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The restitution of African heritage: Human heritage between politics and professionalism.

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

What’s solution?


Few years ago, a flux demands the restitution of the African heritage preserved in European countries for more than a century. This idea is not bad because each heritage has its origins. It would initially locate it and perhaps later repatriate it because it was considered to be misplacement. This idea came under pressure despite the fact that this heritage has remained there for many years. Many African countries demand that their heritage be returned all over the world. Although they have been requesting it for two or three years, this request has taken another step.

Contrary to requests in recent years, the power of heads of state has been implicated. Not only did they use the nationalist expression to explain why this legacy would be repatriated. It seems that a so-called pan-Africanism movement is spreading to the extent that a country which does not claim restitution is considered irresponsible. Some African academics and professionals have also been mobilised and involved in this very important current wave which deserves objective reflection.

When I try to analyse the problem, I notice in the first link that there are political interests behind this request. Are African leaders taking advantage of the situation to take control of their people in using such a pan-Africanist ideologue?. On the one hand, I wonder to what extent this legacy has to do with the fact that it is limited to its owners to the rest of the world. In this article, it is necessary to know the supreme human value of this heritage claimed misplaced compared to its origins. Instead of confining it to secondary and discriminatory meanings. In addition to these points, one can also wonder on the question of years that the inheritance remains abroad so that it is always judged badly placed. And if it does not have the right to be naturalise like any other human being. As is done for human movements. This philosophical analysis requires an understanding of comparative heritage dynamism. The inheritance to be evaluated is comparable to normal human beings, breathing, moving, alive and who are guided by various interests. Image the difficulty of moving a person from place x to place y after more than a century of accommodation. Socially, it will be a problem to become familiar with the new environment at same time ancient neighbors will have a hard time living her absence, but her new neighbors will also make the effort to live with it. Here it is matter of integration and adaptation.

The heritage I focus on does not include human remains. As people move, heritage can also be viewed in the same way. And let this movement not damage the authenticity of the heritage inherited from its country of origin.

Origins of heritage in the global sense and the question of ownership

According to the World Heritage Organization, UNESCO in acronym. Heritage may have been a tool used by some people in everyday life economically, socially, culturally and religiously. Although it has something in common with all citizens in general, it comes from a certain group of people who are its origin. As a national flag, languages and value. There are also cases in many African countries where people do not have the same language. An example is the Congo. The country has more than four hundred languages, which means that there are probably as many ethnic groups that may have different heritages. On the basis of this diversity, the heritage of each group may be unique.

In Rwanda and Burundi, it is the same case. Their inhabitants are united in one language, although they also have a small difference depending on the region. Twa for example have a special culture which does not share with the remains. Here, I give an example: if all the Twa migrate to Belgium and discover that there is a pot as their own heritage. Would Rwanda claim this heritage? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the Twa were part of the Rwandan tribe and the pot was made by the Twa but was used in the life of Rwandans in general. No, this is also possible when the Twa claim that the pot is their own heritage and therefore should not be attributed to the whole country. Here they are right because is not for Tutsi or Hutu pot even if they have all used it. A closer look may reveal that even the country claiming the heritage conserved in Europe is not its own. So, following the primary origin of heritage, a country should not appropriate it because heritage is human for the benefit of the humanity. It goes beyond administrative and societal space.

It belongs to humanity in the sense of geographical and political limitation. Frankly, it would be difficult for the heritage to be declared to be in a country of origin or the one hosting it. If it was possible for the owners or creators of this heritage to claim it. For the latter, we evoke the capacity of management as it should be. There is another door to get out of this problem. The duration and the way in which this heritage has been preserved in the hosting countries should give more possibilities to them the right to continue to manage it. If there are artifacts made by settlers in Africa kept in African museums, would we also qualify them as non-Africans or settlers? It is important to first examine the history of the heritage. The issue must be approached in the context of the human being rather than the heritage of a particular country. Are we not diminishing its value in favor of property discrimination?

Before calling this a national heritage, we must ask ourselves whether the administration of the country has agreed to create this heritage? No, in most cases they were created in absence of government authority. Heritage exists before the administrative country exists. On the contrary, the country is based on the heritage and value already existing. What would we say that the heritage belongs to such and such a country when we know with certainty that the civilisation of humanity came earlier. And also been characterised by migratory movements. Which it is very difficult to appropriate any heritage while ignoring such a dynamism. Can we begin as to attribute heritage to such a human group. In other words, the heritage must not have such an origin determination that the so-called ancients when it went so far as to prove to come from elsewhere.

Components of the claimed heritage

This heritage which unites countries is made up of many categories. There are those who are known and as those the countries of origin ignore. When you think about it, it is difficult to know what categories of heritage these countries need because their demand remains really vague. This problem is even more difficult. Often they focus on the public heritage exhibited or preserved in Western countries. Heritage in question includes documents et archives, anthropological collections and human remains. As I said above, these historic tools often have something in common with hosting countries. Specifically documents having information on the regime before, during and after the colonial period. While the objects do not really have a link between hosting and the origin countries, they often come from local tribes that it is difficult to establish links. In Belgium for example, the debate precedes the reopening in December of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, and concerns both objects, archives and human remains[1], a statement reported by RFI with reference to the procedure already initiated several months ago. It should be noted that in Belgium the restitution procedure dates back several years. Before this African requests, as the AfricaMuseum[2] explains on its website, the presence of African collections in Tervuren[3] inevitably leads to the question of the return of objects to the countries of origin. (…) The Belgian State, the legal owner of the collections of the AfricaMuseum, transferred objects, notably between 1976 and 1982. During this period, 114 ethnographic pieces left the Royal Museum for Central Africa to the Institute national museums of Zaire in Kinshasa. About 600 objects were also transferred to the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare ”. In addition, in 2010 Tervuren delivered to its three former African colonies, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the digital version of the concerned colonial films[4]. We will wonder about the continuity of the procedure already underway but which has both initial and relational gaps. In any case, it is best way to identify, establish their source and the means from which it has been acquired.

Towards naturalisation as new paradigm ?

While he was doing his political tournament in the countries of West Africa, the majority of which were colonised by France. President Emmanuel Macron has sent a very clear message on restitution in this term it will be one of my priorities. Within five years, I want the conditions to be met for a return of African heritage to Africa[5]. His message launched in Burkina Faso. This message was welcomed by Africans and especially museum professionals and researchers as a step to applaud this is the first time that a French president has tackled the subject head on and has expressed his desire to move in the direction of restitution[6], Marie-Cecile Zinsou, art historian and creator of the Zinsou Foundation. But in reality it arises - and more intensively and earlier than the voluntary discretion of the authorities suggests. Very early on, in fact, while the young African states were still cheering for independence, the French administration tried in various ways to shield the collections formed from potential claims in the colonies and to ensure their full ownership and enjoyment in France in the long term.

However, successive governments continue to oppose requests for restitution, on the grounds they claimed heritage has been so long integrated into the movable heritage of the State and that as such they are inalienable. Those who oppose this request are right in part because sharing information on the traumatic history with the mostly young victims can create a bad spirit against bilateral cooperation. But on the other hand, in another language they evoke the naturalisation process.

The dynamism that the world faces does not spare heritage in general and African in particular. Human beings move, migrate, change and even create. It is important to take heritage at the same dynamic level as its creator, a human being. UNESCO sees in the same sense the peoples of Africa, the Americas, the Arab world, Asia, Europe and Oceania; men, women and children, we are all heirs of the treasures of civilizations and exceptional natural sites. We are all responsible for these riches of the past with regard to the civilisations of the future. Peoples of the world, ephemeral owners of the world heritage of humanity, it is up to us to transmit this heritage[7]. This shared heritage exceeds a national value. It engages all of humanity as a whole. It is the product of activities carried out over more than a century. While contextualising the world heritage UNESCO supports humanisation in this term the objective is to ensure the protection of a tangible heritage perceived as a universal good, regardless of the territory in which it is registered, going beyond the notion of “nature” and “culture”[8] thematic frontier and belonging.

Without ignore the horrible channel that African heritage has passed to settle in the West. This resettlement can be considered as its permanent residence if it is valued as a human being. The crucial question is whether it can choose to stay in the hosted countries or wants to be repatriated. This can only work when we value this heritage as a human being. The presence of African collections in Europe can first be considered as human migration. Considering the migration route, some arrive there by traffickers or even forced manners. They did not prevent over the years from settling in, integrating without ignoring its origins in Africa.

ICOM's Code of Ethics warns of any trends that may influence the management of collections, stressing that museums should promote the sharing of knowledge, documentation and collections with museums and cultural organisations located in countries and communities of origin. The possibilities of developing partnerships with countries or regions that have lost a significant part of their heritage should be explored[9]. It should be considered here if there is already cooperation between the museums hosting the African collections. The possibilities of developing partnerships with countries or regions that have lost a significant part of their heritage should be explored. However museums will remain open for the possibility of returning cultural property, ICOM suggests that museums should be willing to engage in dialogue for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. This approach, in addition to its impartial nature, must be based on scientific, professional and humanitarian principles, as well as on applicable local, national and international legislation[10].

The humanization of an object is a museological process normally used to give value to a material collection. This process can often be ill-gotten by biased politicians. For museum professionals, they can open constructive discussions to resolve the present problem which prompts opportunist politicians to position themselves before internal problems. From a humanism point of view, heritage constitutes a value which deserves special attention, in the same way as a person who created it.

Like any other former African settler, Belgium is the first country in the world to host many Africans of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian descent. This is due to colonial history. So this is not a surprise. Among these Belgians of Central African origin, more precisely from the countries mentioned above arrived in the same way as their heritage. Some came by means that cannot be compared to the routes by which their heritage arrived, but we can no longer distance. Because its human natures, they were treated humanely, integrated, naturalised.

Let's come back to the last point, naturalisation. We all agree that after a given moment of installation, foreigners are naturalised for certain very specific conditions. Let us compare with the heritage installed in Belgium more than a century ago in an appropriate condition to be repatriated. Do we think in terms of the welfare of heritage socially, in human life condition?. This debate deserves professional than political orientation.

During a cultural festival inaugurating a new national museum of the DRC in Kinshasa, the director Alexandre Mwambayi Kalengayi asked the president of the republic to repatriate the collections qualifying them "sacred". Apart from this reason he explains that now the country has a place to keep them now. President replied in a purely professional expression favorable to the heritage in question. He says: One day, this heritage will have to come back, but it must be done in an organised manner. We have to admit that the Belgians helped us to keep it, so we can't take it all over like that, we have to do it in a concerted way[11]. The fact that this heritage has been professionally preserved it would be as well to think about the means of naturalising it in its favor. Being naturalised does not have the means to appropriate, on the contrary it will keep its environmental context and better for everyone.

Challenges for visitors

The various studies clearly demonstrate that museum visitors benefit from a relatively specific socioeconomic profile. The great majority of them have a higher level of education and belong to the most privileged social classes. From this point of view, it should be noted that there is a positive correlation between the level of education, social class and the fact of visiting a museum: the more the person has a high level of education and belongs to a high social class[12].

Museums are classified as service institutions. Their customers are the public commonly called visitors or tourists. These groups constitute more than 95% of consumers. Still according to different studies, the two main reasons given for going to visit a museum are "to broaden one's general knowledge" and "to see something beautiful". Before determining the owner of this heritage it is very important to think first about their consumers because the collections are always at the service of human beings. This means that the main purpose of heritage is to serve the world[13]. Before determining the owner of this heritage it is very important to think first about their consumers because the collections are always at the service of human beings. This means that the main purpose of heritage is to serve the world.

Digitalisation as a way to overcome barriers

The confinement due to COVID-19 reinforces the digitalisation policy worldwide. Quite a few museums had already adopted digital exhibitions. This period of confinement has influenced the way of life for most of the commercial sectors. The figures show the increase of online shopping as a more or less secure method compared to the system used in mass before. It is questionable whether such a system cannot be used in connection with physical restitution?. Very difficult to relate but these do not prevent them from being personalised in the museum sector of course with a more or less adaptive approach. Think of our consumers as groups who can adapt to the system? Is the digital visit to museums possible ?. If people spend important time looking at photos on the internet why not museum collections ?. I think it is possible but with varied and well-treated collections that require visitors to remain loyal. This system can be useful at a given time like the one we live in today or remain used normally as new revolution sharp.

Once the system is adopted, are there interdisciplinary staff capable of combining museum activities and the digital world ?. It is possible that we have thousands of web designers but I fear that there are enough specialised in art and museum. Difficult to start but possible to move up. The advantage is to break down physical barriers. We know that visitors to museums in Africa are always the same socioeconomic people from medium groups who can provide the means of digital visit. Because museums were created for everyone but they are visited by those want on the one hand and those who have the means on the other hands. Let us remain optimistic and continue to propose the best way to share the heritage and break economic discrimination barriers . However, it is very important to place this heritage for the majority of visitors instead of transforming it into a conservatory stock.

Prosper B. Baseka


[1] Belgium: The restitution of African heritage in debate, RFI art 4th November 2018 [2] [3] District in which museum is located: [4] , last online access March 26th , 2020 at 11:30 am [5] Jeune Afrique., Emmanuel Macron undertakes to restore African heritage, art published on December 2nd 2017 at 09h54 am [6] [7] UNESCO., World Heritage, gift of humanity to the future, , last online access March 26th , 2020 at 11:30 am [8] Yâsimîn Vautor., World Heritage, a renewed approach to human relationships, Cultures, Nature, art, 2012 , March 28th , 2020 at 10:10 am [9] ICOM., ICOM Code of Ethics for the Museum, 2017, p.31 , last accessed on line on March 3rd , 2020 at 2:43 p.m. [10] Idem [11] [12] Masquelier, J-P., Observatoire des Politiques culturelles : Les musées et leurs visiteurs en Communauté française, ministère de la communauté française, 2009, p.10. , last online access on 25th March 2020, at 18h am [13] Ibidem, p.13

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