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The British Museum
The British Museumcourtesy of Instagram/@minakowisteria_uk

The British Museum has its ‘head in the sand’ about returning artworks

The authors of an influential report on colonial-era artwork restitution have criticised the museum

Back in November 2018, a 252-page report was published, recommending the restitution of colonial-era artworks in European museums to the countries they were taken from. Since, the report has inspired France, Germany, and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to return artworks at the request of African countries, but the authors – Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy – have criticised the British Museum for failing to act.

Apparently, the London-based museum has continually failed to address the issue of artwork restitution laid out in the Macron report (named after the French president Emmanuel Macron, who ordered the research).

“There’s an expression in French, la politique de l’autruche, which means something is in front of you and you say you can’t see it, like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” Sarr tells The Guardian. “They will have to respond and they can’t hide themselves any longer on the issue.”

Of course, the British Museum has a huge collection of foreign artworks that would be affected by Sarr and Savoy’s suggestions. Admittedly, it has committed to lending some of these back to their countries of origin – such as its portion of the Benin bronzes – but this practice really seems to miss the point of restitution.

“It’s not enough because in a loan the right of the property belongs to you,” says Sarr, and Savoy adds: “If you can loan your objects you are respected in the museum world because you can impose your will and conditions. In the capitalist sphere being able to loan gives you power and it means you can impose your own rights.”

Of course, the restitution scheme has seen some pushback from Western institutions and members of the art world, but as Savoy says: “It’s not us who are radical; it’s historical facts which are radical.”

Environmental activists have also recently staged large protests at the British Museum for its ties to BP.