The last few years have seen seismic shifts in discussions about the restitution of cultural heritage. We are witnessing the previously unthinkable situation, where certain objects held in museums in the North might be returned to the communities in the South. Nevertheless, very few objects have actually physically moved.
We asked ourselves if this inertia is not only political. Perhaps it is due to a lack of imagination? Maybe, if we start to tell one another stories about their homecoming and if we actively imagine what might happen when they come back, then we can precipitate their return.
You might ask yourself what imagination has to do with the political debates of returning cultural heritage. But, in fact, visual artists have been involved in these discussions since the 1990s and were part of a small group of people who were questioning the ownership of these objects by museums. Today this movement has swelled to include thousands of people. It has become “unstoppable”*.
We believe that this moment, in which opinions are moving but objects are not, might be the time for writers. Because now is the time for stories which envision new paths, trigger political imaginations and finally project us into a future in which objects are experiencing new lives.
Acknowledging the power of the written word is not just wishful thinking. Because over the past decades it is precisely language itself which has often frustrated attempts at restitution. Words have been weaponised in legal documents and as specific terminology to prevent the return of objects and to fence off their futures outside museums in the North.
We hope that this publication can participate in inverting that process. That it can participate in opening up other uses of the language to say and imagine the future of these objects.
(Sam Hopkins, Marian Nur Goni, Simon Rittmeier)
* Achille Mbembe in Catherine Hickley, “‘The movement is unstoppable’: African scholars and activists hail German plan to return Benin bronzes”, The Art Newspaper, 24 March 2021, online.