AFFORD's Return of the Icons programme.

AuthorAsquith, Paul

In the first half of2020, the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) carried out research around the restitution of stolen African artefacts and human remains held in UK museums and cultural institutions, as part of its Return of the Icons programme.

184 diaspora community members responded through an online survey and focus group discussions, making this the largest UK survey of diaspora attitudes to the restitution of African artefacts ever undertaken. Interviews also took place with museum professionals, diaspora cultural professionals and African government stakeholders active in this area.

Diaspora respondents were overwhelmingly (nearly 80%) in favour of the return of stolen African artefacts and human remains to their countries and communities of origin.

The principal barrier to the restitution of stolen African artefacts from UK collections is the legal restrictions on national collections preventing their return. The number of formal requests made for the return of objects is quite limited some institutions have had very few, if any, requests. Not all collections have fully catalogued the African artefacts they hold.

Given the number of technical criteria to be fulfilled around provenance and ownership and perceived capacity issues at some African receiving institutions, the fear of UK policy-makers that restitution risks setting a precedent which will end up emptying UK national collections seems misplaced.

AFFORD's research identified four main potential pathways for return that will inform future advocacy and campaign strategies:

* changes in the law through the UK Parliament

* legal test cases

* voluntary return agreements

* other forms of return (revolving or long-term loans, for example)

The Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018, arguably marked a shift in how European cultural institutions are starting to treat African cultural heritage.

UK cultural institutions risk being left behind if they do not develop appropriate restitution policies and programmes, at a time when the UK's bilateral relations with Africa and the rest of the world are set to become more important than ever post-Brexit.

A gulf in perception

There appears to be a gap--a gulf even--in perception between some museum professionals and the general public in the UK on the one hand--who have little experience of being dispossessed of their cultural heritage--and African...

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