating new networks for advocacy and action.

How so?

For example, we’re working with individuals like Alain “Fusion” Clapham and other spoken-word artists on the #ReturnOfTheIconsChallenge; and establishing collaborations with the governments of Benin and Rwanda, JustGhana, Pitt Rivers Museum, Horniman Museum, SOAS, British Library, and the V&A, to address the barriers to restitution and create the conditions for return. We also partnered with New African Magazine on an editorial supplement that highlights a range of perspectives on the restitution movement.  

Has there been any research about who cares about restitution, and why? 

In the UK, where we are based, the conversation about restitution is shifting from “it’s not possible” to “how can we begin the process?” Our recently published Return of the Icons Project Mapping Report finds that restitution is greatly sought after by African governments and communities, as well as the African diaspora worldwide, as a matter of human dignity, cultural heritage and patrimony, and socio-economic development. 

But there remains a gap in perception between the diaspora community and some museum professionals and the general public, who have no experience of being dispossessed of artifacts, and we need to address this through advocacy campaigns. We believe movements like Black Lives Matter that are campaigning against statues and other national symbols that glorify abusers and exploitation point the way forward. 

Beyond righting historical injustice, are there any other benefits restitution could provide? 

Yes, there are indications that restitution could provide economic benefits, too. An example of this is Ghana’s 2019 Year of Return program, which attracted over one million diaspora visitors and generated $1.9 billion in additional spending for the country, according to Ghanaian Minister of Tourism Barbara Oteng Gyasi, as reported by the BBC

Other countries are making the connection between returning heritage and tourism policy, too. The Republic of Benin, for example, established a tourism agency for the promotion of heritage in 2016. For Benin, the restitution of cultural property has implications not only for attracting tourists, but also for cultural diplomacy and development more broadly.  

What needs to happen now? 

Collaboration is crucial. More than ever, AFFORD is keen to partner with other diasporic groups, governments, business, institutions in academia and the art world, and others to tackle the legacies of slavery and colonialism—whether in looted cultural artifacts and human remains, unfair trade practices, or structural racism that produces unequal outcomes in health, education, and justice.

The African Foundation for Development is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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