“Colonial” human remains cause scandal
An extensive survey of New York Times evokes the 18,000 skulls and bones in the possession of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, while a Belgian auction house withdrew three African skulls from sale on November 30, following the publication of an article in Paris-Belgium Match.
” A museum in Paris has 18,000 skulls. He is reluctant to say who they belong to. “. It is under this title that an in-depth investigation of the New York Times about the colonial collections of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The article in the American newspaper denounces a French omerta about a number of skulls of Africans, Australians and American Indians that rest in the basement, place du Trocadéro.
He was greeted by a cathedral silence. What Dorcy Rugamba says, a Rwandan playwright based in Brussels, author of a play entitled ” the supreme leftovers » presented in May in Dakar, explained by « the persistence of a real taboo: the link between colonialism and Nazism, although highlighted by Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire, which undermines the French national novel “.
Three skulls for sale in Brussels
Coincidence: the same day of the publication of the investigation of the New York Times, the Drouot auction house, through the Vanderkindere auction house in Brussels, has put on the market three skulls, also colonial. Michel Bouffioux, journalist from paris party Belgium which has been researching since 2018 on human remains from the colonial era, published on November 29 an article which had an immediate impact.
The following day the three heads offered at prices ranging between 750 and 1,000 euros were withdrawn. As well as the description that presented them, in these terms: Lot of three human skulls: a cannibal skull from Bangala with pointed incisors, a skull of the Arab chief Muine Mohara killed by Sergeant Cassart in Augoï on January 9, 1893 and decorated with a frontal jewel, a skull fragment collected (…) in the province of Mongala by Doctor Louis Laurent on May 5, 1894. (…) Provenance: former collection of Doctor Louis Laurent in Namur. ” Instead of, a word of apology was published on the website of the auction house, which decided to buy back the skulls to return them to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), without specifying what would happen to them.” arab chief “.
A “legal” sale according to the auctioneer
Are these sincere regrets? Before the Belgian collective Mémoire coloniale, which will file a complaint for ” concealment of corpses “Vanderkindere auctioneer Serge Hutry, questioned by RFI, defends his right. ” In Belgium there is no legislationhe says. We are not wrong in this regard. we sell 7 500 batches per year for thirty years, and I’ve never had this problem. After a while, we couldn’t sell ivory anymore and we stayed legal. My feeling is that for years skulls have been sold in Paris, London or Brussels in the form of dressing tables. They’re flash-transformed human skulls, and we didn’t care for more than that. Here, the DRC’s reaction is legal, correct, which they negotiate with the Belgian ministry. Let’s return these skulls “.
Asked by him RTBFYves-Bernard Debie, lawyer for the Chamber of Antiquaries, recalls that “ all European medieval art is made from relics, and it is not illegal. However, human remains should enter the framework of cultural property, which is debatable here. “.
In the Belgian press, Michel Bouffioux is one of the few, if not the only one, to pick up on the subject. ” My first research in 2018 on the history of the Lusinga skull led me to be interested in the collections of the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Free University of Brussels, the journalist testifies. It took a lot of hitting the nail on the head for it to become a theme. My articles were initially met with shock and disbelief, because the idea of having this kind of collection forgotten is very disturbing. Only scientists knew about them, and they only saw them as collector’s items, keeping their distance, knowing that they were people killed in the circumstances of colonial hyperviolence. My work has served to raise the ethical question about the conservation of human remains in Belgium and their non-repatriation. “.
Bones and skulls in Belgium and the Netherlands
The outcry caused by the sale of Brussels seems to contradict on one point the investigation of the New York Times, which suggests that the situation is better in other parts of Europe than in France. In Belgium, at least 300 African heads are still in the hands of public and private institutions. the skull of King Lusinga, beheaded by the Belgian general Emile Storms in 1884 in the Belgian Congo, later brought as a hunting trophy, still rests on rue Vautier, in the Museum of Natural Sciences. A group of Congolese academics asks – in vain – for his return to offer him a funeral. the Project Multidisciplinary Evaluation Origins of Human Remains (HOME) bringing together scientists from seven museums and universities, including the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, was launched in late 2019 with federal funding, to investigate the question. A report with recommendations is expected by mid-December.
For its part, the Netherlands certainly returned in 2009 the severed head preserved in formaldehyde of a Ghanaian king, Badu Bonsu II, beheaded in 1838 by the settlers. A writer, Arthur Japin, discovered the relic by chance in the anatomy collections of the Leiden medical school and later alerted the Ghanaian embassy.
However, other remains remain in the soil of this former colonial power, including 40,000 bones brought back from Indonesia in the late 19th century by the Dutch anatomist and physician Eugène Dubois. the cap of a javanese from the prehistoric era, witness to the “missing link” in the evolution from ape to man, is also becoming the subject of controversy.
It is presented as the highlight of the show at the Museo Naturalis in Leiden, in a room dedicated to Eugène Dubois. However, Indonesia has been asking for its return since last July, along with the entire Eugène Dubois collection and seven other art and natural science collections. The authorities in The Hague have not reacted for the moment. A spokeswoman for the Naturalis museum has drawn the ire of Jakarta, which accused her of ” misplaced superiority because it questioned Indonesia’s conservation capabilities.
Returns in Great Britain and Germany
In Britain, an agreement was reached on November 3, after eight years of talks, between Zimbabwe and the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the University of Cambridge. The two institutions are willing to cooperate to return human remains, including three skulls, which Zimbabwe suspects belong to the leaders of the first Chimurenga, an 1890s revolt against English settlers.
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford began returning some of its 2,000 human remains in 2017, including seven tattooed and mummified Maori heads returned to New Zealand. However, the accounts are far from settled, as the British Museum preserves 6,000 human remains from the vast British colonial empire, the Duckworth Laboratory has 18,000 and the Natural History Museum more than 25,000.
In Germany, the gaps seem to have opened more easily. have been returned 20 skulls to Namibia, in 2011, then other remains in 2018, taken from southern Africa by settlers after the massacre of the Hereros and Namas. Two peoples whose genocides Berlin recognized in 2004, and for which they apologized in 2021.
Another thousand skulls brought from the former German colonies have been the subject of an international study since 2017 to determine their precise origin. the belgian newspaper Free Belgium explain that ” these human remains had been brought mainly from Rwanda, but also from Tanzania and Burundi, in the former German Empire (1871-1918), by the anthropologist Felix von Luschan for the purpose of ‘scientific studies’ “. The lines move, obviously, but not everywhere at the same speed.