Tread carefully when repatriating art to Africa by Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace

Digitisation of cultural heritage must be a considered process to ensure legal clarity and avoid exploitation

President Macron of France is considering proposals to digitise and repatriate African art in French museums in a move that could forever change the way we understand and access history and culture.

It is morally the right thing to do but, unless the process is handled with care and a good understanding of the law, there is a risk of Africa’s cultural heritage being exploited.

Curators around the world are anxiously awaiting Mr Macron’s decision on whether to implement the recommendations in the joint report by Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese writer, and Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian. Without changes to the complex rules around the ownership of historical artifacts it will be exceptionally difficult for museums to adhere to the proposal.

As legal experts, we have just submitted a report detailing our concerns about the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture in Paris. We argue that what is being proposed could mean that while France returns Africa’s cultural heritage, Paris could still legally retain control over the generation, presentation and stewardship of Africa’s digital cultural heritage for decades to come. This means that the French could claim a right to digitise cultural heritages that are not theirs in the first place.

Decisions about digitisation will fall under EU rather than African law, meaning that there is a risk of imposing Western perspectives of how intellectual property should be exploited — or not — and how access should be extended to Africa’s cultural heritage.

There is a global lack of clarity on which objects in museums are protected under intellectual property rights. There are many legal issues that the French government must research further and consult about before any of this work takes place.

In France, open access to digital heritage collections is almost non-existent, so the government must be careful not to create a double standard by requiring African cultural heritage to be digitised and made available when the same demands are not made of its own national institutions.

What must happen is a “slow digitisation” approach, where those carrying out this work pay the same attention to the processes of digitisation as we pay to the objects themselves.

Rather than happen rapidly, there should be extensive consultation. In creating any portal showing objects digitally, the French government can look to successful existing models of digital heritage collections developed by Europeana, the EU’s platform for cultural heritage. This avoids the expense of commissioning redundant research.

The French government should also collaborate with those running African digitisation initiatives. This would facilitate building community-based solutions around digitisation, access and education, especially in native languages.

These recommendations are an opportunity to let African nations decide if creating a digital version of their cultural heritage accessible by all is something they support. They must have agency over their own cultural heritage without interference.

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