November 11, 2007

The logic of non-restitution of cultural objects

Posted at 1:57 pm in Similar cases

Kwame Opoku writes again about cases involving disputed African cultural artefacts – this time the items in question are located in Paris’s recently opened Musee du Quai Branly.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Sunday, 11 November 2007

I thought I had heard all the desperate arguments and explanations from European and American museum directors for not returning the stolen cultural objects which fill their museums. But on reading the recent excellent book from Sally Price, Paris Primitive:Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly.

I noted the incredible explanations she received from the officials of the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, which seem to me to be worthy of examination. Concerning the return of human remains, the author got the following remarkable explanation from Séverine Le Guével, head of the international relations at the museum:

“First, the bodies have never functioned as human remains. Secondly, they were (for the most part) given to the explorers who brought them back, not stolen or taken without permission. Plus, they’re not identified. We don’t know who they belong to. Thus, they’ve become art objects; ethnographic objects. That makes a difference. Therefore, they should be preserved like art objects and cannot be destroyed…. And it’s also important to consider all objects that contain human remains. If we were to honour the claims for everything that contain human remains, it would mean giving away the entire collection of the Musee du Quai Branly anything that contains a bit of bone, anything that contains a skull….” (2)

Sally Price does not think it is really worthwhile to pursue ideas such as that there are some human remains in all the 350,000 objects in the museum. Nevertheless, I think it is at least worthwhile to ask how persons with such level of knowledge and competence reach such positions as head of international relations in the new French museum on the banks of the Seine. Little piety or respect for the dead seems to be shown by the lady who obviously has no feelings of sympathy for the relatives of those who disappeared or died in unexplained circumstances under colonial rule.

The same lady went on to add, according to the author that:

“We at the Quai Branly, as elsewhere in France, have decided to respect the principle of laicité [separation of church and state, very roughly equivalent to secularism]. Therefore, we do not take into consideration any claim based on religion or ethnicity. That’s important…. We’re a public institution, a secular institution operating in the public domain. If you allow the legitimacy of one religion, you allow them all, and then they all cancel each other out. That would put every place in the world on the same level!… Giving credit to all the claims would be to cancel out all of them….If you really believe that these things have a profound meaning, well the museum isn’t made for that. The museum is not a religious space”.(3)

One can well sympathize with Sally Price for not wanting to spend too many words on the substance of such statements but we must note that these are the kind of people the Western countries have appointed as their representatives to deal with matters which are of great significance to the former colonized countries of Asia, Africa and America. Dr.Price, who is herself very sympathetic to claims of restitution, notes that in other countries these matters are dealt with more seriously and sometimes even museums seek the advice of persons from the cultures being displayed exhibits. Further interviews of the author with more senior officials of the Musee du Quai Branly did not reveal any better understanding of the questions of restitution and the answers she received did not seem to differ much from those she received from the head of the international relations.

When she questioned the Director of the museum, Germain Viatte about how the museum intended to deal with claims based on religion or ethnicity, she was informed how pleased non-Europeans were to see their cultural objects displayed in the museum; the director further declared:

“France is both universalist and secular. We need to recognize that [museum collections] belong to the history of our own country, but also to cultures that may have disappeared, or be on the way out, or hoping for cultural revival. We need to take all this into account, but without giving in to a kind of paternalism, confining other people to their particularities and reserving universalism exclusively for ourselves because we’re worried about being “politically correct”. We cannot give in to claims for restitution like those presented to the English for the Parthenon marbles or the Benin bronzes. But what we can do is set in motion international collaboration designed to find viable compromises between different, often incompatible interests, for example, between restitution and the protection of objects”.(4)

This statement from the Director of the Musee du Quai Branly displays the same arrogance, paternalism and assumptions of superiority which we are used to hearing from other European museum directors. They assume they are rendering a great service to the countries of Asia, Africa and America by showing their stolen cultural objects in Europe. Surely, every art lover is pleased to see an impressive piece of art displayed, whether that object is a stolen object from his or her country or from elsewhere. But does that mean they approve of the unlawful methods the colonial masters used in acquiring these objects? Sally Price has described some of these criminal modes of acquisition in her book, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Second Edition, 2001.The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London). Can one accept peremptory statements such as “We cannot give in to claims for restitution like those presented to the English for the Parthenon marbles or the Benin bronzes” (5) without even attempting to refer to their modes of acquisition? The museum director is no doubt aware of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition which through stealing, blackmail and duress, as described by Michel Leiris in L’Afrique Fantôme (1950, Paris, Gallimard), brought to France thousands of cultural objects from the French colonies. Most of these objects were inherited by the Musée du Quai Branly when it was established. The story of the establishment of this museum is well related in Paris Primitive. The French generally, and the Musée du Quai Branly in particular, have obviously decided not to talk too much

about their colonial history which throws a bad light on the museum’s inheritance from the two other museums it replaced: Musée de l’Homme and the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie.

The explanation of the President of the museum as cited by Sally Price is no more enlightening that the others cited above:

“ We are not in the business of buying ourselves a clear conscience vis-a vis the non-Western world or becoming an “apology museum,” relaying messages based on the heritages of [cultural/ethnic] communities the way museums in Canada and the United States do for Indians. In France we have a more a more objective vision of culture. It’s free of all instrumentality (nationalistic, pedagogic, etc), though it’s becoming more and more difficult to defend…. In my view, the argument for returning the contents of museums to their countries of origin is a rejection, pure and simple, of the museum’s calling which is to show the “Other” which means, by definition: outside of its original environment.. Art objects are also ambassadors for their culture, and in that capacity they’re an element in the dialogue between peoples.” (4)

After this sort of statement, one is tempted to agree with Sally Price that it is not worth pursuing further some of these ideas. However, an exploration of the impact of some of these ideas, if they were really followed through might cause surprises.

To try to use the idea of laicité to defeat claims for return of stolen cultural property seems to me very strange. The theory of separation of State and Church/Religion was invented to prevent the interference of the State in the affairs of the church and vice-versa. It was intended to prevent State officials from dealing with matters which may have a religious element and certainly it has not been used to prevent the police from pursuing thieves who have stolen religious objects from a church or a shop. The lady at the museum did not seem to realise that in restitution claims, we are dealing with questions of ownership and not primarily with the nature of the object. Whatever the nature of the object, an alleged aggrieved the owner has the right to pursue the claim.

If it were acceptable to reject claims for restitution on the ground that they are based on religion or ethnicity, most of the claims for the return of cultural objects would be easily rejected. There are very few cultural objects which do not have religious or cultural element. If you reason like the officials of the Musée du Quai Branly, you could in the last resort point out that the artist is a Catholic or belongs to the English tribe! Hardly any African sculpture could ever be recovered from the French who have thousands of these stolen items. Obviously, such weak arguments are developed for the protection of the French museum.

Apparently similar thinking processes are shared by many of the people associated with the museum. Sally Price cites the art dealer Jean Paul Barbier, a member of the acquisition committee of the museum who also sold to the museum a number of expensive art objects, as declaring in an interview with Radio France:

“Certain anthropologists claim that an African or Oceanian who’s deprived of his fetishes is a person who dies spiritually. Well, that’s not true! Man is much stronger than that! If you take away a Sicilian woman’s crucifix that she inherited from her grandmother, she doesn’t give up her Catholic faith! She doesn’t mope away in sadness. She goes to the next town, she buys a crucifix, she hangs it where the old one had been, and she returns to her prayers! (5)

It is more than depressing to read or hear such a statement coming from a dealer whose family and himself have made an enormous fortune from dealing in African cultural objects. He is reported to have “sold to the French State 276 Nigerian works of art for the sum of 40 million francs”. (6)

So much for the respect he shows for those whose sweat and labour have made him a wealthy man. It is incredible to compare a crucifix which can be bought in any town in Italy with the magnificent African works of art which sell for millions and this comparison comes from somebody who deals in African art works! First of all, one cannot simply go to the next town and buy a sculpture or other cultural object. These pieces are often made for specific individuals within specific families in defined societies. They are not available everywhere and are not interchangeable. Their symbolism and significance are not the same. The skill, knowledge and time necessary for many African cultural works cannot be compared to those required for the crucifixes which are available in every Italian town. That a dealer in African art can make such statements shows how distorted the thinking of many Europeans can be. Obviously there are no limits for Europeans to the extent to which they can insult Africans and their culture.

Sally Price has produced a truly remarkable book on art from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. She tells very effectively the story of the Musée du Quai Branly, from the birth of the idea to the encounter between Jacques Chirac, then President of France and Jacques Kerchache (deceased), a French dealer in African art whose character is considered dubious by many, the discussions which preceded the decision to create a new museum, the infightings and intrigues in the Parisian art scene, the construction of the building by Jean Nouvel whose role seems to have gone beyond that of an architect, the criticisms of the structure of building and the interior arrangements which seems to reflect European prejudices of Africa as a continent of darkness, and the presentation of cultural works in the museum.

Paris Primitive is a very informative and readable work by Sally Price who acknowledges her good fortune in coming from a family of writers. The writing and presentation of the book are very attractive. I wish though that she could have avoided the word “primitive” in the title of her book. She explains briefly why she sticks to such a terminology which she herself describes as “awkward and jarring.”

I felt very relieved to recognize that despite the really curious arguments we usually get from Westerners when it comes to defending their illegal possession of stolen art objects in their museums, here was at least a Westerner who thought like many of us

and could understand our need for the return of our cultural objects. A Western writer who could put herself in the place of the “Other”. In fact, she does this very well when commenting on the half-truths the museum writes in notes relating to the two statutes stolen by the French from the royal palace of Dahomey, the one of Glele and the other of his son, Gbehanzin. The two kings are described in the notes as bloodthirsty, beheading enemy soldiers, sowing terror and menacing the French. Sally Price comments as follows:

“It’s worth noting that this story takes place on African soil, not in Europe. Had the roles been reversed – that is, had Africans attempted to conquer Paris, as in Bertène Juminer’s novel La revanche de Bozambo-would the French have been portrayed as “menacing” the invading Africans? (7)

The author’s overall assessment is that the museum has not fulfilled the expectations its creation had raised and that it is not “the place where cultures dialogue” as the museum likes to characterize itself. The colonial attitudes and prejudices are all too apparent. The speech in this museum is a French monologue on the arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. Voices from cultures displayed there are not heard. The French still claim a monopoly in interpreting those cultures. The author concludes that:

“From an early twenty-first-century perspective, the MBQ has missed precious opportunities for meaningful cultural dialogue that would have led to greater consideration of these issues. After the initial flurry of largely positive reactions in the press (many centered on the architecture), a heavy dose of negative reactions, more often questioning the museum’s conceptual underpinnings, began to stream in. As one reviewer commented, new projects like this “almost always get thrashed” in Paris, but reactions to the Quai Branly have “seemed worse than most” (8).

Kwame Opoku, Vienna, 12 November, 2007.


1. Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quay Branly University of Chicago Press, 2007, 224 p.

2) Ibid.123

3) Ibid. .

4) Ibid. 124.
5) Ibid. 156.

6) Ibid. 75

7) Ibid.p.159.

8) Ibid.177.

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