Why repatriation is important

The question of repatriation is on the table again for negotiation internationally and the discussion has moved on from where it was in the last decades. What has changed is that Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and France have dedicated funds and focus to actual cases and envisioned guidelines. Importantly, the staunch denial of the consequences of their extractive expeditions, colonial settlements, and neo-colonial endeavours has given way.

That said, it is early days and not much in the way of concrete transfer of property has happened yet, but many conversations are being had. Loans from giants like the British Museum (to New Zealand), the Humboldt Forum (to Namibia), and Quai Branly (to Benin City) are underway. The first repatriations that have been made (the Witbooi bible and whip from Stuttgart to Namibia for example) are instructive in their ill-informed process

Repatriations cannot be made only on the terms and in the time frames that suit European political whims. These often do not allow enough support to prepare the conditions for their arrival. In turn this has led to intensified horizonal violence between groups that were disrupted by their territory being carved up during colonialization. Their destabilization is a complex interweave of familial, tribal, and national government and lobby interests that did not exist at the time of the looting. This is why a considered approach based in ethical motives, research and respect for the time and process needed at the receiving end is essential to the success of repatriations.

Legal questions loom large over seeming goodwill and a repatriation law is sorely lacking. A mixture of legal ideas drawing from transitional justice, human rights, heritage and intellectual property law are at play in the different national legal systems. Law, time, and convenient silence have been the means by which national museums have protected themselves in the past from acting upon claims.

The value of these possessions makes it difficult relinquishing control over where and what they do. To the oft raised question of whether the Global South can look after its valuable material culture, the Ghanaian-Austrian legal advisor to the UN Kwame Opoku recently gave the amusing comparison of a car being stolen and then on being told to return it, the thief demanding to see the garage it would be parked in upon return. The ancestral remains that are claimed back are obviously far more significant than an expensive commodity. Reducing claims to finances is absurd in the eyes of those who do not keep art works as investments, but who live with them as family of a kind.

In response to these problems, museums like those in England remain with the long-term loan format. At best this format ties both parties into a relationship, while avoiding changing the law of inalienability which in the German legal system distinguishes between inalienable owner (Eigethumer) and exhibitor (Besitzer). A relationship maintains the responsibility of the European institutions to support the communities receiving these collections. Yet the gesture of a loan or gift is does not make the same commitment as a transfer of ownership.

The immense gains in the process of repatriations come from the open contact with a system of knowledge that goes beyond our own. Supporting knowledge through the circulation of their material vessels is the best outcome, for conservation was long used as a technical excuse to disguise a lack of political will. It is telling that in the archives and collections of museums, non-western objects are not understood in their own terms. Through exchange in repatriation claims grows a respect for the value also of that which we cannot know, interpret, explain and own.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is Professor and Chair of Global Art and the author of a forthcoming Chicago University Press book on repatriation.

  • Barber Institute of Fine Arts
  • Bramall Music Building

  • Cadbury Research Library
  • Lapworth Museum of Geology

  • Winterbourne House and Garden
  • University Music


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