The restitution debate: Part 1 – Context and history

Bronze Plaque Representing the Oba (King) of Benin
Bronze Plaque Representing the Oba (King) of Benin (Photo credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also an early source for European museum collections as these emerged, in tandem with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired in and from Jamaica by Sir Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of the British Museum. The truth is that the history of many Western museums is rooted in colonial exploitation, war expeditions and looting – the term “Brutish Museum” comes to mind, to borrow the title of a recent book by Dan Hicks.

Having been present at the troubled birth of the modern museum, we could expect the Caribbean to be actively involved in the passionate debates that are currently raging, globally, about the colonial origins of museums and restorative cultural justice, such as the restitution of looted and illegally acquired cultural objects to those world areas and nations from which they were taken. While there have been some restitution claims from the Caribbean, such as the government of Jamaica’s announcement that it wants the return of Taíno artifacts in the British Museum, there does not seem to be a lot of local awareness or concern about the subject. There is a prevailing sense that this is mainly a matter between Europe and Africa, and without wanting to discount the significance of such instances, that this only involves high-profile heritage objects such as the Benin Bronzes.

The restitution debate emerged after World War II, with two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking control of their cultural heritage and demanding various forms of reparation. The other was Nazi Germany’s looting of European museums and Jewish-owned private collections during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, globally, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

The restitution debate is indeed a global discussion, with mounting pressures, which involves all former colonizers and colonized world areas, and other communities that have suffered from cultural, social, and political exploitation. The governor of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has, for instance, requested the return of two of its Moai statues from the British Museum. Another such sculpture was just returned to Rapa Nui from the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago de Chile. As this example illustrates, restitution also takes place within certain nation-states and for instance also involves the return of Native American objects, especially objects with sacred significance, to the First Nations that produced them in the USA and Canada. It is a debate in which the Caribbean should take a more active interest, with clear, consensus-based strategies and policies about what needs to be done to secure those parts of the region’s material heritage that may be in inappropriate hands and places.

While western museums are increasingly forced to agree to restitution requests, it is still resisted by some of the larger, canonical museums. One of those is the British Museum, especially when it comes to collection items that are popular visitor attractions, such as the Parthenon sculptures, the Rosetta Stone, and the Benin Bronzes, around which the identity of that museum has been constructed. The British Museum has been steadfast in its refusal to return to Parthenon sculptures to Greece and the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, but it has indicated that it is willing to consider the loan, but not the permanent return, of its Benin Bronzes to the new museum Nigeria is establishing in Benin City. The refusal to return these famous bronzes outright is particularly egregious, since they came to the British Museum collection (and those of other museums in England, and North America) because of the punitive sacking of Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897, in one of the most notorious instances of colonial cultural looting.

The restitution debate has recently picked up steam for several reasons. One is the recent Black Lives Matter and Decolonial agitation, and related forms of activism, which recognize that the legacies of colonialism and racism are alive and well and need to be tackled proactively. Seeking restitution and other instances of cultural restoration, as a form of reparations, is a central part of that conversation. But other dynamics at work, too, and those include current changes in the geopolitical power balance. It occurs in the context of what some have, to use a loaded word, dubbed as the economic and cultural “renaissance” of Africa, which is being led by countries such as Ghana, Senegal, and Ethiopia. But it is no coincidence that the construction of the Museum of Black Civilization, which opened in 2018 in Senegal, was financially and technically supported by China, and that the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Gizeh, Egypt, is bankrolled by Japan.

Much of the international media attention currently given to the restitution debate stems from the 2018 report on the subject that was commissioned by the French president Emanuel Macron, which has been a major game-changer as it recommended the return of colonial looted items to Africa. It has already resulted in a presidential directive that 26 sculptures that were looted from the City of Abomey are to be returned to what is now the Republic of Benin, which had been refused by previous French governments. This directive was recently executed. 

It may well be that Mr Macron had his “road to Damascus” moment but France’s sudden willingness to engage in high-profile acts of restitution is almost certainly also an act of cultural diplomacy designed to preserve France’s influence and economic interests in its former African colonies, against the tide of the changing geopolitical power dynamics, particularly the mounting influence of China. Ironically, Africa’s resources and strategic value are once again at stake, be it in a neocolonial context that is be less brutal and directly exploitative than the European colonial ventures of the previous centuries, but not driven by any real concern for postcolonial cultural justice either. It is certainly interesting that France’s postcolonial largesse does not, at this point, involve the reimbursement of the deleterious compensation payment to France, to the contemporary equivalent of about $21 billion, which Haiti was in 1825 forced to accept to secure the recognition of its independence. The payment of this “debt” to France continued until 1947 and started a debt cycle from which the Haiti has never recovered, economically. The geopolitical strategic imperatives are less pressing in that instance.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She lectures at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, and works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at

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