Should western museums return artifacts looted from former African colonies?

Some people are applauding a report urging France to return cultural artifacts held in western museums to the former African colonies they were taken from. But one expert says, as long as they were traded legally, they should stay where they are.

Art historian hopes France returns cultural items, but some want different approach

Royal statues from the Kingdom of Dahomey, which is part of modern-day Benin, dating back to 1890-1892 at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, on June 18, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)
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A French-Beninese art historian says she hopes France will follow the recommendations of a new report urging the western country to return artifacts it took without consent from former African colonies.

"It is very ambitious, because it is said that France should look at its colonization time and think about giving back the African artworks," Marie-Cécile Zinsou told told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

She said she hopes France will "let Africa have its heritage back."

The report, commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, comes as a number of African countries are asking French museums to return artifacts that were taken by French colonial forces. It could have implications for other museums around the world.

A visitor looks at a statue in brass representing a horn player during an exhibition focused on refined art in Benin, on Oct. 2, 2007, at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris. (AFP/Getty Images)

But not everyone agrees these items should simply be returned to where they came from.

"At the end of the day, it's our cultural heritage. It's not Greece, and it's not England, it's the world's heritage," said Gary Vikan, president of the Committee for Cultural Policy, a think-tank that advocates for a balanced approach to returning objects and trading in antiquities.

As long as artifacts were traded legally and without coercion, Vikan said it's acceptable to keep them.

"If we begin to think in terms of a borderless view of the past, I think we're going to get to a better place," he said.

To learn about the push to repatriate art from Africa, Lynch spoke to:

  • Marie-Cécile Zinsou, a French-Beninese art historian and president of the Fondation Zinsou in Benin. ​
  • Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project, a volunteer organization working to return Indian art and antiquities back to India.
  • Gary Vikan, president of the Committee for Cultural Policy and former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Julie Crysler.

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