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Review: Open Restitution Africa

A review of Open Restitution Africa, a data platform focusing on the repatriation of African artifacts, directed by Chao Tayiana Maina and Molemo Moiloa

Published onApr 29, 2024
Review: Open Restitution Africa

Open Restitution Africa

Project Directors
Chao Tayiana Maina, African Digital Heritage
Molemo Moiloa, Andani Africa

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Dominique Somda, University of Cape Town

Project Overview

Open Restitution Africa team

Open Restitution Africa (ORA) is an African restitution-centered project founded by Molemo Moiloa and Chao Tayiana Maina. Over 1,000,000 known African artifacts are held outside the continent. Less than 1,000 artifacts have been returned. There is scant data available on the current international status of restitution — returns, returns-in-process, debates, policy, and practice. It is, therefore, difficult to identify changes and impacts in policy and practice. 

ORA is developing an open data platform to centralize African restitution data and enable data driven approaches to restitution, particularly for African stakeholders. This includes: (1) building knowledge, (2) aggregating and sharing knowledge, and (3) translating and articulating knowledge in a way that promotes dialogue, advocacy, and education on restitution. In phase one (2022), we conducted research on available online data on restitution journeys. Following that, we held a multi-stakeholder workshop bringing together data scientists, museum professionals, and community activists to collaboratively data engineer the restitution process. For phase two (2023), we developed the online platform to make the data accessible, while simultaneously conducting fieldwork across eight African countries to begin developing the data sets required. Phase three (2024 -) includes continued research and crowdsourcing further data.

ORA primarily aims to support the restitution processes of African activists and museum professionals. Our secondary audience includes data journalists, researchers, policy makers, and educators working in restitution. Our broad audiences necessitate a multimodal approach towards dissemination. Therefore, we publish our research outputs in varying formats including but not limited to: podcasts, webinars, reports, videos, and a monthly newsletter.

The ORA team includes researchers Phumzile Twala and Syokau Mutonga, communications consultant Camille Shaiyen, and Lelapa Ai, our partner and Africa-centric AI research and product lab. ORA has been funded by the Open Society Foundation (2022-2023), Mellon Foundation (2023-2025), and Humboldt Forum (2022). ORA’s work has been referenced in the academic work and in media, including Al Jazeera, ArtNewspaper, and Art News.

Project Review

Dominique Somda

The Open Restitution Africa (ORA) project engages with the restitution of African heritage. In the last few years, meaningful policy changes were made in several European countries, and returns of remains and artifacts to certain African states were successfully achieved. Who identifies the heritage in European or American collections? Who decides the priorities, temporalities, and modalities of the restitutions? The ORA website aims to provide various stakeholders (policymakers, museum professionals, academics, etc.) with Africa-centric data and knowledge on restitution in Africa. 

The website introduces the outputs of its first research phase, which was completed in 2022. It documents, processes, and curates related resources, including webinars, podcasts, reports, and videos that center African voices for restitution. The report section presents a document, entitled “Reclaiming Restitution: Centering the African Narrative," emphasizing those intentions. The webinars are a series of “restitution dialogues” with African scholars. The podcasts offer a range of topics beyond the questions of restitution, such as data futures and digital collections. “African Voices on Restitution,” a page listing individuals and organizations with concise descriptions of their actions and contributions, constitutes additional useful content. The ORA website appears to be a unique and pedagogically sound companion to explore the digital ecosystem of the restitution of African heritage. 

The websites documenting and advocating for restitution are ever-expanding, following the advances in the field of provenance research, the reactivation of the debates on restitution since the Savoy-Sarr report (2018), and the concurrent development of digital humanities. Most websites offer geographically or thematically specific content. For instance, Digital Benin, a brilliant platform, hosts digitized maps and objects — including the famous Benin bronzes. Some websites, like, a digital repatriation project that returns stolen artifacts to the “metaverse” with designs based on the stolen bronzes, virtually replace or extend the lives of lost collections. Finally, beyond any materiality, digital museums wish to restore memories and identities in postcolonial African societies. For example, the Camissa Museum is a mostly online project that curates the stories and legacies of the people of Cape Town. The ORA platform's merits are its opportunities to reflect comparatively and critically on the many restitution projects and the knowledge production that rendered them possible. 

ORA’s founders are themselves important contributors to this flourishing sector. Chao Tayiana Maina, a Kenya digital heritage specialist, consulted for several digital heritage websites and Molemo Moiola, an artist and a researcher at, works within the framework of “data humanism.” A project as ambitious as ORA is invaluable, now more than ever. Despite a greater consensus on the legitimacy of restitution, dissenting voices have persisted or emerged in Africa and the African diaspora. Documenting the diverse afterlives and trajectories of restituted heritage, their expected and unexpected receptions, and the enthusiastic and adverse reactions could further empower the vision.

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