Should colonial artefacts be repatriated ?

Par Aleksandra Olchowska


France has been in the vanguard of countries making an effort to restore colonial artefacts to their countries of origin since Emmanuel Macron vowed to repatriate 26 works of art looted in Benin during the colonial era. Despite being well-intentioned, his decision sparked controversy as he came under fire from Britons for projecting a moralising vision of history. The following question springs to mind : Should colonial artefacts be returned to  or shared with their original owners ?

There is no denying that there are various moral underpinnings to former colonial powers' commitment to repatriate colonial artefacts. They are indeed part and parcel of the colonized people's history, to which they are morally entitled.  While colonial attitudes led to the emergence of a widespread view that Africa as such had little « real » history, it is high time such patronizing claims were abolished. In brief, where specific works are known to have been illegally seized, it is only too normal that the original owners should forcefully demandthe repatriation of such masterpieces. It is thus urgent that museums and collectors should do their utmost to retrace the exact history of these artefacts, which were more often than not considered only for their aesthetic or exotic value.

That being said, it should be borne in mind that works that were looted and illegally seized  represent a minority in ethnographic museums. Besides, as territorial jurisdiction changed hands over time, it is sometimes impossible to determine which country should benefit from repatriation (as epitomized by the Horses of Saint Marc, known as the Triumphal Quadriga.) Moving borders thus raise the issue of practical hindrances to such an enterprise.

Even more importantly, though, it is of paramount importance to note that the repatriation scheme pushes us to ponder over our common origins. Artefacts epitomize humanity's achievements and show how migrations and travel have shaped the world we currently live in.

While trying to decide whether colonial artefacts should be repatriated, one should also take account of the fact that the so-called indigenous peoples are sometimes positive about the representation of their cultural heritage in prestigious international museums (the inhabitants of certain areas of the Pacific are a case in point.) Works of art can thus be regarded as ambassadors of sorts;  such an approach is more conducive to cooperation and exchange rather than self-withdrawal and nationalism.

            At the end of the day, while the moral case for repatriation is strong when masterpieces were looted or forcibly obtained, artefacts should actually be accessible to as many people as possible. Indeed, on account of our common origins and in the name of universal heritage,  sharing artefacts may seem to be a constructive option to repatriation.


Aleksandra Olchowska

Professeur d’anglais en CPGE, Lycée Louis Barthou

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