Angola wants its dolls back

The debate about the return of cultural heritage to the ex-colonies has not hit Portugal yet. But this will happen soon. Angola is doing ample inventory taking of the objects to be returned, including some that are under the protection of national museums. “It is imperative that the Angolan diplomacy, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and other ministerial departments, begins multilateral consultations to address the problem of property and ownership on the one hand, and, on the other, the exploitation of Angolan artefacts abroad,” Carolina Cerqueira, the Angolan Minister for Culture, assures Expresso.

Some artworks are already identified. “There is a varied and diversified collection of items in the [Portuguese] National Museum of Ethnology and that of Archaeology. They are our cultural heritage, for example, Mitadi art, masks, basketwork, ceramics, Mbali statutes, Neolithic tools, Tchokwe art, dolls, among others,” continues the minister, reminding that a restitution claim for these objects is yet to be put in.

The discussion about the restitution of ethnographic works – be them artistic, documental or human remains – to the countries of origin is not new, but regained prominence two weeks ago with the announcement of Emmanuel Macron’s decision to return a bronze collection to Benin, from where the artworks were taken at the end of the 19th century in a punitive military expedition against the kingdoms of west Africa. This was supported by the “Macron Report”, officially The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Towards a New Relational Ethics, submitted to the president in late November, which recommends an effective policy for the restitution of cultural heritage. The debate will not be taken off the agenda. Macron also announced that he is willing to hold a conference in spring 2019 for African and European partners to discuss the framework and the destiny of artefacts removed from their original places in the colonial period.

photography by Nuno Foxphotography by Nuno Fox

Inventory List Urgently Needed

In Portugal, the Ministry of Culture passes questions about the issue to the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage, but this organ does not encompass all the institutions that may receive potential requests for restitution. It only says that it is not aware of any revindication for the return of artefacts, ethnographic works or historical documents, adding that no step was taken to elaborate a list of items that may be subject to restitution requests.

However, Francisco Bethencourt, ex-director of the National Library and professor at the Department of History of King’s College London, says that the issue should be addressed carefully and that it is important to compile a list. “Portugal passed unnoticed. It is necessary to gather information about existing objects – when they were collected, in what circumstances and what museums have done to them – before taking any decision,” explains Bethencourt, also former director of the Gulbenkian Cultural Centre in Paris. He is of the opinion that this should be done in collaboration with researchers from the countries of origin “as early as possible” and that “restitution is becoming consensual because it is the most effective way to reconcile with the colonial past and embrace new partnerships with the independent and sovereign countries.”

Similarly, António Pinto Ribeiro, researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra and ex-director of the Gulbenkian Foundation and of Culturgest, thinks that Portugal needs to be prepared for demands for works in museums, universities and archives to be returned. “It is a serious problem because we do not have an inventory list. There may be ten thousand or 80 thousand pieces. Yet national institutions are not ready for what may be one of the major challenges in the coming years.” Pinto Ribeira remarks that only states, not individuals, can make a claim and it is important to verify if the items were obtained illicitly and are highly symbolic of a people or nation.

In Portugal, the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon may well be one of the institutions most affected. Director Paulo Costa admits that he is concerned about the French precedent, especially the revindication of highly symbolic pieces. “This criterion has to be defined very well. Otherwise, it will spell the end for existing museums. It is true that a new paradigm is taking over, and everything has to return to where they originally belong, but we do not accept mere facilitation.” Regarding the items on display in the museum, Costa says confidently: “I am not worried about their origins.”

António Sousa Ribeiro, another specialist, stresses that there are several aspects to the discussion and recalls the reaction of English researchers when on day, in Oxford, he told them that the Count of Essex took what belonged to Portugal from Faro to the Bodleian Libraries. The response was: “At least the books are protected here.” Although Portugal was for a long time a colonial power, it was also invaded by the English and French, who took national treasures abroad. As for the current discussion, one thing is clear: “Even if European museums become empty, justice has to be done and Portugal certainly needs to return core cultural properties to their countries. We do not gain from burying our heads in the sand.”

Dissension as Old as the Hills

As the Angolan minster explains to Expresso, “the controversy surrounding the possession of African artworks is not new”. She is dissatisfied, however, with the inadequacy of the current international legislation, namely the lack of retroactive effect of the UNESCO convention of 1970 against the illicit export of cultural property. The document defends the restitution of cultural property from another country, but “does not cover historical cases, like those from the colonial era”. Carolina Cerqueira states that Angola signed the convention, but is yet to ratify it, and the intention of the government of João Lourenço is to compile an inventory list of artefacts in foreign territories. “We need to prepare an exhaustive list of Angolan artworks that are in other countries, not only in Portugal, but also in the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Brazil, etc. Therefore, instructions were given to internal consultants to study the situation.

Sindika Dokolo, Congolese, husband of Isabel dos Santos and one of the most important collectors of African art, is involved in a large-scale project of information gathering and acquisition of objects taken from Angola during 27 years of civil war. The minster for culture announces to Expresso the establishment of a partnership between the Ministry of Culture and the Dindika Dokolo Foundation “to recover the collection of the Regional Museum of Dundo,” and above all, she explains, “to identity what items were exported illegally and their locations outside Angola, while the Foundation provides the financial, human and material support for the identification, assessment and restoration of these items.

Apart from the declarations of the Angolan minster, the other former Portuguese colonies do not seem to be alarmed by the growing calls for redress. Contacted by Expresso, the Brazilian Institute of Museums says that no request for the return of cultural property was submitted to the Portuguese government, but that Brazil claims Tupinambá Indian capes in Denmark, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, which were taken in the Dutch invasion in the 17th century. The Mozambique Ministry of Culture did not respond to Expresso’s request for comment, but Angola hopes that it will not be alone in what it is trying to achieve. “We think that the first steps can be taken by CPLP, with the its Portuguese-speaking African state-members, or by the Economic Community of Central African States of the African Union,” suggests Carolina Cerqueira.


*Four years ago, UNESCO wanted to mediate the dispute between Greece and the United Kingdom since 1982 over the return of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum to the Greeks. It is one of the oldest fights over cultural heritage and will not end any time soon. It can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the British Emperor in the Ottoman Empire took the Acropolis marbles.

*Egypt demands that 25 countries return antiquities removed from the country. An emblematic example is the Museum of Louvre and the collection of mummies, sarcophagus and an entire department dedicated to Egyptian antiquities. The bust of Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, is in Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone, crucial for the understanding of hieroglyphs, is in London.

*Another historical dispute resulted from Nazi invasions. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler sent specialists to identify and collect the best existing arts in occupied countries. With the German defeat, works of Degas, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Renoir, etc., would end in the hands of Russia and the United States, later leading to a judicial dispute over the restitution of these items. G.C.

Museum Earthquake

The Macron Report predicts returns to start in 2019, but there is resistance from curators of major museums.

In two minutes and 32 seconds, Emmanuel Macron shook the bases of European museums. On 28 November last year, in an amphitheatre of an African university, in front of hundreds of students and the president of Burkina Faso, Macron drew an unpassable red line: “I am a part of a generation of French people who believe that the crimes of European colonialization are incontestable and are part of our history. I believe that five years from now conditions will be brought about for the temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa.” The message was reiterated in a declaration from the Élysée Palace: “African heritage must not remain prisoners of European museums.” The impact is evident when, according to specialists cited by international newspapers, between 85% and 90% of African heritage is currently outside that continent.

One year after Macron’s speech in Africa, a report elaborated by a French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, and a Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, was presented. The 240-pages long document proposes the definitive restitution of pieces taken illicitly from their communities of origin that are important for the identity construction of the peoples, that is, if the countries of origin put in a claim for them.

26 pieces of Benin bronzes will be returned initially. Currently they belong to the Quai Branly museum, which holds a total of about 70 thousand objects from sub-Saharan Africa. The problem, however, transcends French frontiers. According to Le Monde, the attitude of Macron exacerbated the polemics, for example, about the destiny of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, that will hold old ethnographic collections of the Prussian State from next year. In an open letter to Angela Merkel, 40 African organization demanded a response to the “historical initiative” of the French president, to which the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication of the Federal Foreign Office proposed an international conference, similar to what happened in 1998 in Washington regarding the plundering of what belonged to Jewish families in the Second World War.

A burning question is how far Emmanuel Macron will go and how this precedent will affect other countries. In 2016, the president of Benin requested the restitution of several pieces and was informed that the French national collections are 

“inalienable”, that is, not allowed to leave French territory. This suggests that legislative amendments may be necessary. For now, the report recommends that a whole range of symbolic pieces be returned to Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Mali, Cameroon, Senegal, etc., beginning next year. The second phase of the process of restitution extends to 2022 and involves a large inventory of French collections and digital records for later sharing. The third phase leaves the conclusion of the complex process open.


Major European museums hopes that the Benin example will not be the start of many other restitutions to come. For example, the curator of the British Museum, which has 73 thousand African artworks in its keeping, states that the Macron report does not change British laws nor institutional policies.

The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, ratified by Portugal in 1985, was a major landmark. The Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects was signed in Rome in 1995 and approved by the Portuguese Parliament five years later. In 2001, Portugal and Brazil signed a protocol on archives, which stipulates, for instance, that the countries promote the exchange, organization, inventory and microfilming of reciprocal databases. A legal dispute from decades ago is still standing.

Next week in Leipzig, Germany, a conference conspicuously named “Sensitive Heritage” will be held to debate the restitution of ethnographic pieces, more specifically, the human bones and remains claimed by countries like Australia, New Zealand and Namibia. Restitution will be the theme of the conference associated with the General Assembly of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome in 2019, hence another sign that the matter will remain in the spotlight in the cultural world and that next year will be a crucial one.

Margarida Calafate Ribeiro, researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, says: “This is a political and moral question which cannot be resolved without the participation of specialists from the countries involved.” Meanwhile, the epigraph of the Macron report clearly expresses the opinion of the two commissioned authors on the possession of African artefacts by French museums. The citation, from a 1931 letter the ethnologist Michel Leiris to his wife, says: “We pilfer from the Africans under the pretext of teaching others how to love them and get to know their culture, that is, when all is said and done, to train even more ethnographers, so they can head off to encounter them and ‘love and pilfer’ from them as well.”

A Pandora’s Box Difficult to Close

All over the world, more instances of dispute arise over artefacts, documents and even human remains.

Hoa Hakananai’a, an enormous statute from the Easter Island, is a widely-discussed example of what the restitution of symbolic pieces to where they originally belong entails. This spiritually important figure is to the indigenous people of Rapa Nui in the Pacific South a part of them that was stolen. It was taken from its original habitat in 1868 by the British commander Richard Powell without permission. Offered to Queen Victoria, the expatriated giant was then donated to the British Museum. In 2017, the Rapa Nui gained administrative independence from Chile and began at once to demand the return of Hoa Hakananai’a.

Despite its more conservative stance, the British institution agreed recently to return ashes to the Tasmanian aborigines. The human remains are probably one of the most delicate points of the whole discussion, which is itself very complicated. To the Aboriginal population, the human remains are bodies not buried that must now be honoured and not exposed to visits or used in scientific studies.

In Lisbon, the National Museum of Ethnology has kept a small Indian bust from what is now Peru for many years, exactly because it is considered an ethnically delicate exhibit, explains Paulo Costa, museum director, to Expresso.

Italy returned an obelisk to Ethiopia while an Easter Island statute is still to return home.

The topic is polemical and the inauguration of the African Museum on the outskirts of Brussels adds fuel to the fire. This is one of the most anticipated museum openings in recent years. Closed for half a decade, the institution held some of the best collections from the colonial era. However, the museum will have to reassess the traditional approach and begin to exhibit artefacts from former Belgian colonies, especially Congo, with precise explanations about the origins of the pieces. Originally, the museum was constructed to showcase the collections of King Leopold II, such as the 250 thousand mineral specimens and 120 thousand ethnographic objects.

António Pinto Ribeiro, researcher and ex-director of the Gulbenkian Foundation and of Culturgest, says that, in 2005, Italy successfully returned the Obelisk of Axum, removed by Benito Mussolini in 1937, to Ethiopia. Anticipating this and “recognizing solid bases for discord, in 2002, museums in Berlin and 18 American museums signed the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, hence asserting their property rights,” explains Pinto Ribeiro. The specialist adds: “Another meeting was organized in Cairo in 2010. It was attended by countries from southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. The debate focused on restitution and the UNESCO Convention.” “Be it ex-colonies or other European governments, the message is clear: requests for restitution are increasing and the question has already gained considerable momentum in 2018,” he concludes. C.M.


Report by Gustavo Costa and Christiana Martins published in Expresso 8/12/2018.

Translation:  Kaian Lam

by vários
A ler | 29 December 2018 | african art, angola, artworks, macron, patrimony, restitution