The debate as to whether international museums and governments should return cultural artifacts acquired during the colonial period is not a new one. However, it has now been re-energized by French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision that France will return 26 cultural artifacts to Benin. The announcement follows the release of a presidential-commissioned report by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, calling for thousands of African cultural artifacts taken during the colonial period to be returned to their respective countries, if requested. Although the report is only limited to Africa, as a former French colony, Cambodia should demand the repatriations of its cultural artifacts as well.
The report could have far-reaching repercussions for international museum housing cultural artifacts taken during the colonial period, and for the colonialized countries wanting their cultural heritage back. With around 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage outside the continent in major museums, the report seeks to rebalance the access former colonized countries have to their own cultural heritage. The report recommends the restitution of “any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions” by the army, scientific explorers, or colonial administrators from the late 19th century until 1960.
Like Benin, Cambodia was also a part of the French Colonial Empire, having joined as a French protectorate in 1863 under the reign of King Norodom. Until the 15th century, Cambodia was a strong regional power; however, by the late 18th century it faced extinction as a sovereign state threatened by both Siam (modern Thailand) and Vietnam. Although the protectorate status ensured Cambodia’s territorial integrity remained intact against its neighbors, France largely controlled Cambodia’s internal and external affairs as a result. Cambodia was designated as a colonie d’exploitation (colony of economic exploitation).
Read the complete article by Darren Touch on The Diplomat.
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