France-Germany to study provenance of African objects

Germany and France have launched a joint fund, contributing €2.1 million over three years (€360,000 per year from each country), to support research on the provenance of African heritage objects in their national museums’ collections. The initiative aims to pave the way for the potential return of these objects to their countries of origin. While the fund is open to research on objects from anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, priority is expected to be given to countries colonized by France and Germany, such as Togo and Cameroon. The projects eligible for funding must be led by mixed French and German teams from academia and museums.

The establishment of this fund is part of a broader Europe-wide debate on the return of African heritage objects. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced in 2017 his commitment to returning some of Africa’s cultural heritage looted during colonial times. In 2021, France returned 26 artifacts to Benin, but legislative efforts to facilitate further restitution have faced obstacles.

In Germany, momentum has been growing in the restitution project. In November 2022, a German foundation funded the launch of the first comprehensive database of artifacts known as the Benin bronzes, and later, Germany’s foreign minister physically returned 21 bronzes to Nigeria. The challenge for Germany lies in dealing with objects taken from its own colonies during imperial rule, as opposed to objects looted from other nations.

The research project will focus on the provenance of Cameroonian heritage objects held in German museums. A previous mapping project identified over 40,000 such objects, including the Mandu Yenu, a throne from the kingdom of Bamum, and the Bangwa Queen, a wooden sculpture from Cameroon’s Grassfields region.

The joint Franco-German initiative underscores the importance of cross-border collaborations between science and culture in addressing historical and cultural restitution challenges. The program is viewed as an experimental fund, providing an opportunity for both small and large-scale projects to apply for research funding.

The Franco-German joint fund, with its focus on researching the provenance of African heritage objects, reflects ongoing efforts to address historical injustices and facilitate the potential return of cultural artifacts to their countries of origin. The initiative underscores the commitment of both Germany and France to engage in a collaborative and experimental approach to rectify historical wrongs related to colonial-era acquisitions.

While the fund is open to research on objects from sub-Saharan Africa, the priority given to countries colonized by France and Germany, such as Togo and Cameroon, recognizes the specific historical context of these objects’ removal. The restitution project faces both administrative and diplomatic challenges, particularly for Germany, which seeks to address objects taken during its own colonial rule.

The mapping project on Cameroonian heritage objects held in German museums, known as The Atlas of Absences, has shed light on the scale of the issue, identifying over 40,000 objects. The fund’s launch demonstrates a commitment to addressing the complexities of provenance research, a crucial step in understanding the history of these objects and potentially facilitating their return.

The Franco-German initiative aligns with broader discussions in Europe and beyond regarding the repatriation of cultural artifacts taken during colonial periods. The global dialogue on restitution acknowledges the need for collaborative, cross-border efforts that involve both academic and museum communities. These initiatives are seen as essential in navigating the complex terrain of cultural heritage restitution and fostering understanding between nations.

The symbolic significance of such collaborative endeavors extends beyond the specific research projects, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging historical wrongs and working together to build a more equitable and respectful framework for dealing with cultural heritage. As the fund progresses over the next three years, it is expected to contribute valuable insights and potentially set precedents for addressing similar issues in other parts of the world.

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