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To Protest Colonialism, He Takes Artifacts From Museums

Only 27 restitutions have been announced so far, and just one object has been returned.

The Quai Branly funerary post, according to its museum label, was a gift from a French doctor and explorer who went on ethnological missions around Africa. But to Mr. Diyabanza and his associates, the museum’s contents are all the products of expropriation. As he said in the live-streamed speech before seizing the item, he had “come to claim back the stolen property of Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism.”

Mr. Diyabanza, who faces a separate trial in Marseille in November, said in the interview that fury had led him to remove the object in a spontaneous and unpremeditated act, and that he had chosen the post because it was “easily accessible” and not bolted in place.

“Anywhere that our artworks and heritage are locked up, we will go and get them,” he added.

Mr. Diyabanza is not alone in staging museum actions. On Friday, a London court found Isaiah Ogundele, 34, guilty on a harassment charge over a protest in a slavery-related gallery at the Museum of London. According to a statement from the museum, the demonstration took place in January in front of four African works on loan from the British Museum.

The worry among museum administrators and cultural officials is that such actions will multiply, wreak havoc inside museums and scuttle restitution talks between Europe and Africa.

Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University and curator at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which has extensive colonial-era holdings, described Mr. Diyabanza’s intervention at the Quai Branly as “a visual protest,” tailored for social media, that involved a role reversal: a cultural object was being seized in Europe on behalf of people in Africa. He said the episode was “about objects in museums and how we feel about them” and raised questions about “culture, race, historic violence, history and memory.”

“When it comes to the point that our audience feels the need to protest, then we’re probably doing something wrong,” he added. “We need to open our doors to conversations when our displays have hurt or upset people.”

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