France must return the cultural heritage it acquired during its long history of colonisation and occupation in Africa. This is the message driven home by the Restitution Report commissioned by the French government back in 2017, delivered by authors Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in December 2018 [see here for a previous post on the Report].
Whilst the Restitution Report is a welcome contribution to the debate on the decolonisation of cultural heritage, it overlooks the critical role played by open access policies and intellectual property rights in the management of cultural heritage objects. This is especially true of digital cultural heritage, which holds a contested place as subject-matter protected (or not?) by copyright [see here, here and here for posts on this topic].
The Report’s absence of discussion on intellectual property rights is particularly problematic, because its authors recommend the systematic digitization of all objects returned and a “radical practice of sharing” allowing the free and open access of these images. Over 100 heritage and intellectual property specialists warned the French Government of this problem, in a written response to the Restitution Report submitted to the Ministry of Culture on 25 March 2019.
Co-written by this Kat and Dr Andrea Wallace (University of Exeter), the response challenges the Restitution Report for its recommendation on systematic digitization, open access requirements and intellectual property rights. Put simply, the response stresses that if the French government recognizes that African cultural heritage is not theirs to keep, it should not be theirs to digitize and make available in open access either. Those decisions rest with the communities of origin, otherwise restitution and decolonisation cannot be fully achieved.
|African masks, Quai Branly museum (Paris)|
Today, digital heritage is as important as material heritage and it must be fully integrated within future restitution policies and collections management. The restitution of African Digital Cultural Heritage therefore cannot be treated as an afterthought.
Further, the validity of intellectual property claims in certain digital materials and the implementation of open access policies are contested and subject to increasing global legal and social controversy [see here and here for a recent court case in Germany on this question]. In France, open access to digital heritage collections is almost non-existent, thus the French Government should refrain from taking any position that creates a double standard by requiring African Cultural Heritage to be digitized and made available when the same demands are not made of its own national institutions [see here for a review of cultural institutions’ position on open access, including French museums and galleries].
Accordingly, the response to the Restitution Report asks that the complex issues regarding intellectual property rights and open access policies around these materials be acknowledged by the French Government during the restitution process, should it take place. The response also calls on it to dedicate further resources to researching and co-developing digitization solutions with African communities of origin.
IP plays a role in decolonising cultural heritage: over 100 experts warn France Reviewed by Mathilde Pavis on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 Rating: