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African Restitution

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is supporting research that aims to identify and return African artefacts held in European museums.

A new interdisciplinary project led by Professor Dan Hicks (University of Oxford) and Professor Bénédicte Savoy (Technische Universität Berlin) will focus on how cultural assets from the African continent looted following military expeditions came into the possession of major European museums, known as 'cultural spoilation'. 

The project, initially concerned with the period between 1850 and 1939, is joint funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG) with additional funding awarded by the Berlin University Alliance and the Oxford-Berlin Research Partnership. 

Dan Hicks has published a number of influential works on museum restitution, including the monograph turned New York Times best-selling book 'The Brutish Museums'. Bénédicte Savoy is equally prominent in this field, following her 2018 report 'Restituer le Patrimoine Africain' for the French government and underlined by her new book 'Afrikas Kampf um Seine Kunst' (‘Africa’s Struggle for Her Art’).

‘The Restitution of Knowledge: Artefacts as Archives in the (Post)Colonial Museum 1850-1939’ is one of three strands of African Restitution work led by Professor Hicks. The project team includes post-doctoral researchers Dr Yann LeGall in Berlin and Dr Mary-Ann Middelkoop in Oxford.

As a new intervention in the emerging field of (post)colonial provenance research, the project addresses an urgent need among museum professionals, historical researchers and indigenous source communities for a systematic inventory of incidents where objects were taken in so-called ‘punitive expeditions’.

The project will use a methodology developed at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum of cross-referencing names, dates and places associated with punitive expeditions in European museum collections. It will gradually refine and develop comparative resources which document acts of colonial spoliation by focusing on museum artefacts’ complete historical and contemporary relevance.

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