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Europe’s arguments against restitution have ignored the legitimate claims of African scholars and governments for 50 years.
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As a result of violent plunder over the centuries, Europe—more than any other region in the world, including Africa—holds the largest collection of ancient African artifacts. The total number of African objects in museums across the United States barely reaches 50,000. Yet Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa alone has 180,000 objects, Germany’s Ethnological Museum has 75,000, France’s Quai Branly Museum has almost 70,000, the British Museum has 73,000 from Africa, and the Netherlands’ National Museum of World Cultures has 66,000.
It has been 50 years since African governments, against a backdrop of hard-fought independence, started asking for the return of looted objects. Despite celebratory press coverage on returns and Western curators’ recent commitments to decolonize museums, very few items have been physically repatriated. In February, Nigeria welcomed back to Benin City just two statues out of more than 3,000 Benin Bronzes—a collection of sacred works made from ivory, bronze, and wood—still held mostly in Europe.
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