On a visit to Burkina Faso last year, Emmanuel Macron promised to repatriate Africa’s plundered artworks. The French president said he would start a process of returning African art and artefacts held in France’s public collections, as part of efforts to reset relations with former colonies. “The crimes of European colonisation are unquestionable,” he said. “It’s a past that needs to pass.”
Just months later, Mr Macron has followed up on his promise by appointing two independent experts, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, to draw up a set of recommendations for how to do it.
It is a highly significant move. For the first time, a conversation that is usually held behind the closed doors of museums will be brought into the public gaze, when the two make their report in November. Every western museum with ethnographic holdings will be watching intently. Although guidelines set in France might have no legal sway in other countries, the moral pressure of public opinion will carry weight elsewhere.
Recent French presidents have had close connections to the country’s museums: Georges Pompidou created the groundbreaking Pompidou Centre in the 1970s; his successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, oversaw the setting up of the Musée d’Orsay; François Mitterrand marshalled the expansion of the Louvre. Jacques Chirac was passionate about non-European Art. It was his outstanding private collection, and public ambition for ethnographic art, that brought about Paris’s great Quai Branly Museum in 2006. It contains thousands of superb African and Eurasian artworks, and now — perhaps ironically, in view of Mr Macron’s intentions — bears Mr Chirac’s name.
The director of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, Stéphane Martin, has in the past told writers he has no intention of becoming an “apology museum”. Once a staunch refusenik of returning art, he has recently sided cautiously with Mr Macron — although he is more in favour of extended loan programmes than full repatriation.