Tag Archives: African heritage

The Sarr-Savoy report, the restitution of African cultural heritage.

In 2017, the President of France announced the desire to set up temporary and definitive restitutions of African heritage held in French institutions. This declaration led to the commissioning of the Report on the restitution of African cultural heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics, prepared by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy and issued in November 2018.

Centered on museum collections, this report sporadically evokes manuscripts, archives and books, and looks at some depth at the contexts of acquisitions of collections within French collections, as a basis for making recommendations on what should be done with them now.

The Sarr-Savoy report has received reactions both in France and in African countries.


What does the Sarr-Savoy report contain?

This report proposes to analyse the different forms and methods of appropriation of cultural property as a process of subjugation and deculturation of populations in a French colonial context. Its focus is on the period before the Hague Convention in 1899, which prohibited looting and the taking of cultural property during military campaigns.

It highlights the distinctions to be made between correctly acquired collections and those whose acquisition was the result of the unequal balance of power between colonised peoples and colonial powers. In particular, it indicates that the transfer of cultural property in theecolonialism often takes the form of a forced agreement which cannot be considered as a voluntary exchange.

The Sarr-Savoy report focuses strongly on the term “restitution”. This refers to the return of property to its legitimate owners, which allows nations to reappropriate their own history. It responds to the need, not to annihilate colonial history, but to allow these nations, deprived of around 90% of their heritage, to reconstruct a discourse on themselves through these objects.

This document also proposes recommendations and criteria for restitution in order to allow countries to establish lists of objects acquired illegally by force or coercion, under unequal terms acquisitions, or in a context of war.

If the framework of the mission opposes temporary restitutions, preferring permanent restitutions to the continued the circulation of works, the report accepts that this may be a transitory solution. This would gain the time needed to solve judicial issues linked to the “Code du Patrimoine” (the French Heritage Code), in particular, the inalienability of French public collections.


What are the recommendations proposed by the report?

The report sets out that before determining a potential restitution, it is necessary to identify or collect all the information available relating to this collection to understand its provenance. This means that the collections must be examined in order to identify whether the conditions of acquisition and entry into the heritage collections of the country have been fair or not.

The Sarr-Savoy report proposes several possibilities for responding to requests for restitution from African countries by distinguishing between:

  • rapid restitutions without additional research on contextualized artefacts taken in Africa by force or under unfair conditions (military clashes; military or administrative personnel active on the African continent during the colonial period; during scientific missions prior to 1960; museums which hold works that have never been returned to the original institutions).
  • “Additional research when the requested pieces entered museums after 1960 and through donations, but it can nevertheless be assumed that they left Africa before 1960 (case of pieces that have remained for several generations within families). In cases where research does not establish certainty as to the circumstances of their acquisition during the colonial period, the requested items could be returned on proof of their interest for the requesting country. ” (Sarr-Savoy Report).
  • Maintaining African pieces in French collections where it is established that they were acquired thanks to a transaction document in mutual consent, free and fair and in respect of the provision “without taking ethical risk” developed during the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Another recommendation is the creation of a portal for collections designated as eligible for restitution, with the suggestion that free access and usage rights be provided to these for both parties.

This portal would require that a policy on image rights for collections should be developed, based on images already collected through digitisation campaigns. The report mentions that all collections eligible for restitutions should be subject to a systematic digitisation campaign, including a restructuration of the reproduction rights policies.

Finally, the Sarr-Savoy report proposes legal provisions making it possible to amend the French Heritage Code (“Code du Patrimoine”) in order to allow legal restitutions to legitimate owners, currently prevented in particular by the inalienable nature of public collections. It also offers proposals for bilateral agreements between countries and fact sheets for returning artefacts which sit outside of heritage collections, as well as how to handle donations and bequests of these objects.


What are the next steps, what will be the international impacts?

This report is the first document produced on the subject at the request of a government and therefore opens the way for reflection in other countries, which are likely to face the growing demand from governments in Africa and other formerly colonised countries to have their heritage returned. Beyond governments, all heritage institutions, including archives and libraries, will potentially be affected by these restitution requests.

In July 2020, the French government announced that it was preparing a bill on the return of objects, giving concrete form to the Sarr-Savoy report. This project would require a limited derogation from the principle of inalienability of collections, including removal from national collections and transfer of ownership.

In the meanwhile, Benin and Senegal, having already expressed their desire to have the objects of their heritage returned to them, have already seen the restitution of objects from the Abomey Palace collections.

IFLA will continue to report on developments in this field.

The Power of the Narrative: African World Heritage Day

[Today] there is a growing understanding that human diversity is both the reality that makes dialogue necessary, and the very basis for that dialogue… We recognize that we are the products of many cultures, traditions and memories; that mutual respect allows us to study and learn from other cultures; and that we gain strength by combining the foreign with the familiar.

Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1997-2006)


The goal of preserving world heritage – that is, heritage deemed to be of “outstanding universal value” – is to ensure a legacy from the past is passed on to future generations. This legacy belongs to all humankind, it is quite literally the heritage of the world.

Through international cooperation for world heritage preservation, we are able to access and explore the most outstanding natural, cultural, and mixed sites offered by each country around the world. It is a doorway to learning about peoples’ values, histories, cross-border exchanges, and riches of natural and cultural diversity.

It is through learning about and celebrating this diversity that mutual respect grows.

African World Heritage Day

African World Heritage Day on 5 May is an opportunity for people around the world, and particularly Africans and those of African descent, to celebrate Africa’s vibrant and unique cultural and natural heritage.

Unfortunately, while African heritage is underrepresented on the World Heritage List (only 12% of all sites), it features disproportionally highly on the List of World Heritage in Danger (39% of all sites in danger).  Civil unrest and instability, uncontrolled development, lack of investment in its safeguarding, and threats of climate change are all factors in the endangerment of world heritage in this region.

As the Ngorongoro Declaration (2016) affirms, safeguarding African World Heritage is a central driver for sustainable development, and so there is an urgent need to build capacity for heritage conservation and management in the region.

This will take international cooperation, overwriting the long-standing effects of colonial inequalities in heritage conservation, and ensuring that a narrative of diversity, dignity, and solidarity is established.

More than World Heritage

Yet maintaining a dialogue on cultural diversity takes more than the preservation of heritage sites. Looking to the historical record and personal accounts can bring these sites to life, by describing their value to the people and societies who created and lived in these places, often in their own words.

There is much power to be found in stories, archives, and records. They help us recognise that we are the “products of many cultures, traditions and memories” – they give context to the heritage of the world. UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme promotes the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage, which are key resources for telling these stories.

In Africa, tapping into the power of these resources can be a central part in rewriting the narrative of the region’s cultural heritage, raising awareness of its rich traditions, building pride in one’s cultural identity, and educating on the value of cultural diversity.

Through this, heritage can spark a dialogue of mutual respect, which hopefully will play a role in counteracting the threats of extremism, helping to heal inequalities, and contributing to sustainable development.

Manuscripts of the Sahel

Let’s explore an example of the power of the narrative in this context.

In early 2020, IFLA was represented at an international consultation on documentary heritage in the Sahel, organised by UNESCO and held in the Malian capital, Bamako.

The meeting aimed to contribute to strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of ancient manuscripts from the Sahel region, in order to “improve universal access to knowledge on the written history of Africa”. Read more about this event here.

Containing a range of topics from mathematics to science, philosophy, grammar and theology, the manuscripts comprise a narrative that might not be widely known – depicting this region as a hub for knowledge exchange and intercultural discussion, and providing a rich African history of the written word.

Over the past years, manuscripts in the Sahel region have been notoriously targeted for destruction by those trying to silence this narrative. This destruction was mirrored in the context of built heritage with the targeted destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012.

However, preserving and utilising the Sahelian ancient manuscripts to promote public access to the information and knowledge contained within can strengthen national cohesion, tolerance and dialogue. Experts maintain that the “protection, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts can serve as a basis for building just, inclusive and peaceful societies in the Sahel”.

IFLA continues to support this project, and those who are working for the preservation of documentary heritage.


Ensuring the continuity of this shared narrative has the power to make a positive difference in a region that still faces many challenges.

Strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of such examples of heritage can not only strengthen respect for built heritage, it can bring forgotten pieces of history back to life – sparking dialogue, countering preconceived notions, and promoting respect.

On this African World Heritage Day, let’s celebrate the power of the narrative.