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French Museum Boss Claims Report Urging Return of Looted African Treasures Taints All ‘With Impurity of Colonial Crime’

Quai Branly president says that the study commissioned by Macron ‘puts historical reparations over museums’s contribution’

Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Ludovic Marin

Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Ludovic Marin

Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Ludovic Marin

The president of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, Paris, has hit back against a landmark study commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron, which recommends the permanent return of colonial spoils to their country of origin. Stéphane Martin said the report, authored by the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy, had tainted ‘everything that was collected and bought during the colonial period with the impurity of the colonial crime.’

Speaking to AFP, Martin argued against the recommendations of the report, saying changing the law would ‘open [..] the door to complete maximalist restitution’. Instead, he suggested African artworks should be ‘circulated more widely’ and criticized the report, saying it ‘puts historical reparations over the contribution museums make.’

Martin’s comments come after Macron agreed to return 26 objects to the west African state of Benin – including treasures from the Palaces of Abomey, seized by the French army during a colonial conflict in 1892 – which are currently housed in the Quai Branly Museum. A statement issued by the Élysée Palace suggested that this would not be an isolated case.

Sarr and Savoy’s study estimates that of the 90,000 African artworks in French museum collections, the Quai Branly holds around 70,000. The report also alleges that most of these pieces were acquired under duress.

However, Martin has insisted that Macron is likely to favour circulation rather than the return of objects: ‘The way I read it, they have closed the door on the report by insisting that museums, and above all universal museums, are an important part of our common cultural heritage.’

Other international museum directors have also been quick to respond to the report. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, London, explained that although he was not ‘wholly convinced’ by the authors’s approach to the report, the V&A’s ‘ambition is to circulate more artefacts on long-term loan and, in the process, build up a richer curatorial and conservation exchange ecology.’

In a speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso last year Macron said: ‘African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.’ He added: ‘I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.’

Yet some of the more controversial points in Sarr and Savoy’s report are yet to be addressed by Macron: while the report’s authors also called for the restitutions of items obtained on ethnographic missions, no such objects have been included in Macron’s first round of returns.

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