In the News: Museums Respond to Requests for Object Repatriation

Last week Marabou posted about colonial language shaping the way people understand African history and culture at the British Museum. Last Friday, coordinated actions by Decolonize This Place at The Brooklyn Museum and at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) asked for accountability and repatriation of African objects. As people demand museums acknowledge and rectify historical transgressions, how are institutions responding?

Over the past two weeks there have been news articles about French President Macron vowing to return pillaged African objects, the Rapa Nui and the Chilean government continuing to petition the British Museum for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, and the British Museum “returning” objects to Nigeria. The interest in repatriation of objects and acknowledgment of colonial forces shaping the way museums are structured is increasingly reflected in the mainstream news. Marabou has compiled some articles and annotated them for your reading pleasure. The following articles highlight the British Museum, the French Government, and the Brooklyn Museum. What do you think of the institutions’ responses, or lack thereof?


Talks between the governor of Easter Island and the British Museum mark the first time the museum has agreed to have have a conversation about where Hoa Hakananai’a (a sacred statue of a Rapa Nui ancestor) belongs. As of this moment, there is no discussion of return, just that of loaning the statue back to the Rapa Nui.

Easter Island governor begs British Museum to return Moai: ‘You have our soul’ Agence France-Presse via The Guardian, 20 November 2018.

The title “British Museum to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria” is misleading. Monks acknowledges this when he says there are “strings attached” to the “return” of some Benin kingdom objects to Nigeria. Currently, discussion is of loans only, not permanent repatriation. However, Crusoe Osagie, spokesman for the Governor of Edo is quoted as saying, “”We are grateful these steps are being taken but we hope they are only the first steps…If you have stolen property, you have to give it back.” The article goes on to talk about France’s efforts to repatriate objects (more on that below) and how more institutions and some private collectors are willing to open dialogue about ownership of pillaged items.

British Museum to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria by Kieron Monks, CNN, 26 November 2018.


In November 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed during a speech given at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums…In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.” The following article is from earlier this year and explains the view of some naysayers regarding restitution.

After a Promise to Return African Artifacts, France Moves Toward a Plan by Annalisa Quinn, The New York Times, 6 March 2018.

Macron commissioned two academics to develop a report that suggested how France would start to repatriate objects currently in its possession obtained during the colonial period. Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian and professor, and Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist, wrote the report that leans toward permanent return of objects rather than loans. Savoy says the intent is not to completely empty the halls of European museums. Sarr goes on to explain that the process will involve both European and African representation saying, “We’re proposing a framework that takes into account the time constraints of the requesting nations so that we’re not imposing a vast quantity of restituted objects on them, and are making sure that they actually want restitution, are prepared for it and are in a position to organize it.” Read report details in the following articles. The Aljazeera article also has a video at the end that asks who owns ancient artifacts and discusses the controversy over the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum.

Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says by Farah Nayeri, The New York Times, 21 November 2018

France agrees to return 26 African artworks claimed by Benin Aljazeera, 23 November 2018

French museums are responding to the Savoy-Sarr report. Stéphane Martin, director or the Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac is the first senior leader of a museum to speak out against the proposals set forth by the report. Naomi Rea writes, “The museum president says he disagrees with the conclusion of the report, which taints all objects acquired during the colonial era with the same brush. It stains ‘all that was collected and bought during the colonial period’ with ‘the impurity of colonial crime,’ he says.” Indeed, it does call the acquisition of all objects from the colonial period into question. Marabou sees no problem with this and finds merit in the exercise of reevaluating the ethics of historical acquisition. Read more about Martin’s response in the following article:

A French Museum Director Pushes Back Against a Radical Report Calling on Macron to Return Looted African Art by Naomi Rea, Artnet, 28 November 2018.


Action for change at The Brooklyn Museum has been going on for years. The institution is criticized for overlooking its surrounding community of mostly immigrants and people of color and contributing to and representing a gentrifying force with a number of board members who are part of New York City’s real estate development leaders. This past April, controversy arose around the appointment of two new curators, particularly a white, female curator Kristen Windmuller-Luna as a curator of African Arts. Decolonize This Place (DTP) and a coalition of activist groups responded to this appointment as an opportunity to point out the colonialist and white supremacist structures at work within The Brooklyn Museum and suggested a Decolonization Commission. The below articles show the initial letter to The Brooklyn Museum and the museum’s response.

Open Letter to the Brooklyn Museum: Your Curatorial Crisis is an Opportunity to Decolonize, from Decolonize Brooklyn Museum blog, 3 April 2018

Coalition of Anti-Gentrification Groups Pressures Brooklyn Museum to “Decolonize” by Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic, 5 April 2018

Brooklyn Museum Defends Its Hiring of a White Curator of African Art, by Maya Salam, The New York Times, 6 April 2018

When you read the NYT article, it shows how the Brooklyn Museum selectively interpreted the demands set forth by DTP and the coalition as a persona attack on Windmuller-Luna and her appointment. The museum ignored requests for dialogue and decolonization and focused on defending Windmuller-Luna and their selection. Windmuller-Luna’s appointment was not the heart of the argument, but was the easiest to address. For those not familiar with the overall request for a comprehensive decolonization commission, the Brooklyn Museum’s response was a tactic that twisted the demands of DTP as personally targeting Windmuller-Luna. In response to the Brooklyn Museum’s indirect and insufficient response, the coalition of activist groups issued a second letter described in the following article:

Growing Coalition Calls Brooklyn Museum “Out of Touch” and Demands Decolonization Commission by Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic, 12 April 2018.

Brooklyn Museum did not respond to this second letter nor to an in-museum action that took place on April 30th. After waiting patiently for 6 months and being met with silence, DTP and the coalition took to the halls of Brooklyn Museum on Friday, November 30th desiring to open communication with the museum. An article describes the action below. The museum has yet to issue a response.

Decolonize This Place Demands Repatriation of “Imperial Plunder” at the Brooklyn Museum by Jasmine Weber, Hyperallergic, 30 November 2018.

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