The Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, published in November 2018, proposes to recontextualise the presence of African artefacts in French heritage collections.
The objective of this report is to develop, in view of the role of the French state in colonisation, recommendations to update relevant laws around restitutions, as well as to encourage bilateral agreements with countries following requests for restitution.
Among its recommendations, the report suggests that collections which are returned should be subject to digitisation beforehand, with the digitised files then made available for use under free and open access to everyone.
This recommendation is easy to miss in the report, as the paragraphs which concern it are discreet. Nonetheless, it raises questions on two essential questions:
Who owns the physical and digital collections and who has the right to choose the policy of digitisation and openness of these artefacts?
This blog looks at the report’s approach, and presents some of the concerns expressed by this, in particular through a letter drafted by Mathilde Parvis and Andrea Wallace.
First of all, the suggestion to digitise and make collections accessible may seem an interesting initiative in the context of outreach by heritage institutions. For a number of years now, it has been clear that giving access to digital collections is a key mission for cultural institutions, as the report mentions briefly.
However, there are questions about whether this should be subject to the decision of the French state, or be a pre-condition for restitution. The term ‘restitution’, as defined in the report, is strongly connected to the question of legitimate ownership of the object. This cannot be brushed aside when it comes to digital collections.
Arguably, the legitimate ownership by African governments of returned items should give them the right to take decisions regarding the appropriate policy to be put in place on digital collections. Can it be appropriate for the government of a former colonial power to set out such demands in a restitution agreement when talking about heritage that arguably should never have been in its possession in the first place?
Indeed, as Mathilde Parvis and Andrea Wallace’s response perfectly underlines: it should rather be up to the communities to make decisions concerning the artefacts of their heritage. Indeed, suggesting or imposing in bilateral agreements a policy of digitisation and open access to collections appears to be at odds with the principle of recognition of spoliation.
Moreover, the report’s proposals concerning free and open access to and use of images does not seem to match the policy around images in French collections. Indeed, French policy on openGLAM is not based on a centralized ministerial incentive but on the will of cities and organisations independently of each other (whereas German GLAM institutions are far more organised and supported).
The request made to African governments regarding the opening of access to digital collections of collections seems, therefore, to be antithetical with the policy it applies to the digital collections of France’s own institutions.
Clearly, openness is to be welcomed in general as the best way of giving the biggest number of people possible the opportunity to engage with heritage, where other concerns (privacy or indigenous rights for example) do not stand in the way. Nonetheless, in these conditions, it risks being seen as an imposition, not a virtue.
Therefore, Parvis and Wallace’s reply defines several ways to reframe the recommendations of the Sarr-Savoy report, such as:
– Clearly define the scope of Open Access – commercial, non-commercial, public domain, possibility of reuse.
– Clearly define who owns the digital image reproductions.
– Carry out research on the conformity of these recommendations concerning the laws of African countries.
– Do not separate digital reproductions from returned objects because the reproductions are also subject to cultural appropriation.
With plans now underway to reform France’s Heritage Code, we will follow closely how this debate is reflected in any proposed amendments.