Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Geneva row over African cultural heritage

Janus head, Katsina, Nigeria, 3-4th century Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet

Art experts have attacked the looting of African archaeological heritage on behalf of rich western collectors.

A group of specialists has pointed an accusing finger at a new exhibition of ancient African ceramics held at the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva. But those responsible for the exhibition reject the criticism.

In a signed opinion column, entitled “Le pillage de l’histoire africaine” (The pillaging of African history) in the French-language newspaper Le Temps on Monday, Eric Huysecom, an archaeology professor at Geneva and Bamako universities, condemned the looting of African cultural heritage.

His criticism is particularly directed at the “African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage” exhibition, organised by well-known Geneva collector, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, who specialises in ancient art from Africa, Asia and Oceania.

The article was signed by a dozen cultural heritage experts, including Hamady Bocoun, director of Senegal’s Cultural Heritage Department, his colleague from Niger, Oumarou Ide, and Marie-Claude Morand, president of the Swiss branch of the International Council of Museums.

According to Huysecom, the ceramics and other artefacts in the new exhibition must have been exported illegally from Mali, where they were discovered.

“They come from sites discovered after 1977 and appeared on the market in 1979. The first decree in Mali relating to this dates from 1973,” said the professor, who teaches archaeology to over 50 students in the capital, Bamako.

“These pieces clearly were taken illegally from Mali after being looted, as it’s very rare to come across these kind of works accidentally,” he said.

Reject claims

But the museum curator Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller rejected the claim: “I am linked with this kind of trafficking as if I was a vile criminal, whereas for the past 32 years I have held exhibitions throughout the world and helped build Geneva’s cultural reputation, without any kind of public financial support.”

According to the collector, Huysecom’s accusations only concern a small number of archaeological pieces out of over 200 that are on display.

“All the others were acquired recently and could be purchased from the local potter,” he said, adding that the suspect ceramics were acquired between 1970 and 1988.

“These pieces were displayed in 1983 in an exhibition of ancient art from Mali at our museum and there were no criticisms or complaints,” said Barbier-Mueller, who claims he ceased purchasing archaeological pieces as soon as he heard it was problematic.

Deficient law

Huysecom says he is not accusing the curator of breaking the law: “Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller respects the legislation to the letter. But Swiss law is deficient in this regard.”

The federal law on the transfer of cultural property, which entered into force in 2005, is not retroactive. Artefacts acquired before this date do not apply.

“Switzerland adopted a relatively convoluted law following its ratification of the 1970 Unesco convention,” explained Barbier-Mueller.

The Swiss law is essentially based on bilateral agreements with states, he added.

“All countries throughout the world have been contacted and no sub-Saharan African country reacted,” said the collector.

Scientific backing

In the Le Temps article, the group of art experts also criticise Boris Wastiau, director of Geneva’s Ethnography Museum, for having contributed to and helped put together the exhibition catalogue.

“The new director gives his scientific backing to this collection. From an ethical viewpoint this is not acceptable. It’s a whitewash,” he declared.

According to the archaeologist, this kind of exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue with scientific texts, allows archaeological works like these to be sold without any risks. But Barbier-Mueller claims this is not something the museum is considering.

Wastiau also clarifies his position: “I have worked for the past ten years on the issue of illegal trafficking of cultural property in Africa, in particular the looting of national museums.”

This is a commitment shared by the 23 other scientific contributors involved in the exhibition catalogue, he adds.

Temporary holders

Wastiau believes the catalogue is completely transparent.

“Whether is was done by the Barbier-Mueller museum or by someone else, I think it’s a positive step to publish the collections. Most private collections are not visible and are not subject to any kind of publication. To show and publish allows for this kind of debate and any subsequent complaints,” he said.

For Wastiau, there is general agreement over the whole issue of cultural property rights: “Over the next few years the issue of cultural property will come increasingly to the fore.

“Sooner or later representatives of American Indian cultures will start asking us to return certain objects from the collections at Geneva’s Ethnography Museum and we will collaborate openly with them. In this respect I see museums as temporary holders of their collections,” he noted.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

1962: Switzerland ratified The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.

October 2003: Swiss ratification of the 1970 Unesco convention against illegal trafficking of cultural property.

June 2005: New legislation comes into effect in Switzerland in line with the Unesco convention. It was approved by parliament in 2003.

Switzerland still has not ratified the 1995 Unidroit convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, which it signed in 1996. This treaty is stricter than the 1970 Unesco convention.

Popular Stories

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR