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This panel invites discussions and reviews of current debates concerning ethnographic museums in Europe and beyond. Papers could address questions about the origins and purpose of these museums, their role in imperial or national projects and, more recently, the restitution of cultural treasures.
In November 2017, the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, tweeted: 'African heritage cannot be held prisoner by European museums.' He then commissioned a report from a Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, and a French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy. Published in November 2018, it provoked lively discussions in the European media on the ownership of cultural treasures. There followed urgent debates around the planned opening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, the most ambitious new ethnographic museum project in Europe today. Here and elsewhere, accusations have been made about 'stolen art' (Raubkunst), though these are seldom supported by serious provenance research. In the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there is a much longer tradition of debate about the function and even the legitimacy of museum collections of material culture of 'native peoples.' In these countries 'restitution,' provided for by statute, has stimulated lively academic, legal and political discussion. There are also broader questions about what exactly a museum of anthropology should be about. (This debate revives arguments that have flourished since these museums were first envisaged in the early nineteenth century.) Often associated with imperial or nationalist projects, some museums of ethnology have been reinventing themselves as 'world museums,' a resolution not without its own complications. The panel invites papers that address these issues and examine the origins and present status of ethnographic collections in Europe and beyond.