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African nations want their stolen history back, and experts say it's time to speed up the process

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Johannesburg — Much of Africa's cultural treasure was looted during colonial times and has remained in museums and private collections in Europe and North America ever since. For the last few decades, however, African nations have been asking for the stolen treasures to be returned.

Last week, 39 artifacts were formally handed back to the government of Uganda by Britain's famed University of Cambridge. While the return is technically a three-year loan between museums, it is extendable, and could see them remain in their country of origin.

Martin Mugarra, the minister of tourism, said that while many important artifacts remain overseas, it was still a significant return of cultural objects. In a social media post, he said the process to get the pieces back started in 2016 under the "rethinking Uganda Museum" project, in collaboration with the University of Michigan.

Uganda Cambridge Artifacts Returned
Mark Elliott, center, senior curator in anthropology at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, displays traditional artifacts repatriated by the university, in Kampala, Uganda, June 12, 2024. Hajarah Nalwadda/AP

"These invaluable pieces were taken from Uganda during the 1890s and early 1900s by British colonial administrators, anthropologists, missionaries and soldiers," he said.

The pieces had been kept at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge for more than 100 years. The collection includes human remains taken from the Wamala tombs, a headdress made of human hair and a traditional Bunyoro drum.

Ugandan heritage specialists say the pieces will be acclimated to Ugandan conditions before being put on display in 2025 or 2026.

Restitution remains a common issue for many African governments and communities. More and more are seeking accountability and the return of items of cultural value looted either before or during colonial rule.

In April, the popular Victoria and Albert Museum in London loaned 32 artifacts that were taken from what is now Ghana more than 150 years ago back to the country's current king. The objects were stolen from the court of the Asante king during conflicts between his people and British soldiers.

Akwasidae Celebration In Kumasi And The Returned Looted Artefacts Of The Asante Kingdom
Looted Asante artifacts, returned on loan from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, are seen on display at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, Ghana, May 12, 2024.  Ernest Ankomah/Getty

A gold peace pipe, a sword and other significant pieces were returned, again on a long-term loan from the museum to the king. In the Asante culture, the gold artifacts are believed to be invested with the spirit of former kings, so the return of the treasures was described as the return of "the soul of the people."

Why are artifacts loaned and not just returned?

In February, the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles permanently returned seven looted objects to the Asante people in Ghana. In a statement issued at the time, the museum's management said they considered themselves "temporary custodians of the objects in our collection."

"In the case of pieces that were violently or coercively taken from their original owners or communities, it is our ethical responsibility to do what we can to return those objects," said Erica Jones, the senior curator of African arts and manager of curatorial affairs at the Fowler Museum.

APTOPIX Ghana Artifacts Returned
Asante King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II greets delegates from the Fowler Museum at the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Ghana, Feb. 8, 2024. Misper Apawu/AP

The collections in many European museums tend to be owned by the state, however, with laws in place to govern their care — and in many cases, bar them from being removed, even to return to original owners, which is referred to as deaccessioning. To permanently give back contested antiquities from their collections, those countries would need to change their laws.

A 1963 law bans the British Museum in London from removing an artifact from its collection unless it is a duplicate, is damaged or is deemed "unfit" for the collection. 

The National Heritage Act of 1983 prevents the V&A from legally returning its artifacts.

More museums in the United States are privately owned, with the notable exception of those run by the state-owned Smithsonian Institution. That means institutions like the Fowler Museum can more easily and quickly repatriate artifacts back to their original owners.

"I agree that in order to maintain public trust in museums, deaccessioning should not be taken lightly," Ngaire Blankenberg, a museum specialist with the Creative Repair Studio and the former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, told CBS News. 

She added, however, that "where there is will, legislation can be changed." 

"Most of the laws prohibiting restitution were enacted long after the work in question was taken, or in some cases, in order to justify criminal activity," Blankenberg said. "If a law can be made only in 1983, for example, there surely is a mechanism to repeal or amend it in 2024?" 

Within a few weeks of her arrival at NMAFA in Washington D.C., Blankenberg launched the process to hand back Benin bronzes that had long been in the museum's collection.

Benin bronze repatriation
From left, Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture in Nigeria, signs a contract with Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, during a ceremony to repatriate more than two dozen Benin Bronzes to modern-day Nigeria, at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 2022. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post via Getty

"As an African, it is personally offensive to see looted African work displayed as a trophy, even if the text below it acknowledges the circumstances of its removal from its source," she said. "So, I immediately took them off display and began a conversation with the Nigerian Commission of Museum and Monuments about what they would like to do with the Bronzes. They indicated they wanted them back, and so began the process."

"It's not just a question of ownership"

How contested artifacts are displayed is an issue unto itself. 

There are tens of thousands of African artifacts spread across the Western world, most of which are unlikely to be returned anytime soon given the slow pace of deaccessioning thus far. 

Blankenberg said it was important for museums and galleries to consider how such works are displayed, including whether there are accompanying explanations of why ownership is contested, and what words are used to describe them and their significance.  

"It's not just a question of ownership, but spiritual significance," she said. "In some cases, what are referred to as 'inanimate objects' described only by the material they are made with, are in fact considered living beings or 'with spirit' by their societies of origin. Using eurocentric reference points robs these works of their context and meaning and results in misunderstandings, assumptions and stereotypes about the cultures they originate from. So the issue is not only about who owns these, but also who gets to decide who sees them, how they are displayed, how they are documented and the role they play in our understanding of the world."

Looted artifacts have been controversial for decades, but many museums in the West might not exist in their current forms if it wasn't for these collections.

British Museum's Security In Question After Revelations Of Missing Treasures
Items from a collection of metal plaques and sculptures taken from modern-day Nigeria in 1897, commonly referred to as the Benin Bronzes, are seen in a gallery of African relics in the British Museum, Aug. 23, 2023, in London, England. LEON NEAL/Getty

While countless researchers, conservators, registrars, scholars, administrators and curators have built their careers on their expertise in managing these collections, African institutions and scholars suffer from a chronic lack of resources and often need to go to the West to access work from their own cultures. 

"We need to recognize not just the harm of the original theft, but the ongoing harm that depriving cultures of their masterpieces, their spiritual guides, their cultural icons does to a people. What has undoubtedly added value to Western museums, has been to the detriment of African societies and scholarship," Blankenberg said.

Moving forward to make amends for the past

There is a growing movement among antiquities experts, who feel reparative restitution must include more than just a handover, and incorporate an acknowledgement of the harm that's been done as well as financial reparations in the form of money and other resources.

They believe fundamental apologies are also warranted, along with commitments to never repeat the crimes of the past. 

As the Ugandan art returned last week is studied and prepared to be put on display back on its home soil next year, experts in the field agree it should not be seen as an end, but the beginning. 

Blankenberg and others hope there's an opportunity to start building strong, sustainable, well-resourced institutions in Africa to rebalance the relationship between African art and knowledge and the continent's former colonizers.

Molemo Moiloa is the co-founder of Open Restitution Africa, which is looking at the restitution process and gives small grants across the continent to activists and other researchers involved in returning artifacts to their rightful owners.

The group compiled a report in 2022 that did show "a massive shift in the discourse and action — but this is only from a zero base, a total refusal, disengagement, up to now," Moiloa told CBS News.

"We are just starting to see policy developments in practice, and people acknowledging that there is a need for return, but not actually returning it yet," she said, noting that experts estimate as much as 90% of Africa's cultural and historical material has been held outside the continent for hundreds of years.

Uganda Cambridge Artifacts Returned
Traditional artifacts repatriated by the University of Cambridge are shown in Kampala, Uganda, June 12, 2024. The British university returned the 39 items, which range from tribal regalia to delicate pottery, to the East African country. Hajarah Nalwadda/AP

The decision to return artifacts currently depends entirely on the leadership of Western museums and their owners. 

"Africans need to be given the resources to deal with returns, and ultimately allowed to be in charge of every aspect of the decision making," said Moiloa.

"What we have found is that many museums have many African art pieces in storage, and as they open new wings or put work out on public display it creates a certain visibility that then requires accountability," she said. "It's just one step in a conversation; where many museums see the opening of a wing as the end, it should be seen as an opening to the public for a conversation — a transparent engagement with what is in their collections, and that could lead to what Africans want back." 

Several recent visits to the continent by Max Hollein, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Emmanuel Kasarherou, from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, were taken as potential good signs of a new approach toward Africa. 

It might be an indication that France, for example, will make good on the promise issued by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 to repatriate all African artifacts held in French museums.

Artifacts being returned to their home countries on loan is, in the end, just an exercise in diplomacy. The real test will be what happens next.

Will the hundreds, if not thousands of contested works from Africa in the Quai Branly actually find their way back home? How will the Met deal with the contested works in its collection when it opens its new gallery of African art next year?

"We need to go beyond lip service and see some concrete and speedy action," said Blankenberg.

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