An Africa centered approach to restitution data

This story was written thanks to an open call funded by Creative Commons Open GLAM Platform. This is part of a series of articles that will be published in the Open GLAM Medium publication, that have been supported with the goal of showcasing stories around the world on Open GLAM. Find out more here.

“ It was at this moment this movie went from being good, to great ”

Youtube — AlwonDomz

In 2018, Black Panther, the immensely popular American film became the highest grossing solo superhero film ever made. The film left an enormous cultural footprint globally but more so in the lives of millions of black audiences all around the world who for the first time consumed a superhero film entirely built on African cultures, clothing, history and aesthetics.

One of the most profound scenes in Black Panther is one in which the lead antagonist, Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) stands in front of a selection of African artefacts at the “Museum of Great Britain”. As he observes these artefacts the museum director attempts to answer his questions by elaborating on where the different artefacts are from, citing kingdoms such as Ashanti and Benin. When the director guesses the origins of one artefact wrong, Killmonger interrupts by saying “It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. And it’s made out of Vibranium…Don’t trip — I’m gonna take it off your hands for you”. When the director protests that the work isn’t for sale, Killmonger retorts: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it… like they took everything else?

The importance of this scene in Black Panther cannot be understated. Though fictional, this 3-minute dialogue highlighting the looting and display of African artefacts in Western museums would play a profound part in bringing the discussion on restitution into the public sphere, creating space for public audiences to have and unpack a discussion that was previously limited to expert circles.

In November of the same year (2018) Senegalese academic and writer Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy published the seminal Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics report,which sent the entire museum world into a frenzy. The report brought to the forefront the sheer quantity of African artefacts held in Western museums estimating that nearly 90% of African material heritage is held outside the continent with just 5 of Europe’s top museums holding a combined total of 431,000 objects. Unlike Black Panther, the primary audience for the report was specialist groups such as cultural heritage professionals, government ministries and more.

Though the Sarr /Savoy report and Black Panther target entirely different demographics through different mediums they have one thing in common: they both brought the longstanding debate on restitution of African artefacts to the forefront of public consciousness, by highlighting the ignored, the unacknowledged, the hidden and the suppressed. It is at the intersection of these two spaces, the public and the private, the specialist and the non-specialist, that the idea for the Open Restitution Africa project was born.

Founded in 2020 by Molemo Moiloa and myself, Chao Tayiana Maina, the project seeks to open up access to information on restitution of African material culture and human ancestors, to empower all stakeholders involved to make knowledge-based decisions. As the momentum behind restitution grows, many positions and controversies emerge. Too often, these are based on opinion, assumption and guesses. In cases where positions and controversies are based on actual knowledge of a certain issue, this knowledge is often specific, localised and anecdotal.

Founders Molemo and Chao were both struck by how much of the debate on the return of objects and human ancestors back to Africa, happens behind closed doors.

This not only means the public are kept out of this conversation, it also means that African practitioners are unable to learn from each other, collaborate or even know what has taken place in other countries/communities. The need for the project also stemmed from the fact that there is currently very little information available to African practitioners, interested parties and the general public alike, on the current international status of restitution debates, policy and practice. Because of this we are unable to observe objective trends, shifts and impacts, and enable more people to operate from a place of knowledge.

The project is technology oriented and seeks to serve as an aggregator, open data portal and data analysis platform for debates on restitution emerging from the African continent. Driven by a commitment to the impact of knowledge and transparency for debate and decision making, ORA aims to ensure more Africans are equipped with information for more equitable restitution. The project has three main strands:

• Public Awareness — We believe that public awareness and building of a critical mass around the restitution debate is a crucial part of the restitution process. ORA seeks to bring African positions on restitution to the forefront of the debate, which has until now been dominated by European positions. The project also seeks to open up conversations around restitution with the belief that a more transparent, open and inclusive way to access information can enable a more in depth and nuanced discussion among Africans.

Between August 2020 and December 2020, ORA hosted 4 webinar discussions each featuring 4 African practitioners working on restitution in different contexts. From Kenya, Zambia, Senegal and Ghana, the Restitution Dialogues series aimed to introduce themes and issues around restitution to a wider audience in clear, accessible ways and to spotlight important voices from the African continent on this issue.

• Research — Knowledge production and research is another crucial component of this work. Through an in-depth research phase with the aim to understand the needs of African practitioners while evaluating the ease or difficulty of access to data on restitution, the ORA will carry out and commission research that will be used to establish the viability of an open data platform to address these needs and facilitate data driven approach to restitution in Africa, and advocate for and establish partnerships and relationships with key stakeholders to support data access.

• Data platform — The final component of the Open Restitution project is the data platform. We aim to build and prototype an open data platform to support restitution based on the research outcomes and perspectives from the public engagement. The proposed data platform will be centred around 3 core principles: Transparency, Access and Centralisation. Open Restitution is committed to the principle that more transparency, openness and access to centralised information in clear and easy to understand language can enable a more in depth and nuanced discussion among Africans around restitution.

“Open Restitution allows us to define in contemporary times what restitution means to us, as Africans. We see this is an opportunity to unpack the cultural, hierarchical, emotional and power complexities that African practitioners are facing. For us, restitution isn’t just another issue, it’s a reality that we live everyday and it’s time that the discussion was centered around the African experience.”

For founders Molemo and myself, Open Restitution is not just a platform, it’s an experiment, a process, an exploration.An attempt to expand the definition of open data to include process data, human experience data. We understand that within the African experience, restitution is not just an issue or a debate, it is a reality that we face every day.

Essentially and very deliberately we are OPEN to this evolving and to alternative definitions. We are at the very beginning of this work and we ask you to join us on this journey. What does openness in the context of restitution mean to you? What would a transparent process look like?

Open Restitution Africa is currently a passion project, and entirely self-financed. Anyone interested to support the continuation and expansion of this work is encouraged to get in touch with us through our email info@openrestitution.africa. You can also follow our work on our website or twitter page for updates on the project.

About this story

This story was written thanks to an open call funded by Creative Commons Open GLAM Platform. This is part of a series of articles that will be published in the Open GLAM Medium publication, that have been supported with the goal of showcasing stories around the world on Open GLAM. Find out more here.

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