During a visit to Burkina Faso last year, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to make the return of African art a “top priority.”
“African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums,” he said at the time.
In Germany, where most provenance research has focused on art looted during the Nazi years of the 1930s and ’40s, the subject of provenance research into objects taken during earlier times has been the matter of some controversy. Although Germany’s empire was much smaller than France’s or Britain’s, it had several African colonies and acquired many objects for its museums from these territories, as well as from other parts of the world.
Bénédicte Savoy, an art historian and outspoken critic of current curatorial practices in Germany, last year quit the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum, a huge new museum under construction in Berlin, in part to protest the lack of research into the provenance of it collection. Professor Savoy, who both heads the modern art history department at Berlin’s Technical University and holds a professorship at the Collège de France in Paris, has since been hired to advise President Macron on the repatriation of African art.
When it opens next year, the collection of Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum will be incorporated into the Humboldt Forum, along with the Asian art collections of other Berlin museums.