In a move with potential ramifications for other European museums, France last displayed 26 looted colonial-era artifacts before returning them to Benin, a decision that the West African country’s authorities described as “historic.”
The anthropomorphic wooden statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were stolen by the French army 129 years ago. The French will take a final look at the objects, from the collection known as the “Treasures of Abomey”, at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac from Tuesday to Sunday.
Calixte Biah, curator of the Museum of History in Ouidah, Benin, where the artifacts will be exhibited for the first time, said the occasion was historic.
“They have been removed from their historical context for more than a century. And when you look at the quality of each of these artifacts together, you realize that … there were great artists, “he told The Associated Press.
Benin is founding a new museum in Abomey, funded in part by the French government, which will eventually house the works.
President Emmanuel Macron suggested that France now needed to correct past mistakes, delivering a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said it can no longer accept “that a large part of the cultural heritage of many African countries is in France.” He established a roadmap for the return of royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony.
However, so far France has only delivered one item: a sword delivered to the Army Museum in Senegal. And the 26 works going to Benin represent a small handful of the more than 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa found in French museums.
“We see 26 artifacts. There are others, right? So I would not say that we are ending a process. I would say that we are at the beginning of a process, ”said Biah.
“I think it would be decent if other countries that possess African artifacts follow the same path as France,” he added.
Earlier this year, Germany started a similar movement. The decision was made that German museums should work on a restitution plan to return artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria next year. These were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, by a British colonial expedition in 1897.
However, critics of such moves, including the British Museum in London, in a decades-long tug of war with the Greek government over the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon, argue that it will open the floodgates to empty Western museums of your collections. Many are made up of objects acquired during the colonial era.
The British Museum said on Monday that it is working on a collaboration with Nigeria, linked to the construction of a new museum in the West African country, which will “bring together Beninese art from international collections.”
French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to calm nervousness among European museums, emphasizing that this initiative “will not create a legal precedent.”
Last year a French law was passed to allow the restitution of the statues to Benin and of the sword to Senegal.
But he said the French government law was intentionally specific, applying only to the 27 artifacts. “(It) does not establish any general right of restitution” and “in no way questions” the right of French museums to preserve their heritage.
The history of the “Treasures of Abomey” is as dramatic as their sculpted forms. In November 1892, Colonel Alfred Dodds led a French expeditionary force robbing the Kingdom of Danhomè, located in the south of present-day Benin. Colonizing troops stormed the Palace of Abomey, home of King Behanzin, and seized many royal objects, including the 26 artifacts that Dodds donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in the 1890s. Since the 2000s , the objects have been housed in the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.
Gaëlle Beaujean, director of the African collections at the museum, highlighted that “these artifacts have also been seen by artists (in France and) inspired (by the architect) Le Corbusier … In fact, since 1893, they are highly engraved in the French memory too “.
“They are part, I think, of a common history,” he added.
Macron will visit the exhibition on Wednesday. The restitution process “aims to allow young Africans to have access to their own heritage in Africa, and not just in Europe,” the French presidency said in a statement.
Benin’s Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola called the return of the works a “historic milestone” and the beginning of greater cooperation between the two countries, during a press conference last week. The French Development Agency will allocate some 35 million euros to the “Museum of the Saga of the Amazons and the Kings of Danhome” to be built in Abomey under a commitment signed this year.
The official transfer of the 26 pieces is expected to be signed in Paris on November 9, and the art is expected to be in Benin a few days later, Abimbola said.
While locals say the decision is overdue, the important thing is that the art will be returned. “It was a void created between Benin’s historical treasures, which is gradually being rebuilt,” said Fortune Sossa, president of the Network of African Cultural Journalists.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism