Skip to Content

Imagining Decolonized European Museums

Back to Article Listing


Courtney Pierce

Center for Art Collection Ethics Graduate Assistant

Elizabeth Campbell

Director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics

Blog  •

French prime minister Edouard Philippe hands the sword of Omar Saidou Tall to Senegal president Macky Sall. Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/AFP via Getty Images. Image retrieved from

In a break from COVID-19 news, we offer reflections on recent efforts to decolonize European museums. Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University, recently argued in The Guardian that some decolonizing measures have fallen short of stated objectives. He provides the example of the renovated Belgium Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, where displays continue to “extend racist ideology and colonial violence through the objectification of Africans.” More thoroughly reimagined European museums, Hicks contends, can be “sites of conscience,” confronting the legacies of empire “for the restitution of knowledge and memory as well as of property.”

Amid heated debates in Europe over colonial repatriation, new cultural institutions in Africa are preserving heritage and encouraging creativity from an African perspective. The new Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, for instance, promotes art production and has space available to welcome works from France, which currently holds an estimated 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa.

A 2018 report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron advocates the permanent repatriation of items removed from Africa without consent. So far, the Dakar museum has received a sword from France that belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, an important Muslim spiritual leader in the 1800s. It is a loan, however – not full repatriation. Far more could be done and African leaders are coordinating efforts to quicken the pace of repatriation.

In February 2020, twelve African Union heads of state formed a new cultural Council, at the invitation of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, President of Mali and Union Leader for Arts, Culture and Heritage. The Council aims to designate 2021 "the year of culture, " with initiatives that include hastening the return of cultural assets.

Dan Hicks’ piece is available here.