The culture ministers of Germany and France signed an agreement to set up a joint provenance research fund to focus on museum objects from sub-Saharan Africa. The countries will jointly spend €2.1m (£1.8m) to further research the provenance of African heritage objects in their national museums’ collections, which could prepare the ground for their eventual return.
A three-year fund, with contributions of €360,000 a year by each country, was launched in Berlin on Friday. It has been designated to fund research on objects from anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, though priority is expected to be given to countries that were colonised by France and Germany, such as Togo and Cameroon.
“This is an experimental fund,” said Dr Julie Sissia, a researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch, a Franco-German research centre in Berlin that will administer the funds. “We are launching it with the widest possible criteria, so that both small and biggest projects can apply.” The only requirement was that the projects were led by mixed French and German teams from the world of academia and museums, she said.
A Europe-wide debate about the return of African heritage objects was set in motion when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced in 2017 that he would “do everything possible” to return some of Africa’s cultural heritage looted by colonial France.
Both France and Germany have pledged to return heritage looted from former colonies, and both countries have in recent years restituted objects from their museums. According to the Art Newspaper, France returned 26 objects looted by colonial soldiers to the Republic of Benin in 2021. In contrast, Germany’s restitution efforts has gathered more momentum since. In November 2022, a German foundation funded the launch of the first comprehensive database of artefacts collectively known as the Benin bronze. A year later Germany’s foreign minister physically returned 21 bronzes to Nigeria.
“A large part of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is today located outside the countries and regions of origin, and much of it is in European collections,” German culture minister Claudia Roth said in a statement. “With this French-German fund, we are launching a new phase in confronting this historical injustice.”
A collaborative step forward is marked by the newly established fund, as France and Germany actively support efforts to unearth the histories behind African heritage objects housed in their respective national collections.