129-year journey comes to an end as France returns Benin’s treasures

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In this archive photo from Friday, November 23, 2018, a visitor looks at wooden royal statues from the Kingdom of Dahomey, dated to the 19th century, at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France.  In a decision with potential ramifications in European museums, France is once again exhibiting 26 looted artifacts from colonial times before bringing them home to Benin.  (AP Photo / Michel Euler, File)

In this archive photo from Friday, November 23, 2018, a visitor looks at wooden royal statues from the Kingdom of Dahomey, dated to the 19th century, at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France. In a decision with potential ramifications in European museums, France is once again exhibiting 26 looted artifacts from colonial times before bringing them home to Benin. (AP Photo / Michel Euler, File)

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In a move with potential ramifications for other European museums, France is once again exhibiting 26 looted colonial-era artefacts before returning them to Benin – a move the West African country’s authorities described as “historic”.

Anthropomorphic wooden statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were looted by the French army 129 years ago. The French will have a last glimpse of the objects, from the so-called “Treasures of Abomey” collection, at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum from Tuesday to Sunday.

Calixte Biah, curator of the Ouidah History Museum in Benin, where the objects will first be on display, said the occasion was historic.

“It has been more than a century since they left their historical context. And when you look at the quality of each of these artifacts as a whole, you realize that there were some 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 must now right the wrongs of the past, delivering a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said he could no longer accept “that a large part of the cultural heritage of many African countries is found in France”. He established a roadmap for the return of the royal treasures taken during the time of the empire and the colony.

So far, however, France has only handed over one object: a sword handed over to the Musée de l’Armée in Senegal. And the 26 works that go to Benin represent a tiny handful of the more than 90,000 artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa alone preserved in French museums.

“We see 26 artifacts. There are others, aren’t there? So I wouldn’t say we’re finishing a process. I would say we’re at the start of a process, ”Biah said.

“I think it would be decent for other countries which hold African objects to take the same path as France,” he added.

Earlier this year, Germany started a similar move. The decision has been made that German museums should work on a return plan to return the artifacts known as the Benin bronzes to Nigeria next year. These were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in present-day southern Nigeria, by a British colonial expedition in 1897.

Yet critics of such measures – including the British Museum in London, in a decades-long tussle with the Greek government over a restitution of the Elgin Marbles, or the Parthenon, – argue it will open the floodgates to empty Western museums of their collections. Many are made up of objects acquired during colonial times.

The British Museum announced Monday that it was working on a collaboration with Nigeria, linked to the construction of a new museum in the West African country, which will “bring together Beninese works of art from international collections “.

The French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, tried to appease the nervousness of European museums, stressing that this initiative “will not create a legal precedent”.

A French law was passed last year to allow the restitution of statues in Benin, and of the sword in Senegal.

But she said the French government law was intentionally specific by applying only to the 27 artifacts. “(It) does not establish any general right to restitution” and “in no way calls into question” 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 thieving French expeditionary force in the kingdom of Danhomè located in the south of present-day Benin. Colonizing troops broke into the Abomey Palace, home of King Behanzin, seizing many royal objects, including the 26 artefacts that Dodds donated to the Trocadero Ethnography Museum in Paris in the 1890s. 2000s, the objects are kept at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum.

Gaëlle Beaujean, responsible for the Africa collections at the museum, underlined that “these artefacts have also been seen by artists (in France, and) inspired (architect) Le Corbusier … In fact, since 1893, they are very largely engraved on French memory too.

“They are part, I believe, of a common history,” she added.

Macron is due to visit the exhibition on Wednesday. The restitution process “aims to allow African youth to have access to their own heritage in Africa, and not just in Europe,” the French presidency said in a statement.

Beninese Minister of Culture, Jean-Michel Abimbola, called the return of the works a “historic step” and the start of new cooperation between the two countries, during a press conference last week. The French Development Agency will provide some 35 million euros for the “Museum of the Amazons and Kings of Danhome Saga” which will be built in Abomey as part of 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, what’s important is that the art will be returned. “It was a void created among the historical treasures of Benin, which is gradually being reconstituted,” said Fortune Sossa, president of the Network of African Cultural Journalists.

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