UNESCO hosts conference on the circulation of cultural property and shared heritage

On 1 June, UNESCO hosted an international conference on the circulation of cultural property, three months after the appointment by Emmanuel Macron of a binomial responsible in France to reflect on their return to Africa.

According to experts, 90% of items of cultural heritage originating from various African nations is currently outside the continent, showcased till this day at museums and displays around the world. At a time when issues around displacement of cultural property from the countries of origin are being considered worldwide, consultation, dialogue and cooperation among states and museums on access to shared heritage need to be fostered.

French President Emmanuel Macron had announced last November that he would implement, within five years, temporary and definitive restitution of cultural property to Africa. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he told a group of students during a two-hour speech at the University of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

At UNESCO on Friday, more than twenty high-level personalities debated along with its Director General Audrey Azoulay on how to implement these refunds. Among them were Beninese President Patrice Talon, Hamady Bocoum, General Director of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal, and George Abungu, who heads the National Museums of Kenya.

The conference sought to provide a space for political and cultural representatives and high-level scholars and experts to share their insight, debate on issues related to the circulation of cultural property, identify solutions and formulate specific recommendations on the way forward.

“These are not yet official discussions,” says Alain-Claude Bilie Bi Nzé, Gabonese Minister of Culture according to RFI. “We have promoted a number of experts to work and I am in Paris to discuss it. The first thing is already to go on a temporary restitution, so that the Gabonese can access these pieces. Then, it will be necessary to gradually look piece by piece, or collection by collection, either in terms of graceful return, or in terms of acquisition of its goods.”

The subject is not only about France though as UNESCO also invited stakeholders from around the world, including two German museum directors to join ministers, directors of museums and academics in an exchange around new forms of sharing works.