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.