November 4, 2014
In recent years, France’s museums have been heavily hit with legal challenges – where the original owners have tried to reclaim what they believe is still rightfully theirs.
While the British Museum falls back on the anti-deaccessioning clauses in the British Museum Act as their first line of defence against such claim, France has their own version of this dating back to 1566, when the edict of Moulins proclaimed that the royal domain was inalienable and imprescriptible. Although its origins might be very different, for a long time, the net result was the same – once an item became the property of a French Museum, it was unlikely that its ownership would ever be transferred again to anywhere else.
Gradually though, this notion is being eroded – both by moral obligations & legal challenges. France is finally starting to re-think its past, in the context of today – surely it is time that the British Museum followed this lead.
French museums face a cultural change over restitution of colonial objects
Curators confront demands to return artefacts from collections reflecting an evolving attitude to the appropriation of items
Monday 3 November 2014 10.08 GMT
Ever since explorers, scientists and soldiers started travelling the world and bringing back treasures, France has upheld the principle of the “inalienability” of public heritage. The works that are now in French museums and collections will, supposedly, remain a part of national heritage for ever. This principle was established in 1566, when the edict of Moulins proclaimed that the royal domain was inalienable and imprescriptible. In simpler terms: the sovereign could not give away the assets he or she inherited. Two centuries later, the French revolution based its definition of the public domain on the same principle. It was the only point of reference for explorers sailing round the world in search of possessions and learning.
But in the past few years, changes in the international balance of political and economic power have upset this way of thinking. Demands for restitution have targeted anything from works of art to human remains and archaeological finds. Particularly odd examples include a fossil Mosasaurus (Meuse lizard), which was unearthed at Maastricht in the 18th century and brought back to France by the army, and Baba Merzoug, a 12-tonne cannon that defended the port of Algiers for 200 years, then was shipped to Brest in 1834 where it has braved the drizzle ever since.
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