Give Africa its cultural heritage back … But keep its digital cultural heritage?

Should France [and any other colonial power] give back to Africa [or any other former colony] its cultural heritage? ‘Yes’ says the experts’ report delivered last week to President Emmanuel Macron, urging France to do so regarding Africa's cultural heritage (here). 

In 2017, the French President commissioned a report to evaluate the possibility of making restitution regarding the African cultural heritage currently held by the collections and archives of French museums. A year later, heritage specialists Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy delivered a 252-page long report, outlining a five-year plan to return cultural heritage items to their respective places of origin. 

Their proposed restitution policy is primarily concerned with the policies and conventions of conduct in place to trace the origin and rightful ownership of items, depending on the circumstances of their acquisition (sales, donation, looting and the like). At first glance, this discussion should have little to do with intellectual property rights. Indeed, most of the items relevant for the proposed process of restitution are in the public domain.

However, intellectual property is not entirely irrelevant here. On a number of occasions, the report notes that
[a] large number of photographic, cinematographic, or sound documents concerning African societies once held by former colonial administrations have recently been part of intensive campaigns for digitization projects (p. 68).

The authors of the report also advise relying on the digital reproduction of the items to be returned to facilitate the restitution process. Going further, they advocate for the “systematic digitization of documents of documents that have yet to be digitized concerning Africa should be established”, following “a dialogue with other institutions and parties involved”.

But who owns -- or should own -- this (new?) digital cultural heritage? The report does not say but marks this question as an outstanding issue.

Within the framework of the project of restitutions, these digitized objects must be made part of a radical practice of sharing, including how one rethinks the politics of image rights use.(p. 68 – emphasis added)

Two lines down, the Report stresses that:

It goes without saying that questions around the rights for the reproduction of images needs to be the object of a complete revision regarding requests coming from African countries from which these works originated including any photographs, films, and recording of these societies.

It is not clear what “a radical practice of sharing” and “[rethinking] the politics of image rights use” mean in practice, but the authors of the report are clearly in favour of making digital reproductions of African cultural heritage available via open access:

Given the large number of French institutions concerned and the difficulty that a foreign public has for navigating through these museums, we recommend the creation of a single portal providing access to this precious documentation in the form of a platform that would be open access. (p 68)
Free access to these materials as well as the free use of the images and documents should be the end goal. (p. 69)
It thus seems that the authors are already positioning themselves on this question by advocating for an ‘all-digitised’ and ‘all-open-access’ approach to the restitution of African cultural heritage, despite the fact that “dialogue with the other institutions and parties involved” has not taken place yet.

If we are aiming for the true decolonisation of the African cultural heritage, should we not let the African countries involved decide whether creating a digital version of their cultural heritage accessible by all [developed countries] on open access is not only “the [our?] end goal” but their end goal? Would we not be strong-arming African institutions into “a radical practice of sharing” by setting a standard of all-open access for their digital cultural heritage according to France’s values of heritage safeguarding? Isn’t the aim of this process of restitution to give African countries agency over their own cultural heritage without interference?

Masks, collection of the Quai Branly Museum (Paris)
This issue is especially important considering that galleries, libraries, archives and museums in developed countries, such as the UK, are still on the fence on the question of making digitised reproductions of public domain works systematically open access. Many institutions and collectors continue to claim copyright protection over public domain artworks for various reasons, including commercial profits, covering the costs associated with the making and hosting of the digital files or subsidising other collections (see here and here for more on this). On 12 September 2018, the question of claiming copyright in digitised reproductions of public domain works was debated in the UK Parliament, with no foreseeable resolution in sight (here).
Felwine Sarr & Bénédicte Savoy - Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

It would seem rather hypocritical to have the access to digital cultural heritage items of developed countries limited by claims of intellectual property rights (because policymakers have failed to reach a consensus on the appropriate open-access policy), whilst the digital African cultural heritage is made entirely open access. There is a risk of creating double standards that may undercut the otherwise welcome effort of decolonisation initiated by this report under the aegis of the current government.

Give Africa its cultural heritage back … But keep its digital cultural heritage? Give Africa its cultural heritage back … But keep its digital cultural heritage? Reviewed by Mathilde Pavis on Monday, November 26, 2018 Rating: 5

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