‘It’s a Matter of Justice’: Bénédicte Savoy on the Argument for Restitution

‘Black Panther’, 2018, film still. Courtesy Marvel

Bénédicte Savoy is professor of art history at the Technische Universität Berlin and at the Collège de France in Paris. In 2018 she and the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr were commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron to write a report on the restitution of objects brought to France during the colonisation period. The resulting document, published in November 2018, controversially concluded that approximately 90 percent of the cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa lies in Western collections and called for a timely restitution of those objects held in France and a more general reset of relationships regarding cultural heritage between Europe and Africa.

ArtReview Two years on from the report’s publication, how do you think it has been received? What do you think has been successful, and what less so?

Bénédicte Savoy The reception of the report was a bit like a billiard ball: Emmanuel Macron sent a ball rolling that Felwine Sarr and myself
pushed. This moved other balls on the table. While the French ball may have come to a halt, other balls have been set in motion because of it.
So, I think that one has to see how the report was received in an international perspective. I live in Berlin, Felwine Sarr was, until last
summer, living in Dakar and we have seen how this report, originally written for a French context, has had an enormous effect in German-speaking countries: in Germany itself, German-speaking Switzerland, Austria and also the Netherlands. As well as in a number of countries on the African continent.

It also initiated a debate in the US: a year and a half after the report was published, we were invited to New York for discussions with
curators and museum directors at Columbia University, and were struck by how our discussion connected with subjects long discussed in
the US – dealing with the history of Black people in America – that are not directly tied to colonial discourse. In the New York Times and elsewhere we found some very interesting responses put forward by our African colleagues, for example by [Senegalese philosopher] Souleymane Bachir Diagne… It’s extremely interesting to see how all that plays out differently.

But your real question was what has worked and what hasn’t worked. What has recently been most satisfying was the passing of the law at the Assemblée Nationale a few weeks ago [in early October lawmakers voted to return a series of artefacts to Senegal and the Republic of Benin]. Not so much because the law passed, or because 26 or 27 objects will be restituted. What was incredibly satisfying was the fact that there was not a single voice in the Assemblée raised in opposition to the law’s passing. One might have thought that in France there were considerable psychological obstacles to restitution – an ideological opposition, backed by strong, mostly political lobbies. The fact that there was no opposition made me realise that those voices you could hear in the French press, who were shouting very loudly against the initiative, and took up a lot of space to protest and criticise our report, turned out to be quite isolated, and that the people’s representatives – if you want to use that rather dated term – were in agreement with the project of restitution.

To answer the other part of your question, what didn’t work so well? I’d say that what Felwine Sarr and I were proposing was a change in the legal status of artefacts in general.

We wanted to avoid a situation in which each restitution would require passing a new law. Just a few weeks ago the law returning these 27 objects was voted on, and only a few days ago the Army Museum restituted some very important objects to Madagascar. But it needed another law to be passed, and obviously the idea that each restitution will require a new law to be passed can become absurd. Still, I think that once the idea is accepted in principle, parliament will in the long run say to itself that they should change the general law.

For me it’s not a matter of personal satisfaction that these issues are shifting; it’s more a matter of justice – what Felwine Sarr and I call the putting in place of a new relational ethics. That’s what drives us. And on the whole, what has worked is greater than what hasn’t.

Bénédicte Savoy. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

AR The report has become something of a beacon for many discussions in the UK and the US. Would you say that the report’s effects were not completely predictable or controllable? I wonder also if you see that the argument for restitution is won at the level of institutions, rather than at the national level?

BS It’s a really important question. It’s true that those voices in opposition were isolated, but they were also very loud. At first I thought they represented something, but I see now that they represent nothing. If we look at the effect of the report on institutions, I’m not sure that in France institutions are completely in agreement. At the Musée du Quai Branly I think there’s a generational thing going on, in Berlin too. I’m not familiar with what goes on in British institutions, but I don’t think I’m mistaken in saying that there’s a new generation of curators and keepers who sympathise. Many of them are women, and I think there’s a gender issue too. In Berlin and in the wider German scene you see a lot of female directors who are strongly engaged in the issue, like Nanette Snoep at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museums in Cologne or Barbara Plankensteiner at the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg. I think that inside institutions there isn’t a monolithic position but rather something that is evolving, and what seems to me very evident is that many institutions have understood that they are ‘too white’, that’s to say not diverse enough to be able to represent effectively the objects in their care.

I think that this is evident even in the UK; it’s clear at least that there’s an awareness of this. At the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer recently took the bold step of moving the bust of its slave-owning founder, Hans Sloane, to a less prominent location. The BM also just announced a major archaeology partnership project at the site of the new museum in Benin City. If you look at the work of Dan Hicks at Oxford [Pitt Rivers Museum] – an elite university collection – there’s a lot going on. So from the point of view of institutions, my reply would be that the generation that is in charge – the generation of the president of the Musée du Quai Branly, Stéphane Martin – the generation that is on its way out, has found it difficult to accept the report, while the generation under it was well prepared for it.

As to whether the report’s effect was something we could control, I like to compare it to opening a can of Coca-Cola that you’ve shaken a lot! Let’s say that the can is the debate that has existed since the 1980s, or even earlier, which has been reactivated in the 2010s, by activists, by militants and by a couple of academics like me and Felwine Sarr. Just by making this small gesture – pschh! – it explodes. The power of the report is only the pressure that had built up but that had been suppressed.

Since the report’s publication and because of the work we did on it, I’ve started to research the debates on restitution that took place during the 1970s and 80s. In fact, it’s a bit like debates over climate change, which were already happening then. When Felwine Sarr and I were working on the report, we found reports similar to ours in the French archives, from 1980–81. Between 1960, the start of the independence period, and 1982, there was a very big discussion of these issues, and museums were very opposed to restitution; but public opinion, in the UK for example, is different: one finds letters in The Times, from readers (often women) saying things like ‘we should return the gold to the Ashanti people because they must have a future’, and that’s already during the 1970s.

What I’m pointing out is that public opinion, in France or in Germany, is very favourable to the idea of ‘heritage justice’, if we can call it that. We talk a lot about social justice, but we can talk also of heritage justice, and all we did with the report was to say to people that it’s good that we can talk about this, that we don’t have to avoid it. So I think that the effect is, as you say, political, and institutional, but it’s also more generally to do with a kind of psychological unblocking, and in particular being free to speak about it.

A few years ago I visited the British Museum with some colleagues. When we used the term ‘looted art’, one of the keepers said, “No, no, we don’t use that term”. But now everybody accepts that there is a negative history to these objects.

AR In the UK we’re seeing a great preoccupation with reinterpreting and recontextualising artefacts. An issue that is in some ways substituting itself for the restitution project, leaving objects where they are.

BS Absolutely. For our part, we’ve launched a project with Dan Hicks called ‘The Restitution of Knowledge’, where we’re saying that there are other forms of restitution than the restitution of the object. There is also the restitution of the knowledge of the object’s provenance, and other issues. I’m by nature optimistic, so I wouldn’t agree that there’s any malice or ‘substitution’ here. I see it instead as complementary. For myself, I’ve always pleaded in the years preceding the report for being totally transparent about the history of collections. I think that, when you have that transparency, the idea that one should restitute the objects that are claimed follows. If we don’t know how objects have come to us, that step doesn’t follow. That’s why one has to keep talking about restitution, not because we necessarily only want restitution. It’s interesting to see that it’s the military museums – not the art museums – that find it easiest to return objects: France’s Military Museum returns objects more easily than the Musée du Quai Branly. It’s obvious – the military museums know, have always known, that what they held were trophies of war.

Benin Bronzes, British Museum, London. Courtesy British Museum

AR The report is very interesting for showing that this debate has been around for a long time. I wonder if the difference now is that this is coming from the top – that it’s the president of the republic who initiated it, rather than it being a debate forced on European states that were resistant to having it imposed on them, either by African states or by outside agencies (UNESCO, for example). What do you think has changed at this high political level? Emmanuel Macron is after all responding to what has changed politically between say the 1980s and 2018…

BS I see it as a sort of boomerang effect; it’s a debate that has been had, that was thrown out there and was forgotten, and now comes back with a lot of force, and hurts a lot. What I think has changed in particular is how Europeans view what they used to call, during the 1970s and 80s, the ‘Third World’. Which is to say that there was something in the discourse of that period that was still about condescension, as if restitution was like giving something to a beggar. It’s not surprising that when Macron made his announcement, he was thirty-nine years old, still a young man, and not so politically experienced. I think there’s a real and authentic need among a certain generation to get to a society that is on one hand postracist, and on the other much more careful about the issue of resources, of where one’s wealth and riches come from.

That wasn’t part of the debate during the 70s and 80s; my students, in this case young Berliners, straightaway ask themselves where their clothes and furniture are made. The question of ethical consumption has become very present, and this has rubbed off on the ethics of cultural consumption. I know a lot of young people who enjoy going to museums, and who have very strong responses, particularly to sacred objects, which speak to them imaginatively, but the question of the enjoyment they get at the museum is very quickly linked to the question: ‘I enjoy this, but where does this pleasure come from? Who is speaking to me? How did this get here? Do I want to enjoy this at the cost of some other suffering?’

I think that what has changed a lot, and this is of course linked to social media and the generation of net-natives, is that they think in terms of networks. They see this object in its case, but they see all that it links to. To the point that they might see an item of clothing in a supermarket and they all know that this item has probably been made in Myanmar, for example.

We think in terms of links in the present, but we also think much more easily in terms of relational ethics – what links we want in the future. Observing the young people I’m in contact with – these are the same people that one sees on climate-change demonstrations, or who topple statues, who are for a society that is for climate justice and is antiracist… and in Berlin, those who are involved in issues of gender and sexual diversity, and so on – all this goes together. I would say that our report, which appears to speak of art collections, evidently speaks of many issues of justice and equity.

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