Cultural decolonization: is it right to return artworks from our museums to their countries of origin? Part 1.

There has long been talk of "cultural decolonization": with the help of some experts, we try to understand whether it is right to return the artworks in our museums to their countries of origin.

Between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the debate on the processes of cultural decolonization, an expression by which, summarizing and trivializing, we mean the restitution, to their countries of origin, of works of art and objects taken away in eras of conquest or colonialism, has regained vigor. This is at least in the context of museum policies: in fact, one must be aware that the one just given is in any case a reductive definition (one could, for example, broaden it by going to include those policies aimed at reducing the cultural dependence of former colonies on the countries of the West).

These are certainly not new discussions: as early as 1996 Moroccan sociologist and economist Mahdi Elmandjra believed that cultural decolonization would become the “main challenge of the 21st century,” and indeed it has become so: with increasing insistence there has been talk of ways, laws, and timeframes to return works stored in Europe to their countries of origin (or even more simply to their rightful ownersî: think of the works stolen during World War II), and the debate became especially heated after Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy presented a report, compiled with the advice of many experts in the field, and titled Rapport sur la restituion du patrimoine culturel africain to French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2018. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle: the dossier, consisting of two hundred and forty pages opened by an eloquent introduction called Nothing Impossible Anymore, set itself the goal of furthering the study of the possibility of giving rise to actions to redefine the limits of the presence of African works of art in French museum collections. Since the publication of the report, the discussion on cultural decolonization has intensified.

<pIt is because of the urgent timeliness of the topic that we decided to open with a discussion on cultural decolonization the space in our magazine reserved for debate. Throughout Europe, the debate on cultural decolonization has risen to the attention of many institutions, and museums in France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries have begun to question the appropriateness of returning art treasures stolen during colonial times to their countries of origin. Italy’s position is singular, since it was both a land of conquest and a conquering country. What aspects might the discussion in Italy take? Is our country ready to insert itself into the debate? Is it a priority for us to establish commissions to evaluate the provenance of the goods in our collections in the event of restitution? And how should we approach our works that are abroad as a result of spoliation? These are the questions we put to the experts.

Bronzi del Benin al British Museum
Benin bronzes at the British Museum

Alberta Dal Cortivo
Head of the Education Department of the MA - African Museum, Verona

The topic is yes very interesting to investigate, but very broad in scope, because reflections regarding geopolitics, current events, globalization, and the presence in Europe of increasingly multi-ethnic societies come into play. First of all, we need to consider the variety of contexts in the museum landscape of different European states. For example, in Italy, the amount of museums exhibiting non-European arts is certainly less than what the French panorama offers, and most of them are formed by collections of religious, missionary institutions. So they are born, or should have been born, with the idea of transmitting, in addition to artistic values, also a meaning of communication of what was the missionary action of encounter between people, geographies, cultures, religions, diversity, traditions... they are museums bearers of educational messages in an intercultural key, which certainly have evolved and changed over time, adapting to the different societies that attended them. Relative to current events, on this debate, little has been heard about the function of these objects and exhibits, for example for immigrant or second (or third) generation communities living in Italy, France, Belgium. How much, for example, can this art material, in Europe, help in policies of integration, valuing differences, welcoming?

It would certainly be right and good to think of an art practice that, with the restitution to Africa of all its artistic treasures, would lead the way for a whole other set of attitudes toward this continent. For what sense would it make to return Africa its artistic assets, and then continue with policies and economic interests to exploit its territories by hoarding its resources? Moreover, if this really happened, it would have to be a restitution linked to policies of cultural recognition and its enhancement made primarily by African politicians and governments themselves. There should be plans for governance of the artistic heritage, respecting and researching cultural policies, protecting traditions, histories, memories, identities...and speaking of these issues, the cultural policy of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the enlightened leader of Senegal’s independence, cannot fail to come to mind.

For now, we limit ourselves to judging very positively the opening of two major museum hubs on the continent, which will help many Africans to see these spaces as a place of encounter, communication, identity, and transmission of knowledge and to art: the Zeitz MOCAA, or a museum dedicated to the contemporary art of Africa and its Diaspora, opened in 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa, and the very recent Mcn - Musée des civilizations noires, Museum of Black Civilizations opened in December 2018, in Dakar, Senegal.

Maria Camilla De Palma
Director of the Museum of World Cultures at Castello d’Albertis, Genoa

For those who work in museums, and especially in museums that preserve non-European material from Africa, the Americas and Oceania, today’s debate on cultural decolonization does not come at all new: the 1970 UNESCO Conventions, 1995 UNIDROT and, for the United States, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), establish common measures and rules against illicit transfers. For several years in European museums, including Italian museums, delegations of Native groups have been visiting, following what has been happening in the U.S. for some time, to identify sensitive materials in our collections that are the result of spoliation conducted during the many scientific, naturalistic, military and archaeological expeditions over the centuries.

Museums have played a key role in separating objects from their producers, but they may today no longer be complicit with colonial policies and associated enterprises, becoming sites of contestation of power in terms of the possession, interpretation and holding of knowledge. I therefore believe that today’s museums, which inhabit their time as sites of social change, must open themselves to processes of decentralization that change the balances and arrangements established by centuries of colonialism and postcolonialism: museums cannot claim to be innocent in their acquisition policies nor in their practices of representing otherness, and restitution practices are becoming the order of the day for European museums of cultures that intend to address the ethical dilemma underlying their nature.

For some cases (the materials from Benin City looted by the British in Nigeria and now housed in the British Museum, or the famous Elgin Marbles) the discourse is more complicated because it touches on balances of a political and economic nature, and add to this the fact that the’action of some directors is still inspired by that of universal encyclopedic art museums such as the British Museum, believing that such institutions constitute with their collections not instruments of an empire but evidence of a tradition: however, these are often positions that aim to avoid the despoliation of European museums by hiding behind the false ideal of a phantom universal heritage.

Rather, the works of art and artifacts of antiquity are our common heritage, requiring our joint work for its preservation in the name of a new Humanism, in a borderless humanity in which we are all migrants and members of one or another minority. Of course, the repatriation process is inevitably long and complex, and it will take time for the returns to really take place, for Italy as for countries with a great colonial past, but this alone is a path worthy of truly civilized countries.

Filippo Maria Gambari
Director of the Museum of Civilizations, Rome

Within the framework of the reflection on the restitution of works from non-European contexts, the Museum of Civilizations constitutes in the Italian panorama one of the most emblematic cases, both because of the typology and importance of the collections and, above all, because the theme has already been the subject of reflection and the field of specific museographic practices in the last decades. Already in the 1980s, following the visit of a Lakota delegation, objects considered sacred present in the America section of the Luigi Pigorini Prehistoric Ethnographic Museum were being rearranged in compliance with specific indications of the native “heritage community.” Participation in European projects (e.g., RIME, SWICH) further increased the Museum staff’s reflection on the topic: thanks to continuous comparisons with major European ethnographic museums, projects aimed at increasing the participation and inclusion of communities of origin in the presentation and valorization of the objects preserved in the Museum were promoted.

The topic is of great complexity and requires to be approached considering the heterogeneity of its facets. Talking about restitution means considering forms of collaboration/consultation of "source communities" in exhibition arrangements, addressing the issue of collections taken away in colonial or pre-colonial times, and reflecting on the delicate issue of the restitution of human remains and sensitive objects. The patrimonial paradigms that come into play and of which the various subjects involved are multiple: how then to consider the object? As cultural property or sacred object? Work of art or scientific artifact?

On the multifaceted issue of the return of human remains, there are two cases that the museum has dealt with in the past: the request for restitution by the Australian government in 2007, and the visit of the New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Museum delegation in 2016. These are requests that have opened relationships and led to diverse mediation processes. Building on these experiences and the European debate, the Museum believes that the concept of “restitution” can open up different dynamics: the physical handover of the property is only one of the possible outcomes, and there can also be other, “symbolic” forms of reappropriation of museum objects by communities.

The museum’s collections come from different sources, in terms of historical period and geographic context, but especially in terms of mode of acquisition. We believe that responses to requests for restitution and related solutions (restitution tout court, long-term loans, scientific and museographic cooperation, and so on) should therefore be included and contextualized on a case-by-case basis, starting with the type of objects and their history while also considering issues related to protection and enhancement in the contexts of their origin that require their return.

Anna Maria Montaldo
Director of MuDEC - Museo delle Culture, Milan

It seems clear to me that a discussion on cultural decolonization in Italy cannot be without conflict and pitfalls, for political and philosophical reasons. Dealing with the issue of the return of works that are abroad, as a result of spoliations, and at the same time confronting the possible renunciation of works of art that are now part of our history and the identity of our cities seems extremely complex. Reflecting then on the fact that such insertions in our cultural landscape interpret, sometimes perfectly, the harmony of difference, the fusion of different cultures, could and should inspire a creative approach to what appear today as insurmountable problems in Europe related to immigration and fear of the other.

And given that conflict is inherent in the principle of harmony that does not tolerate those who refuse to conform, I think that cultural decolonization can be addressed in Italy with a process of cultural mediation that knows how to value the relativism of positions and also leaves room for the concept that art and culture belong to all those who respect and recognize it.

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