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The French Army Museum faces the colonial past to “appease memories” | Culture

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It is a monument to the nation’s military glory: its treasures, its symbols, its heroes. Also an unexpected place in which France rehearses the examination of its colonial past. His excesses and his crimes: the reverse side of glory.

In the Invalides complex in Paris, there is a hospital and an asylum for veterans, a cathedral, and Napoleon’s tomb. And the Army Museum, embarked on the review of its collections to know their exact provenance and restore objects that have arrived in France as a result of looting or abusive transactions during colonialism. It is about “appeasing memories”—the divergent memories between former colonizers and colonized and the wounds still open—and telling the past “without glorification or regret.”

It is explained by the director of the museum, Henry de Medlege, a general with a long career and experience in Chad, Afghanistan and the Balkans. This is said by the person in charge of an establishment in which today colonialism practically seems non-existent, except for a couple of exhibitions in past years and mentions of the Algerian war in the rooms dedicated to General De Gaulle. In his office in one of the endless corridors of the Invalides – a mixture of the atmosphere of an old hospital and a ministry of the Third Republic -, and accompanied by the director of conservation, Sylvie Leluc, General De Medlege tells how everything is going to change. And it is already changing.

The saber attributed to El Hadj Omar, whose restitution was endorsed in 2020 by a law of the French Parliament. Anne-Sylvaine Marre-Noël / RMN-

“We do not approach this issue as something imposed or as a pressure, but as an opportunity and an obligation within the principle of appeasing memories,” declares De Medlege, reticent about the term “decolonization of museums.” “If the word decolonization of museums means returning everything that does not belong to the country, whatever the circumstances, another term must be used,” she says. “Decolonizing museums would be making nationalist museums. Okay, let’s do it. So I recover everything that is French and give what is from other countries. And we end up with museums that tell about the war but only with their own objects.”

It all starts on November 28, 2017 in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a former French colony. French President Emmanuel Macron proclaims: “I want the conditions to be met within five years for temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage in Africa.” He adds: “African heritage cannot be found only in private collections and European museums.”

Macron’s words sound like an order. He will follow the report commissioned from the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr. And he will mobilize French museums and the rest of Europe. Since then, “a kind of competition has been unleashed between states like France, Germany or Belgium,” Savoy explained to the weekly in 2023. The Obs. “It almost seems like we are attending the Olympic Games of restitution! Let’s see who returns the works to Africa, and as quickly as possible.”

The work is considerable. It is necessary to establish how they left Africa. And if someone claims their restitution. And whether this claim is legitimate.

The pallium crown of Queen Ranavalona III. It is now in storage in Madagascar. Emilie Cambier / RMN-GP

Savoy and Sarr estimated that there are at least 88,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections. Of these, nearly 70,000 are in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, inaugurated in 2006 and dedicated to the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The debate on restitutions and colonial heritage has logically focused on this museum next to the Eiffel Tower. A mile away, in the more modest—and a century older—Army Museum, the implications are different, due to what its military character means in the national narrative.

“I have objects that, by their nature, are somewhat different from objects in other fine arts or heritage museums,” explains General De Medlege. “The Ouagadougou speech, taking into account what we are and the type of objects we have, forces us to put ourselves in order to see what we have on the table and where it comes from.” Leluc, the conservation director, recalls that in 2019 a permanent position was created with a specialist exclusively in charge of investigating the origin of the objects. “The first thing we did,” she explains, “was see what African objects we had: about 2,200. And of these there was a corpus of 500 that we knew no less well, a quarter whose origin was not necessarily traced from beginning to end, there were small holes.

Only six demands

It is a work of years, but so far at the Army Museum the demands for restitution have been few. The first was the restitution to the Senegalese authorities of the saber attributed to El Hadj Omar, supported in 2020 by a law of the French Parliament. “It has been deleted from our inventories,” says Leluc, “and is no longer the property of the Army Museum.” The second demand came from Madagascar and concerned the pallium crown of Queen Ranavalona III. It is in storage in Madagascar. Its final delivery is pending the adoption of a law that frames restitutions in France and makes it unnecessary to legislate for each specific restitution.

The Army Museum, in Paris.Pierre ANTOINE

The scarcity of lawsuits and restitutions may be surprising. The same thing happens at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, which housed the 26 pieces looted in 1892 by French troops in the royal palace of Abomey and which France returned to Benin in 2021. The impact of the return was significant, but these These works represent a minimal part of the African collections in France. “Since Emmanuel Macron’s speech, we have only received six official demands for restitution,” Emmanuel Kasarhérou, president of the Quai Branly, told a year ago. National Geographic. “The idea that the demands would be plethoric responds in part to a fantasy.”

It is not just a debate about restitutions. At the Army Museum, the examination of the collections will make it possible to launch, in the coming years, a “tour” focused on the colonial period. Under the concept Colonization-decolonization: a shared historyand prepared in cooperation with historians and specialists from colonized countries, the common history must be explained and all perspectives incorporated.

“Because our history is told and so is their history,” summarizes General De Medlege. The objective is also to tell the story in which all French people can recognize themselves, including “a youth that comes from overseas and the former colonies, several generations that need to know where they come from.” In this country in permanent alarm due to the fracture between communities, understanding colonialism and its conflicts, past and present, touches the heart of social and national cohesion.

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