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Foreign Correspondent: Africa’s Lost Treasure – Should Europe Return Africa’s Lost Treasures?


September 10,2021

Europe’s museums are stashed full of Africa’s cultural heritage, much taken in colonial times. Some was looted, some traded. Some museums say they’re the rightful owners but others say the objects belong in Africa. “No-one has the right to take what belongs to the African people, because it’s our heritage”, yells Mwazulu Diyabanza as he yanks an African funerary pole off its museum stand.

The Congolese activist is in Paris’ prestigious Quai Branly Museum, which holds some 70 000 artefacts from Africa. Two thirds of these were brought to France during the colonial era. Mwazulu is determined to put the issue under the national spotlight.

Most of us are familiar with the stoush over whether Britain should return Greece’s lost treasures – the Elgin Marbles. There’s now a growing debate across Europe about whether its museums should return Africa’s cultural heritage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European countries colonised Africa, exploiting its natural and cultural resources. Some of these objects were looted, some taken under duress, others traded. It’s estimated a whopping 90% of sub-Saharan cultural objects are now held outside the continent where they were made. “Young people in these countries, they need their heritage”, says Marie-Cécile Zinsou, an art historian and curator who runs a gallery in Benin, West Africa.

“These objects are part of our history and explain who we were, so they are very, very important.” But Diyabanza’s radical actions worry many. “If you allow people to come and take back what they want, based on their own feeling, what will be the future of the museum?” asks Emmanuel Kasarhérou, President of the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum. In France, the subject became a national talking point when newly elected President Marcon visited Africa and said the continent’s cultural objects should be in African museums. Three years later, France has passed a law to return 27 objects.

In Germany, recent debates about the country’s colonial history have highlighted the ethical problems of displaying looted art. A massive new cultural and museum centre in the heart of Berlin is being criticised for exhibiting ‘Benin Bronzes’, a set of statues and carvings looted by the British in present-day Nigeria and held in museums across the world.

In a colourful and eye-opening story, France-based reporter Allan Clarke travels from Paris to Berlin and Hamburg to see the vast ethnographic collections in these cities. He talks to museum leaders, artists and activists about the thorny issue of who owns Africa’s lost cultural treasures and whether they should be returned. Museum directors are now confronting the issue but will this translate into action? “So things should go back, but how many things go back and which things go back and which things can be shown here” says Hermann Parzinger from Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. “I think this has to be solved in a dialogue.”

In November, France will return 26 objects to Benin in West Africa. “It’s not the end of something”, says Kasarhérou. “It’s the beginning of something new.” “If it’s a first step; it’s historical, it’s very important. It’s the most symbolical thing you can do” says Zinsou. “If it’s the only step, well… it’s nothing.” Mwazulu remains uncompromising. “Let’s go to the core of the problem. The West admits that they stole and when you steal, you must return what you’ve stolen.

About Foreign Correspondent: Foreign Correspondent is the prime-time international public affairs program on Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC-TV. We produce half-hour duration in-depth reports for broadcast across the ABC’s television channels and digital platforms. Since 1992, our teams have journeyed to more than 170 countries to report on war, natural calamity and social and political upheaval – through the eyes of the people at the heart of it all.

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