France and Germany to research provenance of African objects in national museums

The Guardian 19 January 2024
By Philip Oltermann

Three-year €2.1m fund will prioritise former colonies of the two countries and could lead to return of items

Germany and France will jointly spend €2.1m (£1.8m) to further research the provenance of African heritage objects in their national museums’ collections, which could prepare the ground for their eventual return.

A three-year fund, with contributions of €360,000 a year by each country, was launched in Berlin on Friday. It has been designated to fund research on objects from anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, though priority is expected to be given to countries that were colonised by France and Germany, such as Togo and Cameroon.

“This is an experimental fund,” said Dr Julie Sissia, a researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch, a Franco-German research centre in Berlin that will administer the funds.

“We are launching it with the widest possible criteria, so that both small and biggest projects can apply.” The only requirement was that the projects were led by mixed French and German teams from the world of academia and museums, she said.

A Europe-wide debate about the return of African heritage objects was set in motion when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced in 2017 that he would “do everything possible” to return some of Africa’s cultural heritage looted by colonial France.

In 2021, France returned 26 artefacts to Benin, but in recent years its efforts have stalled. A law on restitution of cultural property looted abroad, supposed to pass through parliament at the end of 2023, was stymied by the opposition.

In Germany the restitution project has gathered more momentum since. In November 2022, a German foundation funded the launch of the first comprehensive database of artefacts collectively known as the Benin bronzes, and a year later Germany’s foreign minister physically returned 21 bronzes to Nigeria.

Those bronzes were originally looted by British forces. By contrast, the handling of objects once taken from Germany’s own colonies poses a considerably greater challenge, in administrative as well as diplomatic terms.

First colonised by imperial Germany in the late 19th century, Cameroon was invaded and divided into administrative zones by Britain and France after the outbreak of the first world war. Most cultural objects of Cameroonian heritage held in European museums were taken during German colonial rule.

A project to map Cameroonian heritage objects held by German museums, published last June under the title The Atlas of Absences, identified more than 40,000 objects, of which 8,871 alone are stored at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart.
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