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In November 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return African cultural heritage stored in French public collections to their original owners. One year later a working group around Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy produced a widely received report proposing how this process of restitution could be put in practice. Both speech and so-called restitution report provided a vital stimulus to the ongoing debates across European countries about the appropriate handling of objects and artefacts acquired in territories under European colonial domination. This essay situates the current Macron moment within the longer international controversies on colonial restitution that had already gained momentum in the late 1970s. It queries the cultural diplomacy behind Macron’s speech and addresses both the Afrotopian potential that informs much of the optimism of the report and the tensions between the righting of historical injustices and the historical complexities of colonialism that arise from the report’s privileging of restitution over provenance research. Charting the reverberations of the report across the European world museum world, the essay analyses how the report has shifted the moral parameters of the debate about colonial objects in Germany and discusses how the aims of restitution and in-depth provenance research could possibly be reconciled.

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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