Shielding the Spirit of a Continent An Existential Argument for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

The struggle for the restitution of Africa’s artefacts from Western museums reflects the necessary undoing of imperial domination. It is not merely political but also existential—it is a fight for the spirit of Africa.

Editor's note: This essay is available in our print issue, A New Chapter for African Artefacts?. Buy the issue here.

In November 1964, during a United Kingdom parliamentary debate about plans to return Burma’s Mandalay regalia, the newly elected prime minister, Harold Wilson, received disapproving comments from John Tilney, a conservative member of parliament. A former under-secretary of state for commonwealth relations, Tilney conveyed antipathy to the decision to return Burmese items and further implied it would be ludicrous for the UK to also return the royal ornaments of the Asantehene, the monarch of the Asante people in Ghana. Such sentiments, fuelled by colonial apologia, grew as Africans increased efforts to decolonize their societies.  

Since the early years of post-colonial political independence on the African continent, European museums and governments have found ways to suppress the pleas of Africans for restitution. Reluctant to return stolen items, many have offered to loan the looted artworks to African countries. Such behaviour typifies the brazen audacity of European imperialists who enact large scale violence against people and proceed to determine stringent conditions for how the oppressed should conduct their affairs... 

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