UNESCO – International Conference of leaders and thinkers examines new perspectives for displaced heritage

Heritage Stewardship

International Conference of leaders and thinkers examines new perspectives for displaced heritage
06 June 2018
On 1 June, UNESCO convened politicians and experts from across the world to a conference entitled “Circulation of Cultural Property and Shared Heritage: What New Perspectives”, as part of its mandate as the UN’s cultural organization and in keeping with its vocation to serve as an international laboratory of ideas.

The conference took place at a time of growing public debate concerning the circulation and sharing of cultural property preserved in museums, institutions and sites situated away from the countries or communities that produced them – issues that are both complex and compelling.

“The subject encompasses questions of identity, memory, sovereignty, which are not only legal but also diplomatic, political, historical, philosophical and ethical […] To trace these seized, looted, displaced works is to trace the world’s violent history,” declared UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in her opening message. Ms Azoulay stressed the need for dialogue and for openness to emerging modalities of cooperation…

A keynote address by Professor Bénédicte Savoy, art historian at the Technische Universität Berlin and (Germany) and Professor, Collège de France (France), contextualized the debate stressing that European museums needed to be recognized for their work in preserving and shedding light on cultural heritage but that this could not be kept apart from questions concerning the provenence of some of their collections, notably those acquired during the colonial period. Retracing the evolution of public discourse on sensitive questions concerning these collections, including UNESCO‘s work in this area, over the past 40 years, she noted a lack of progress and an urgent need for action. “Mindsets can evolve. As with all taboo subjects or stories of family secrets […] we must talk openly for things to change.“

Ministers from Benin, France, Gabon, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, Peru, and Senegal presented their political, economic, and cultural visions of the subject. Senegal’s Minister of Culture, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, underscored that restitution is legitimate, and that “Africa is ready” to house collections in museums on a par with the standards of Western institutions…