Wednesday, 20 November 2019

France begins to return artefacts looted during the colonial period to Africa.

France has begun a process of returning artefacts looted from Africa during the colonial period by returning a sword belonging to the nineteenth century religious and political leader El Haj Omar Tall to Senegal, the country of his birth. The sword had been on permanent loan to the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, making the restoration ceremonial rather than practical, but hopefully marks the beginning of a process in which France has pledged to return thousands of artefacts currently residing in French museums to the African nations from which they originate.

A sword belonging to the nineteenth century Senegalese political and religious leader El Haj Omar Tall, which was returned to Senegal by France this week. Charlotte Idrac/RFI.

There are thought to be about 90 000 artefacts in French museums that were obtained during the colonial period, including about 46 000 in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Many of these artefacts are not on display, and have cultural significance for the people of the countries that produced them. It is also likely that many of these objects were obtained against the wishes of the inhabitants of the colonies from which they were taken. 

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe handing the sword to President Macky Sall of Senegal this week. Face2Face Africa.

Until recently France's strict heritage laws forbade state-owned museums from giving up cultural artefacts, but this stance is likely to be amended following the publication of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuelle Macron, following a trip to Burkina Faso in 2017. This report, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, recommends that African artefacts held in French museums should be returned to their country of origin unless it can be proven that they were obtained ligitimately. The report will now be placed before the French Parliament, who will vote on adopting its recommendations as law.

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