Africa: France returns the cultural treasures of Benin during a ceremony at the Historical Museum


French President Emmanuel Macron attended an official handover ceremony for 26 objects from the kingdom of Dahomey, in the south of present-day Benin, currently on display at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris. This is the first step in an approach initiated in 2017 to improve relations between France and Africa.

The 26 pieces, from a treasure trove of objects seized by French forces in 1892, are on display for just six days at the Quai Branly museum before being shipped to the West African country later this month. -this.

Macron attended a handover ceremony at the museum on Wednesday afternoon in the presence of Beninese Foreign Minister Aurélien Agbenonci and Quai Branly President Emmanuel Kasarherou.

It follows a one-day scientific summit as part of the Beninese cultural week at the museum.

The treasures to be returned come from the kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin and include the throne of the last king of Dahomey, Behanzin, as well as three totem statues, four palace gates, several portable altars and three war dance sticks.

They will be exhibited in various sites in Benin, including a former Portuguese fort in the city of Ouidah, once a hub for the slave trade, pending the creation of a museum in Abomey to house them.

A sword and scabbard belonging to El Hadj Omar Tall must also be returned to Senegal.

The decision to return them follows growing calls in Africa for European countries to return colonial museum loot.

Appeal to youth

This decision is part of Macron’s desire to improve the image of his country in Africa, especially among young people.

In a speech to students in Burkina Faso shortly after taking office in 2017, he pledged to facilitate the return of African cultural heritage within five years.

“This marks an important step in building a new relationship between France and Africa,” Macron’s office said.

The president of quai Branly, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, told RFI on Wednesday: “This is an important moment in the history of our collection.

“It is also important that people see these objects as part of their heritage. They are prestigious objects from another time, which mark a difficult period in history, a history shared between France and Benin during the royal military campaign of Dahomey. They are culturally and spiritually meaningful. “

Calixte Biah, curator of the Musée du Bénin, told RFI that the decision was a “historic step”.

“These are exceptional pieces, of great value which have been out of context for over a hundred years, so it is a moment of pride for all the people of Benin and for Africans in general”, he insists. .

An expertise of Senegalese and French researchers Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by Macron, counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, including 70,000 at Quai Branly alone, 46,000 arrivals during colonial times.

Calls for restitution peaked in December last year in a vote in the French parliament, where lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the return of a group of objects to Benin and Senegal, another former French colony.

Although some museum directors have criticized the decision to return works they consider to be of “universal” interest, Kasarherou said he welcomed the “introspection” that these calls had triggered into the provenance of the works of art. ‘art.

Vast collection

The Quai Branly, which has a vast mine of African artefacts, has begun a vast overhaul of its collection of 300,000 objects, many of which come from Africa, but also from Oceania, Asia and the Americas.

The objective is “to identify works which would have been seized by violence, without the consent of the owners, or as spoils of war or under the constraint of the colonial administration”, he explained to AFP. .

“Not all objects in European collections have been stolen,” Kasarhérou said, but “what proportion have been? Our goal is to find out.”

Experts estimate that 85 to 90 percent of African cultural objects have been collected from the continent. But establishing how an object got into the hands of Europeans can be very tricky.

Some objects were seized by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed on to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe.

Others were given as gifts or discovered during scientific expeditions.

Common objective

“It is always a difficult question for curators whose main concern is to preserve the works, to see the works taken away. “said Kasarhérou.

Quai Branly is working with experts from the United States and Canada to determine where and how these items were obtained. It is a very long process, looking for additional information and possibly contradictions in the research. The museum has allocated more resources than usual to speed up the process, he says.

“It’s a pleasure to know that we have kept these items in excellent condition over the years, ready to hand them over to other experts for as many people as possible to enjoy.”

In addition to Benin and Senegal, other countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali and Madagascar have requested the restitution of the works.

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