Culture is vital to reconstruction. The AFFORD Institute’s Paul Asquith talks about our latest initiative and why, more than ever, culture matters.
Culture gives comfort in times of turmoil, it unites us and makes us understand what it means to be human.Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum
Museums and cultural institutions provide an anchor and a refuge. People cling closer to culture for reassurance in times of crisis – it forms and informs identity.
It is also a source of memory and guidance, a repository of what has befallen societies before and how they have responded, for good or ill. It helps communities navigate uncertain times and seed future reconstruction.
In the UK, we have been fortunate to avoid challenges on a similar scale to the Covid-19 outbreak for three generations now. Arguably, in our national consciousness, we have forgotten how to live through a crisis – or how to rebuild afterwards.
Other countries have not been so lucky. Those that have not – Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, the occupation by insurgents of Timubuktu in Mali, survivors of the Rwandan genocide – have learnt to treasure culture and its preservation and exhibition as an integral part of national development, reconstruction, and reconciliation.
UK museums and cultural institutions must educate and build cultural resilience during this crisis and help rebuild the UK’s tourism and heritage sectors when it is over. They must also play an important role in our national conversation about who we are, how we ended up here and where we are headed.
It is against this backdrop, controversial issues around cultural patrimony and heritage are increasingly coming under the spotlight. Countries around the world are increasingly requesting the return of stolen human remains and cultural artefacts from museums and other institutions in the UK and Europe, which hold unique collections of art and historical treasures from their colonial past. Often these items hold the key to a sense of identity and community, of resilience and rebirth.
Estimates suggest up to 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s historical material cultural heritage is held outside the continent, as a result of colonisation, conquest, plunder and theft, as well as legitimate trade and exchange.
While the ethical arguments against return of stolen remains and artefacts are increasingly unanswerable, there remain significant legal, technical, and practical challenges.
No-one is advocating emptying UK museums. Items should only be returned when they are formally requested and when the institution they are being returned can preserve and display them.
Agitation for the return of African cultural artefacts to their countries of origin is growing at community, national and international levels. There is increasing debate among museum curators and experts on the one hand, and the broader public and especially African diaspora communities on the other.
Through its Return of the Icons programme, the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) is working with museum professionals and experts in the UK and Africa, and members of the diaspora, to explore what these artefacts mean to these communities, especially young people.
Through research, community engagement and public campaigns, we are working to develop frameworks for the return of these African icons and build mutually productive partnerships between museums and other cultural institutions in the UK and Africa. The tourism and heritage sectors are of growing importance to economies in Africa, providing badly needed jobs for local people. And so the return of stolen artefacts – many of which languish in museum basements, unloved and undisplayed – can help drive economic recovery as well as building cultures of pride and resilience.
Please join our group to keep up to date or contribute to the debate.
 Calls for return have gained momentum following the recommendations of the ground-breaking Sarr-Savoy report, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019, which calls for the full restitution of works in French museum collections plundered from former African colonies. https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/28112018-macron-report-repatriation