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DECOLONIZING EUROPEAN MUSEUMS: Repatriation, African Artifacts, And Postcolonial Museology

Clement Akpang
Tuesday, March 14, 2023, 5:40 pm – 7:30 pm

This lecture will highlight the problematics of repatriation from an African perspective, then introduce the concept of postcolonial museology as a crucial framework to decolonize European museums.

As tangible and intangible legacies of European empires, ethnographic museums continue to revivify colonialism by distorting the history of the Other.

Through the anthropological gaze, they misconstrue cultural differences for cultural hierarchy, thus, displaying African cultures, for example, in animated suspense that invokes imagined fossilized visions of the continent. Provenance and restitution advocacies have risen from this European museum's imperial entanglement. However, like most postcolonial projects, restitution is slipping into neo-imperialism in the form of material missionerism. A narrow conception of restitution centered around the politicization of artifacts return to former colonies dominates European and Sub-Saharan African approaches to the subject, failing to address the more significant issue of decolonization.

With restitution dissolving into aimless diplomatic politics, there is an urgent need to focus on repositioning African objects in Europe, rethinking their narratives and representations, and reframing African art history as epistemological restitution for the imperial epistemicide against Africa.

There are an estimated 70,000 African objects at the Musee du Quai Branly in France, 69,000 at the British Museum, 37,000 at the Welt Museum in Austria, and 75,000 at the future Humboldt forum in Germany, as well as 180,000 at the Musee royal de l' Afrique centrale in Belgium. The Neprajzi Muzeum in Budapest houses over 3,000, not to mention thousands in private collections.

However, fewer than 30,000 artifacts are contested, meaning the rest may never return to their indigenous origins. Compared to the volume genuinely owned by European museums, the number of contested African artifacts is numerically insignificant to correct colonial cultural dispossession or epistemicide, even if Europe repatriates all such works to Africa.

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