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Debate on Restitution

by [Artefakte // anti-humboldt]
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, Françoise Vergès, Boris Wastiau, Edouard Planche in conversation with Artefakte//anti-humboldt

In 2002, the museums of Berlin joined 18 other major museums in Europe and in the US to sign the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”.[1] Their intention was to underline their claims to property rights.

This declaration overtly determines Euroamerican claims of ownership of objects they declare to be universal. Though there are only a few successful cases of restitution, this initiative of those strong key institutions must be understood as a prophylactic refusal of the legitimacy of more such potential demands. The claim by the Greek government for the Elgin Marbels kept in the British Museum is widely considered to be the trigger for the Declaration.

With the following section we enter a discussion about restitution, repatriation, return that in our opinion is essential to develop a postcolonially informed approach in the field of museum studies and politics. Even more, such an approach is a crucial response to and critical engagement with conflict situations such as the ongoing self-reassurance of Berlin as a postcolonial/postwar European metropole.

The stupefying and impertinent, though self-evident, claim of entitlement to certain objects as testimonies of cultures expressed in the Universal Declaration is constructed in a twofold manner: The ways and means how the objects were acquired and ended up in the museums are not considered of relevance:

“(…) whether (acquired) by purchase, gift, or partage – (the objects) have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them.” Looting and colonial reshaping are no longer addressed. Supposedly, there is no need to face up to historical injustice. Further, the Declaration argues that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation”.[2]

From this, the claim is derived that museums serve nothing less than the interest of humankind. It is worth more than a footnote, to mention at this point that almost all signatory museums of the Declaration are located within the signatory nations of the final document of the 1884/85 Berlin Africa conference, the so-called “Congo Act”.

Against this backdrop, non-restitution is not a neutral act. Hence, we invited experts and scholars to discuss and reconsider the question of restitution with us and open up our starting point, the case of Berlin, to a complex and hierarchically differentiated international field.

Therein, we believe, the condition for a dialogue would be to abandon any insistance to hold on to property. Or to quote the claim formulated on a leaflet by the participants of the Anticolonial Africa Conference held in Berlin in 2004: “Countless cultural objects and artefacts have been looted in Africa and are now crowning museums and private collections. An agreement with the countries of origin has to be achieved under which conditions the objects are returned or can remain in Europe.”


Jean-Gabriel Leturcq


Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, “La question des restitutions d’oeuvres d’art: différentiels maghrébins”, L’Année du Maghreb, IV, Dossier: La fabrique de la mémoire (2008). Available online at:

Omnia Aboukorah and Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, eds. “Pratiques du patrimoine en Egypte et au Soudan”, Égypte/monde arabe, troisième série, N° 5-6 (2009). Online at:

Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, “Heritage-making and Policies of Identity in the ‘Post-conflict Reconstruction’ of Sudan“, Égypte/Monde arabe, troisième série, N° 5-6 (2009) 295-328,

Artefakte//anti-humboldt: Could you briefly outline in an exemplary manner some of the legal and historical contexts of debates and claims of restitution and/or repatriation and/or return (mostly of artefacts stolen during the colonial period) that have most strongly attracted your interest. For instance, with regard to your Egyptian, Sudanese or Libyan experience, including your considerations on the Markaz al-Jihad, or to your work at the Arab Image Foundation, or actually to your French/Ethiopian experience in dealing with cultural heritage? And in connection with this, could you unfold some of the political and cultural meanings, which are at stake here?

Jean-Gabriel Leturcq: I do believe the cases on restitutions have to be analysed separately for each other, and in relationship to their context. Otherwise, the holistic approach–putting all African and Middle Eastern situations in a same basket–actually tends to turn out as a neo-orientalist approach.

Between countries, there are big differences in approach. For instance, I studied the issue of returning artefacts to Egypt, which were exported in more or less licit contexts since the early 19th century. On the other hand, Sudan has not asked for artefacts to be restituted or returned. Libya participated rhetorically at the 2010 Cairo conference but always favoured cooperation with institutions that held Libyan artefacts as in the case of the Louvre. Some groups in Ethiopia are actively claiming the return of artefacts that were stolen by the British when they defeated the Ethiopian king at Magdala in 1868 and are now conserved at the British Library.

This leads me to a second point: I believe that describing all the very different situations under the single ready-made umbrella of artefacts+stolen+colonization is a common mistake when discussing the issue of restitution/return/repatriation. In the above paragraph, four cases where mentioned and none of them fit in the category of colonial prejudice. Egypt’s artefacts were exported to France, UK, Italy, USA, and everywhere in the world, not only to the British colonial power. One would argue it was a broad colonial context as in the case of Ethiopia, which was involved in a war against UK but was never colonized by UK. In official Ethiopian discourse, even the Italian colonization is considered an occupation. So, the issue is more complex than it appears at first sight.

This leads me to a third point. If all of Africa has been colonized, how to explain that so far, not all African states have reclaimed their stolen heritage? This absence reveals at least three dimensions in repatriations: legal, cultural and political. I published an article in 2008 about this absence of claims in North Africa. Tunisia and Morocco have never reclaimed stolen artefacts. Just after the end of the independence war in the 1960s, Algeria made a famous case of repatriation of French paintings belonging to the museum of modern art in Algiers. This case of repatriation raises the question of patria and nation: why artefacts, which embody the classical art of the former colonizer, were returned to newly independent Algeria? In this very case, it was called a “technical repatriation” i.e. it was a legal issue that was resolved by legal arguments and the good will of politicians. But the problem is that in most of the cases, legal texts alone cannot resolve the issue, mostly because contemporary nations do not coincide with ancient cultures. Then the issue becomes cultural: repatriation involves questioning the meaning and the image of the patria/nation. Where the question is posed in cultural terms as in the case of the Parthenon/Elgin marbles, the issue is very complex and so intricate that it cannot be solved. It requires a further, the political dimension. In the case of Egypt, Zahi Hawass transposed the case to a purely political dimension: all the cases opened by Dr Hawass were uncertain in legal terms i.e. he would never prevail in a court of justice. As Dr Hawass was aware, raising a cultural issue would take far too long. Thus, he framed the issue of repatriation in political terms: He created a context where every institution owning illegally exported artefacts would be despised and encounter trouble with Egypt. Eventually he added a fourth dimension, which I would describe as a bargaining mechanism. He linked aspects of cooperation that were unrelated, such as threatening institutions with closure of their archaeological research missions, and obliged museums to rent artefacts for exhibitions at a high price, to contract insurances in Egypt, pay tickets for huge delegations of journalists and officials, etc. The situation developed to a point when issues were directly negotiated by diplomats…as it is usual with conflicts between states. Dr Hawass’ policy was only possible thanks to the aura of ancient Egyptian Art in the West.

Artefakte: As for your first answer, I would like to go back to the 2010 Cairo conference which, besides Egypt as the host, was attended by Bolivia, China, Cyprus, South Korea, Spain, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Italy, Iraq, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Syria. One pronounced claim referred to the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum… But the conference declared as a general to strife for changing the UNESCO convention for an obligation to restitution dating from 1970. As that convention has no retroactive validity, it excludes artefacts that were moved before 1970. On your blog, you called the recent Cairo conference “le Bandung du patrimoine”. Is it possible to understand Cairo 2010 as a response to the 2002 Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums? Could you please comment more on the conference?

Leturcq: I described this conference as a “Bandung of cultural heritage” with reference to the founding act of the non-aligned movement in 1955 which was somehow the founding act of “Third-Worldism”, that post-colonial ideology, inspired by Marxist writers such as Fanon and relying on the charisma of post-independence leaders such as Nkrumah, Nehru or Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Cairo Conference of 2010, organised by the mediatised Zahi Hawass, was clearly playing with this reference in order to establish a group of states sharing the same will to oppose the so-called Universal Museums. All of these countries had publically reclaimed the return of artefacts from museums and were perhaps sharing a feeling that the UNESCO commission in charge of the issue was not efficient enough. Just as on the other hand, the so-called Universal Museums felt “their” collections were not defended. Yet again there was a disproportional response–states were opposing international institutions.

There is interest in trying to understand the concept of universalism these museums rely on. What are the cultural logics at work behind it? Ironically, Egypt was the place where the idea of Universal heritage reached the general public at the time of the salvage campaign of the Abu Simbel temples and the Nubian monuments in the 1960s. The mobilising motive was the so-called universal duty to save these temples. That very concept of “universal ownership” derived from the presence of Egyptian artefacts in most of the museums in the world…! The Egyptian minister of culture at the time even offered to give temples and artefacts to the biggest contributors to the campaign: that was a proper kind of cultural exportation! From this campaign derived the 1972 UNESCO convention on the conservation of world cultural and natural heritage.

I would like to add a personal point about the conference, part of which I was allowed to attend. I remember a strange feeling. It was more a media event than a proper political event. Zahi Hawass opened the conference and delivered the conclusions in front of a crowd of photographers and TV cameras. There was a measure of self-promotion in this entire show. I also felt uncomfortable because of the political context. At the time, I was perfectly aware of the system Dr Hawass had created in Egypt where his influence was providing him with profitable business. Appointed as special consultant to some TV channels, he traded images of his discoveries for a fee. He always defended himself by saying this system still benefitted the country. While he used to personify Ancient Egypt and Egyptology on international mass media, on the domestic scene he personified Hosni Mubarak’s regime and politically, he did not survive it. Ideologically, it seems that the nationalist system is still working even though conservation measures and corruption within the country have put Egyptian cultural heritage at risk. Obviously the actual system has failed.

Artefakte: I would like to ask you if you see the three dimensions of repatriations you mention–legal, cultural and political–linked to the multidimensionality of what you have called in 2009 in your text “Restitution d’oeuvres d’art: differential maghrébins” the paradox of restitution.

Leturcq: Yes, these three dimensions are integral parts of that multidimensionality in postcolonial contexts. In that article, I stress the paradoxes of the concept of property. For example, in the case of Morocco, the so-called traditional structures of production of so-called artefacts were destroyed even before colonization. The colonial administration made some important efforts to revivify ancient techniques. And these techniques and the image conveyed by the traditional folklore were rejected at independence in 1956 by the reformists. A few decades later, with the registration of the Jama’ al-Fna square in Marrakech that very same folklore became a foodstep for intangible world heritage. Also, Moroccan carpets epitomize Berber identity. What happened? This is what I am interested in deconstructing.

Artefakte: Different texts and contributions of yours examine the question “How objects of cultural heritage became subjects of conflict?” (or the inverse, as your research in Sudan–and your evocative mapping of planned museums and conflict zones–for instance shows) Could you unfold some of the issues and meanings which are at stake here–such as (postcolonial) nationalism, politics of identity, the construction and reconstruction of national genealogies (“the invention of tradition”–and on the other hand also imperial genealogies–“who has invented the term and field of “Islamic Art”?) and not least: tourism as an important branch of the economy?

Leturcq: As a researcher, I am interested in how this trend for reclamation is changing cultural relations and their meaning of culture. Walter Benjamin says in his most famous quote that “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. He means that the remains of ancient civilisations are the remains of lootings, violence and domination. I am personally reluctant to “capitalisation” of cultural heritage by nations. I feel uncomfortable with both the Western discourse on universalism (cf. Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums) and with the post-colonial nationalist discourse. The issue is instrumentalisation of cultural heritage–and culture in general.

Quoting Tony Bennett, the museum as a display of cultural heritage is an exhibitionary complex that provides images to the community it is supposed to be addressed to. In this sense museums and cultural heritage are fantastic communication tools to deliver a message–and to study that message. In my research, I arrived to the conclusion that the idea of cultural heritage as it developed in the 20th century was rooted in most of the utopian ideas of the 19th century. These ideas were embodied in the concept of world heritage where all cultures were supposed to be equal and accessible to everyone. But in a post-colonial context, the conservation of cultural heritage could turn into a conservative tool serving authoritarian regimes. You mentioned the Markaz al-Jihad in Tripoli where history was promoted and displayed as an instrument of political propaganda.

One of my works in progress, in relation with my activities on Ethiopia, concerns again mapping the museums in the country. The idea is to survey and record the existing institutions, the administration or the owner, the type of museum and the kind of collection it displays. The goal is to analyse the relationship between a museum and its territory and to ask questions such as how does a museum relate with its environment. Understanding the type of collection and the discourse displayed might reveal the message the museum conveys and also the audience it is addressed to as well as its spatial extension of the message. In other words, it’s all about understanding how museums shape the public space in Ethiopia and how they reveal overlapping or competing discourses on history and territories and how disputes can shape cultures… just as in the case of restitutions.

Artefakte: In an article about ethnographic museums you criticise a branch of so-called Museum Studies that hardly consider museums as a research subject, as you put it. “The study of discourses about the museum overdetermines the topic of Otherness. Museum considered as a discourse is a powerful means to understand non said representations and give sense to nonsensical cultural discourses.” What kind of museums–with what kind of displays if any–and what kind of treatment of collections and archives would such an understanding implicate?

Leturcq: All museums of any kind can be studied that way. Some museums have a more elaborate discourse (or imagery) than others. This is a matter of opening our eyes to the details of a museum display. A museum is a representation, representations work as systems, therefore the museum is part of the system of representation. Which one is it? How do artefacts work in relation with the expectation of their public? That’s the basic question.

On the contrary, can a museum exist that would be freed from any context? I don’t think so. Therefore the work has to focus on the understanding of the display as a public space, and understanding the visitors, the contemporary context and its relation with the context(s) artefacts can help to explain.

Artefakte: One last question, maybe related to the prior one: How do you consider your role as a French researcher and intellectual in such a necessary restructuration of the global museum landscape in its social, cultural and (geo)political terms?

Occasionally I discovered a personal entry on your blog where you write: “Until Feb17 events in Libya, I was in charge of a team whose responsibility was the creation of a centre for digital conservation of Libyan historical archives in Tripoli. Of course, our activities stopped and I’m back in France. // I’ve found a shelter near Lille and settled in front of the computer. // I’m looking for a job in Heritage management and/or research. I’m applying widely to positions in Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”….

Leturcq: Culture and museums are very political. The work I do as an expert in cultural heritage and museums is interrelated with the political and cultural context… as much as I inherited a certain way of understanding things. I was trained at the Ecole du Louvre, itself a centre of ‘universalism’ at a time when the museum was returning artefacts and creating an Islamic art department: I learned how to relativize universalism and appreciate its shortcomings. As an expert on the Arab countries, I found the months since January 2011 very interesting. Symptomatically, most of the cultural projects have been interrupted. Is that because the way in which international texts and the concept of cultural heritage tend to favour conservative regimes? I define my role as a small infinite element within a gigantic collective cultural machinery. In this regard, I hope our work tends to change the way heritage and cultural policies are implemented towards an open vision of cultures. I wish we can bring intelligence to the debate and avoid reducing a complex phenomenon to a single dimension. That’s why I believe property is an inappropriate and obsolete concept to understand and reclaim culture.


Françoise Vergès

Françoise Vergès is currently a Consulting Professor at Goldsmiths College (London) and Chair of the French Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery. Vergès has worked for many years on questions of memory politics and their relationship to historical violence and crimes and has proved a severe critic of national(istic) memory politics that ignore critical questions of exclusion, dominant perspectives and who has the right to speak. She has co-developed a “museum of the present” in La Réunion that was supposed to reflect the unique history of the island as a colonial transit-area and place of settlement. Unfortunately, this project has been cancelled before it could be implemented.

Vergès has published widely on slavery and abolitionism, post-colonialism, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and postcolonial Museography.

L’homme prédateur, ce que nous enseigne l’esclavage sur notre temps (Albin Michel Bibliothèque Idées, 2010).

Fractures postcoloniales, ed. with Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard and Achille Mbembe (La Découverte, 2010).

“L’oubli et le déni. Histoires et mémoires de l’esclavage dans l’outre-mer français”, Cultures sud 165, July (2007), 65-70.

“Creolization and the Maison des civilisations et de l’unité réunionnaise”, Journal of Visual Culture, Vo.5, no 1, April (2006), 29-40.

“The Age of Love”, Transformation 46 (2002), 1-20.

Artefakte//anti-humboldt: In the last years, France restituted several Maori heads that were held in French museums and archives to New Zealand. To regulate further claims for restitutions a law was enacted on 18 May 2010 that is exclusively applicable for Maori heads. Equally, a law of 1994 provides for the restitution of Saartje Baartman to South Africa. Up to now, France, in contrast to other countries has no general jurisdiction or procedural regulations for the restitution of artefacts and human remains.

In the course of an exhibition in the Jardin d’acclimatation in Paris, where ethnographic exhibitions were organized in the century, descendants of the exhibited peoples from former French colonies rose in protest against the ignorance of the French state where the memory of the colonial history is concerned. You, as the president of the committee for the memory and history of slavery, were then asked by the Overseas Ministry to develop a response to those demands. Your report[3] addresses both the question of restitution and the importance of politics of memory.

Françoise Vergès: If we raise the question of policies of restitution and how we deal with colonial history, we have to admit that there is no real policy in France. Therefore, in my recent report for the French Overseas Ministry, I asked for some kind of policy, not just single case decisions once in the while. The point of our report is: Can we have a coherent policy and politics towards the inscription of colonial history? Is it possible to have a conversation about our memories, how to inscribe them, how do they cross? And then, will we be able to challenge the French state and all its narratives? People like myself who question the official narratives are often accused of dividing the French nation and my argument goes like this: Because of your politics, there is a fragmentation of memories, you give a monument to the descents of slaves here and a monument to the descents of whoever there… and there will be no conversation of course amongst theses memories. For instance, there are five monuments for the Harkis, the colonial soldiers in the French army in Algeria, in France and I asked them: Why do you want those monuments? And they answered: Because we are waiting for more. So, this waiting, what are they waiting for? One of the things that I advocated in the report is conversation; memory and conversation.

First, all these memories are products of colonialism. The French colonial project conquered peoples through the successful help of colonized peoples, then, when it was the end of the colonial empire… Too bad, bye bye, we have nothing to do with you anymore and you will not be part of our history because you are not really important. If all these remnants of colonialism, thus, the people who are totally despised and marginalized like the Harkis, had a conversation…  We are all the product of this history, but never equally. We were not equal over there and we are not equal now, but nonetheless… I think we could be much stronger if we were talking to each other and then challenge the French state by saying: Where is our history? –So I said to the Harkis and the “Pieds Noirs”–historically, my family was involved in the struggles for the Algerian Independence, so they knew who I was… But nevertheless we unpacked things together and after two hours of discussion, I said to them: What you are talking to me about is that you are the refuse of colonial history, like the descents of slaves, like anyone. And they said yes. Finally they said yes. I really do think that today, the greatest challenge we have to face is this transversal moment. To show how things impact and also to bring back within a group and within a community all the differences: class difference, gender difference… –And not least it is important to bring back the history of French people, who have been in connection with the anti-colonial tradition in France. In all its complexity, it seems to me that the times we are living in now, we shall reconstruct roots of solidarity.

Artefakte: Do you consider for instance your work with the Comité pour la Mémoire et l’histoire de l’esclavage, which states that its agents of memory are uncountable, as a step in such a direction?

Vergès: Well, a lot of money will be poured into the question around slavery, because slavery is an accepted moment. It is bad and everyone agrees. But the way slavery is approached remains very restrictive. So money is being poured into that insofar that slavery is approached as a moral history. It was bad therefore it can be condemned. What slavery has produced in terms of racism and local racism–I am not talking of racism in France, but racism in the plantation and in the places of trade, in terms of inequality of access to land, health and education? Monuments, monuments everywhere, for slave…monuments… But slavery did produce something, it produced a whitened society. With these monuments, the consent of people is bought. People think: Look, we are doing things for the slaves, it is fantastic and so, they were very bad people then and we must condemn them. But now we are all brothers and sisters…

Artefakte: Of course we have to struggle to become such… But how can we imagine a different reconstruction of what you project as roots of solidarity on a level of cultural politics, if all artefacts that convey cultural expressions are kept in Euramerican museums? The most obvious approach to solve this inequality might be restitution. However, with the project of the Maison des Civilisations et de l’Unité Réunionaise you proposed a quite different strategy, in short, a museum without objects.

Vergès: When we say without objects, we aim to challenge the tyranny of the object. Our idea was not not to have any objects. We just did not start with the object and then construct the narrative around it. We rather started by asking: What do we want to say? What is the story? –We wanted to bring back the question of sound and narrative because one of the most important things are stories and the circulation of stories. You reclaim history and not just the history of language or of people, but the history of things also, of the circulation of things and ideas. It is not constantly an answer to what happened but also to what was done. Women coming from Tamil Nadu in today’s India to La Réunion sewed in their clothes the seeds of spices they were cooking with, to plant them there. For me, this is history. After these seeds were planted there, they became part of Réunionnaise cuisine and people forgot about their origins. –Names, words, and circulation… This is not about the romanticism of travel but about what the geopolitical economy produced: new contacts between people and thus new ideas about equality and justice. So it is not just about cultural products in terms of… like music etc… Our idea was to use the human voice as an object of transmission in museum displays rather than just objects and texts. It is the strength of the human voice, which carried out stories throughout centuries and made them circulate. I was reminded the way Islam circulated along the Eastern African coast by word of mouth. People telling stories, even if the objects and the texts are there and true. And I love museums and spend my time there and I love objects but I love stories too.

Another thing for us was that we do not have to translate everything. This incredible desire for mastery, to master everything so that everything becomes transparent… –No. The world is not transparent for the consumer of the museum. For instance, recently I went to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren in Belgium. In the basement, they have not one head of antelope but thousands of them. This absolute desire of an encyclopedic knowledge that all the antelopes of Africa will be stored, you even need to kill them. They will all be killed, but we will know all the mystery; all the secrets will be revealed. This is really Western. It both reveals a scientific curiosity, a desire to understand. But it is also an incredible desire to know and leave nothing to remain unknown. Nothing will be out of my sight or out of my mind.

In contrast, we decided to bring back to a place, to our museum, the fact that things are not given. The world is not a supermarket. You have to make the effort. You have to learn languages, things will not be revealed to you like that constantly.

Some installations in Tervuren were also absolutely extraordinary for me. There was an installation about slavery, it is fantastic. It is an archive, you should not destroy it. It is an archive about the way Europe saw slavery–especially how Leopold II reconstructed anti-slavery as the humanitarian mission of Europe that would justify colonial conquest. It is a lesson of history. But perhaps it doesn’t mean to leave it like it is. I don’t know, perhaps it is only that every kind of installation needs to be put in context. I don’t believe in erasure.

Artefakte: Your project finally has been prohibited by the new government of La Réunion…[4]

Vergès: Well, to begin with, the museum does not exist and it will not exist. It was an idea, and now it is just an idea, and ideas might even disappear tomorrow. Our project became already an object of something, which disappears, it is the story of a set-back and of a political defeat. And therefore the stories I am telling are stories. And I think that is important to say, otherwise we talk as if this existed or would exist or had existed. It existed a little, for a moment, because for 6 years, we worked, we did things with the people of La Réunion. But very few of these things were recorded and those, which had been recorded, have been destroyed by the new power. So there isn’t even a digital memorial… Destroyed, erased… so, we are living in the 2010s, the experience of disappearance is a very strange experience. Our words, our interventions, our texts… For instance we kept some of the publications, we saved them and I distribute them, but the minute there will be no more, there will be no more, because what they kept, they kept and we don’t even know what they did with it.

Artefakte: Coming back to the question of transversality, which we find a very important idea. What could this politics of transversality mean when it comes to de/constructing institutions?

Vergès: I think we need power, we need to build power. Transversality does not mean floating or flexibility etc… No. The question is: What is the common ground on which transversality is built? So there is a ground. There are even roots we could say–even though root is a bad word today. But no, root; it is rooted. In what? In more social justice, more equality. It is rooted again in principles and the land in which it is rooted… the soil is a soil of struggles. Not the soil of nation or of ethnicity.


Boris Wastiau

Director of the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva. Prior to this, he worked as a curator of Central African ethnography at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

Boris Wastiau, “The violence of collecting: Objects, images and people from colonial Congo”, in Oxford Handbook of Public History, ed. Gardner, Jim and Paula Hamilton (eds.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Boris Wastiau, ExItCongoMuseum. An essay on the ’social life’ of the masterpieces of the Tervuren Museum, (Tervuren: Royal Museum for Central Africa, 2000).
Artefakte//anti-humboldt: We would like to take as a starting point your text on the violence of collecting, which refers to the Royal Museum of Africa in Tervuren. The way you describe the history of acquisition and the role of all the different actors involved was very inspiring for us and for our discussion on the question of restitution. You have written this text as a recapitulation of the issues raised in the exhibition project “ExitCongo-Museum”.

Boris Wastiau: Basically all I can say is that when I went to the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, I had very little museum experience. I was an area specialist; I was working on spirit possession in Central Africa. As soon as I started working in Tervuren, I realized that people asked the museums staff all sorts of questions concerning the composition and history of the collections. There was a very antagonistic opinion mainly among the Congolese people and artists who regularly pointed to serious problems and criticized that the museum did not address its colonial past. And at that very moment, 1998, when Adam Hochschild’s book Leopold’s Ghost was published, I was asked to redisplay the Tervuren masterpieces in an exhibition. So I was preparing “ExitCongo-Museum”. It was a bit like managing a submarine because people had no idea that we had come up with a criticism of the institution itself. Basically, I figured that the job of a curator was to answer questions that had been asked. So I worked for two years on the history of that collection and decided to critically emphasize the issue of provenance in the exhibition display, which is almost a hundred percent colonial. So far, the museum didn’t talk about its history, its own history, the history of its own collections and had never tried to critically address the way in which it had served the colonial purpose. Nor had it reconsidered its role in society today.

fig. 1: postcard ExitCongo-Museum

The idea of “ExitCongo-Museum” was to look at the objects as travellers. These objects on display had been travelling for over two years in North America, Canada, Spain; they became superstars. My idea was to look at them as successful travellers like stars, while their makers could not travel and one of the characteristics of the regime governing the Congolese people in the colonial period, is that they were forbidden to travel–not only to Belgium or other places, but also within the Congo colony, where the populations had been very mobile. The second point was to work on the authorship of the objects. One of the most persisting prejudices about Africa is that these objects were made by traditions, by people whose names were not important. On the contrary, most people know very well who made an object and you could travel great distances and pay an enormous price to have a certain mask or carving made by this or that person in a certain period. The surprising thing is that the name of the authors or artists, their humanity, were completely obliterated from the process. Objects were taken as trophies and scientific samples, as testimonies of the ‘hidden customs of the darkest Africa’. Everything was made to keep the people aloof. Those who collected took pictures, took objects, took human remains, bones and things like that, but not the people, the people were shut down, they could not move. Together with contemporary artists we worked on these issues, on the difficulty for people from Africa to cross borders whereas the objects could travel easily. Quite a number of artists made installations that related to this idea of border, border control. Besides the historical provenance of objects I wanted to point at the biography of the object as a character and mediator of social relationships, for instance as a ritual object. But then when it is taken out of such a context, it becomes a mediator for instance in the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, between the collectors and the collected. Thus, in our actual case the object became the mediator between the Belgium public and its own history and the history of the Congolese people.

Artefakte: Let us come back to our interest in restitution issues. Since 2009, you are the director of the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva, Switzerland. What was your experience with cases of restitution so far?

Wastiau: I think very often, when there is a particular case of actuality, the issue of restitution is something that is immediately picked up by the press. But in general, it concerns very few objects and very few countries. In the next twenty years, I foresee a few claims from Australia, nothing more from New Zealand and there will be claims from North America. From Africa, there are virtually no demands for restitution whatsoever. There have been a few things, as the remains of Saartje Baartman or the restitution of artefacts that were stolen in the recent past, and maybe a few Nigerian bronzes looted from the Benin kingdom, but that’s all. And then there is Egypt… But for the rest of Africa–because there is no filiation– very few groups will make the link between themselves and specific objects in the collections in question…

Artefakte: So you imply that if there would be more research on provenance, the understanding and perception of what the object is about would completely change? You described the object on display as a medium relative to the way we understand the world or circulation or culture or property or whatever. Don’t you think that more research on provenance therefore could provoke more restitution claims?

Wastiau: Yes, and in doing so, it becomes political in the larger perspective. But I’d say we have a duty, we do not have authority over the objects.

For instance, we are the only museum in the city of Geneva to have an acquisition policy that is made public on our website.[5] There is a full checklist on provenance. It depends on many things, depends on whether Switzerland has a bilateral agreement with some countries, whether it is cultural property in the country of origin, whether it was imported to Switzerland before or after 1970, whether it was imported and acquired in Switzerland before or after the Swiss law on the transfer of cultural property in 2005. So there is a whole checklist and all acquisitions have to be validated by the administrative council of the city of Geneva. Whenever we have a problem, we have also established an ethics commission for the museums of the city on which I serve. This does not mean that we have solved the whole issue. It is a matter of standards and I want to go to standards saying we know the concerns, we answer the questions, we look at the provenance, we advertise the provenance. As much as I want to make everything transparent, everything public, I want to name the provenance on every caption and I do. But I was told that I possibly do not have the right to make public the name of donors and people we bought the objects from. There are legal lacunae and I do not know yet how I will solve them.

Artefakte: At the moment, the museum is undergoing reconstruction. When it will be opened again in 2014, what will be the idea of the ethnological collection and the display?

Wastiau: The authorities put CHF 65 million into building a museum, so I will put more than 1000 objects on display to represent the quality of our collections from the five continents that include Europe, and Switzerland. The exhibition is one thing, it will be accompanied by an information system that will link up with all the available information, the archives and provenance, the photo archive, the audiovisual archives, the music archives and the library, and we will have a conference centre for teaching purposes.

It will never become a museum with very little staff where you just have things to see and then people who come to have a look and then leave again. It will be a museum with events every day and a lot of mediation going on. The exhibition is just the foundation from which we start with a historical perspective, from the history of the institution and of the collections. The opener of the exhibition will be a collection of skulls, brought together by the founder of the museum, Eugène Pittard, who, as a physical anthropologist, studied Swiss skulls. His first idea was to determine the existence of Homo Alpinus, the specific original race of the Alps. So this will be our starting point, where we come from in the 1900s in the context of the European evolutionism and cultural history and the importance of physical anthropology within the discipline and for the establishment of institution like ours.

At the moment, we are reviewing our collections. We have things ranging from China 2000 B.C., 14th century Asia to very contemporary pieces. We make sure that people understand what a collection is, what its limitations are. No two objects have any intrinsic relationship with one another–not even if you take 200 objects that have to do with Buddhism between Sumatra, Japan, China from the first century to the present day. So we try constantly to make visitors aware of the impossibility of representation–we are not representing anything! We are presenting a collection and we show people how starting from the collections we can think about the history of the institution, the history and presence of anthropology.

It is absolutely crucial to give access to the archive. Therefore, I handed over the whole museum archive to the city archive, which is accessible to everyone. We took an inventory of all the archives from 1901 to 1951. And we already have more than 15.000 links between the objects and archive items that show us more about provenance. I think it is my job to make these archives known, to have researchers working on them. So, whenever there is a claim for restitution, we can say, this is the information we have. I am not inclined to say, like many of my colleagues do, that engaging in virtual restitution, making digital copies of everything would make people happy. I think this is not what it is about at all. I’m not going to take a recording and give you a digital copy of it. You will not be happy. What people are interested in is the object itself. I am here to make information available, to provide expertise about the objects, but then I think the issue is political. Therefore it is up to political authorities to evaluate the situation and evaluate any request.

Here we have not had any demand for restitution so far. There was a restitution request in the late 1980s, for a Maori head to New Zealand. This head had been here for midterm loan and then was forgotten, so I took the file again to figure out that it should had been returned but in fact it was not given back. We have been working on this case for two years now, because it is supposed to be returned on legal terms. But it has to be figured out whether the head is to be returned to Maori people, to a museum, or to the government of New Zealand. Further, last year I organized the return of Chilean mummies to Chile for a private owner. Now, four mummies went back, but we are left with 12 others and further human remains that Chile is not interested in. The previous government proposed to burn them. Everybody agreed, but I said no, because you cannot on the one hand organize the return of something you claim to be cultural heritage and then on the other hand burn a cultural property that does not seem to have sufficient value How can you support the return of some cultural property and destroy the rest? I cannot endorse that. There is another Chilean collection that came to Geneva in the 1950s and 1960s in very obscure ways and that Chile might consider to be recovered some day. I have a student working on this case who wrote a full report. So all the information is available. We haven’t been approached by Chile regarding this case yet, but this may come.

And then I have been looking into human remains to figure out how to distinguish the thousands of artefacts that incorporate human remains but are considered artefacts. Generally, there are no issues of restitutions about such objects. But others, like mummies, they’re people, they were taken from burial sites, they were meant to remain buried and not to be taken elsewhere.

My interest in this distinction was guided by the fact that the founder of the museum was first of all a physical anthropologist and therefore the physical anthropology collection was far more important than the ethnographic one. But in 1947, it was transferred to the university. And ever since, there is a kind of blackout. Nobody cares about the collections. I am also teaching at the university and I am trying to figure out what happens to these things. Among them are human remains and Aborigines from Australia or Tasmania will ask for their restitution. And again, I think I have the duty to gather and disseminate the information, to be the detective in our collections. But then it’s up to the claimants and the authorities how to proceed.


Edouard Planche is a lawyer working for UNESCO. He has studied International Public Law and Art History at the Universities Aix-Marseille II and III (France) and at the University of Exeter (UK) and is a specialist on the legal protection if cultural heritage. Since 2007 he is in charge of the UNESCO programme to fight the illicit traffic of cultural property, which is favouring their restitution (Convention of 1970 on the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural property).

Artefakte//anti-humboldt: Could you please give us a short overview over the juridical aspects of the debate on restitution? In your opinion, which were the crucial decisions and laws made?

Edouard Planche: Let us start from the beginning, with the UNESCO Mandate of 1945 in the field of culture, education, science and communication. Initially, UNESCO was mainly concerned with the protection of tangible heritage–immovable and movable–because of the destructions and disappropriations during World War II. The first international instrument to protect cultural heritage was The Hague Convention of 1954. The basic idea of the convention is to protect cultural heritage in armed conflicts (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954).[6] In the 1950s and 1960s, with the decolonization movements, the post-colonies approached UNESCO to facilitate the return and restitution of cultural heritage and develop an international framework to fight against illicit traffic. This led to the adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which is the first international framework for fighting illicit traffic and protecting cultural heritage (Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970).[7] And then, of course, you have the famous 1972 World Heritage Convention with the World Heritage List for cultural and natural sites, which includes ethnographic objects (Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972).[8] However, it is up to the state, which ratifies the Convention, to adopt national legislation to define its cultural heritage. More precisely, the state has to decide whether human remains, paleontological objects are part of the cultural heritage of the nation or not. Where colonial objects are concerned, it is important to mention that the Convention is only applicable from the date of the ratification by the respective state. Hence, it cannot revise past situations and we understood that there was a problem for the objects displaced before the Convention came into force and particularly during colonial times. That is why in 1978, the UNESCO Director-General decided to form an intergovernmental committee composed of 22 States (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation).[9] If a State cannot get satisfaction by discussing with the owner of the object and there is no solution, it can ask UNESCO to facilitate the discussion and the finding of a solution. We have the Rules (of procedure) for mediation and conciliation; if a State cannot find a way to get satisfaction, it can use these rules of mediation and conciliation and ask UNESCO on the basis of a list of mediators and conciliators for help to find a way. This is a potential remedy to the problem that the Convention is not retroactive. The Parthenon Marbles are one of the prominent cases that have been brought before the committee for discussion. One of the arguments developed by the Greek government is the question of legitimacy: Is it legitimate that 55 percent of the Marbles are held in the British Museum? This is a very delicate question and it is a matter of discussion and negotiation in order to find a solution.

Artefakte: But still, the problem of non retro-activity is blatant as many cases show. The condition is that you can claim for the restitution of an object if it is on an inventory. If not, what can we do? If it is an illegal excavation, it cannot be on the inventory.

Planche: All theses problems we tried to solve with the Unidroit Convention.[10] We asked Unidroit (the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) to draft a text to complete the UNESCO Convention. The idea was to have a more operational text at hand, which is–in legal terms–self executing, i.e. it is applicable directly without the necessity for the state to adopt national legislation. Thus, a state can just ratify the Convention and a private person can also claim restitution in the framework of Unidroit. The framework of UNESCO is only applicable for interstate negotiations. It is an important step forward but at the moment, there are only 33 states that have ratified the Convention because there is strong resistance from the art market.

Artefakte: What about cultural expressions that are not materialized in movable objects or manoeuvrable matter and become more and more contested?
Planche: From the World War II up to today, we have moved from a very classical and tangible idea of the heritage to the consideration of its intangible dimension. Thus the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage[11] is also a way to recognize the heritage and identity of communities. It works quite well and we started a world intangible heritage list.

Artefakte: Having all these legal instruments developed by UNESCO at hand, how are they applied on a practical level?

Planche: We work a lot with museums; our position is not to say that all the objects from Egypt held in museums outside the country have to be restituted to Egypt, because it makes no sense. Museums have a crucial educational role, they spread knowledge about other civilizations and cultures. But when an object is proven to have been stolen or illicitly exported, we say that it has to be restituted. This is the first point. The second point is that every country has the right to have at least one piece of its representative heritage on site in its museums. Some countries in Africa have lost 95% of their heritage and most of their masterpieces are kept in museums elsewhere. There is also the responsibility of the country of origin, first of all, to have in place legislation protecting its own heritage, imposing export certificates for cultural heritage, having safe museums with trained curators and updated inventory. Of course, our role is to support developing countries to have such museums, trained curators, to make inventories. Because very often it goes like: “Our heritage has been looted… we didn’t know it exists and now it appears at an auction house in London… this heritage is our heritage, it has to be sent back”. And some judge in the UK says: “Yes, ok, but give me the proof that it is yours”. So we tell this state: “In your legislation, you have to define very clearly what you consider your heritage, e.g. if ethnographic objects are part of it… You even have to clarify if particular sites or monuments are national treasures. This also includes archeological heritage–excavated or not, discovered or undiscovered. Your legislation has to be very clear to enable you to say to the judge: “Look at my legislation in which my ownership is clearly established. This heritage is considered a national one”.

UNESCO is not asked very often to mediate. It is actually better to find a solution on a bilateral level, but if there is a deadlock, states can refer to UNESCO. There weren’t many cases of return so far, only eight cases were solved by our Committee. This might mean that the states find solutions amongst themselves. But it could also mean that the states are not sufficiently aware of the tools they can use. To put a case before the Committee also means putting it into the public sphere and it is discussed by the 20 members of the committee, but also in front of the observers, members of UNESCO. For instance, this is how Tanzania could finally get the restitution of a mask, which is part of the national collection. The mask was stolen at the beginning of the 1980s, bought by a private Swiss museum apparently in a bona fide form. Tanzania claimed for restitution but did not reach an agreement with the museum. They referred the case to the Committee and in 2010, the mask was finally restituted.[12] It is the same with the Boğazköy Sphinx, a case between Turkey and Germany. Two archeological sculptures–sphinxes–were sent to Berlin in the 1920s for study and restoration. One sphinx was returned, one stayed in Berlin. Turkey could not get it restituted and I don’t know why. Turkey put the case before the Committee and the parties finally found an agreement and the sphinx has been returned to Ankara.[13]

Artefakte: In France there is the famous case of Maori heads that have been restituted to New Zealand. In contradiction to the cases of looted artefacts you have just mentioned, they are considered human remains…

Planche: Definitely, human remains are considered cultural objects. It is a delicate issue because they are considered both, cultural objects and human remains. And UNESCO says that all respect shall be given to human remains and to the human body. For this reason, we have, especially here in France, a very interesting issue and discussion with the restitution of the Maori heads you just mentioned, which are scattered over some of the French national museums and therefore are part of the public collection. The decision was taken through the adoption of a legislation by Parliament to restitute these heads. They are not only cultural objects but also human remains with a sacred and ethical dimension. They are also linked to living communities. At that point, we are moving outside the legal field towards the ethical dimension of restitution. Here, you don’t have international rules yet. Some of the Maori heads were taken during colonial times, but we know also that it was also part of a trade between local people and the colonial power. Some heads are fakes and were made for trade purposes. I think the ethical dimension was important for the French government to have taken this decision, especially because the heads are attached to a living community with traditions, which have also a sacred dimension. Thus, from an ethical point of view, we have to restitute such property.


2. Ibid. [↑]

3. Françoise Vergès & France–Comité pour la mémoire et l’histoire de l’esclavage, “Rapport de la mission sur la mémoire des expositions ethnographiques et coloniales”, Ministère de l’outre-mer (ed.), November 2011, online at: [↑]

12. See: Kwame Opoku, “Barbier-Mueller Museum signs agreement with Tanzania to return stolen Makonde Mask”, 16 May 2010, [↑]


Artefakte//anti-humboldt is a Berlin based group of artists and scholars - Lotte Arndt (until 2009), Brigitta Kuster, Regina Sarreiter, Dierk Schmidt, Elsa de Seynes - that was founded in 2008 as part of the event Der Anti- Humboldt ( against the re-construction of the Prussian castle and the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin. Artefakte//anti-humboldt pursues its questioning of the ethnographic museums by organizing a workshop on restitution (2008), a lecture and a debate with Françoise Vergès on the “Museum of the present” (2009), an open-air film lecture with mummy films held at the construction site of the to-be-built castle in Berlin (2010) as well as at the musée du Quai Branly invited by bétonsalon in Paris (2011). The lecture formes the basis for the installation “‘Rise for you will not perish’ (on mummymania)” showcased at the exhibition Animism at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2012. Artefakte is currently working on the project “Künstliche Tatsachen/Artificial Fact” in collaboration with the Kunsthaus Dresden (Germany), and partners in South Africa and Benin.
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