Benin to build museum for artefacts stolen by France with $22.5m French loan

Three Great Royal Statues
Three Great Royal Statues of ancient Dahomey (currently Benin, West Africa) displayed in French museum

Benin is preparing to receive some 26 artefacts originally stolen from them by France which would be stored in a yet to be built museum. The irony and twist surrounding the museum is, however, intriguing.

With several European countries returning stolen artefacts to African countries they originally took them from, Benin joins the list as it welcomes this new consignment from its colonial master, France.

The country looks to build a museum for these 26 artefacts, which includes King Ghezo’s throne from Abomey, which dates from the early 19th century. To be able to build it, the country is taking a loan from the very country returning the artefacts – France.

In November 2018, President Emmanuel Macron announced the landmark decision to return the artworks taken by French troops over a century ago and housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

King Ghezo’s throne from Abomey
King Ghezo’s throne from Abomey, which dates from the early 19th century, is among the items France will return, Mr. Macron said.CreditGerard Julien/Agence France-Presse

This move has piled pressure on other former colonial powers to hand back looted artefacts to their countries of origin – and fired up dreams of a lifeline in Abomey.

The items will be returned to the royal palaces in Benin’s sleepy southern town of Abomey, where its current display cases are coated in dust and the exhibition halls plunged in darkness. 

But local tourism chief, Gabin Djimasse, hopes things will take a positively drastic turn on the return of the 26 artefacts from France and with the construction of a new museum to hold them.

Kingdom of Dahomey
The palace dates to the Kingdom of Dahomey which reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries before conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule

“These objects are a chance for the survival of the site. They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable,” Djimasse told AFP while touring the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom.

Now, a loan of 20 million euros ($22.5 million) from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47-hectare (116-acre) UNESCO World Heritage Site more attractive for visitors.

A former UNESCO official, Godonou told the AFP that preparing for the return of the objects has been a “goal” of his life.

But he insisted that Benin still needs to pass a comprehensive legal framework to protect heritage.

Godonou said Benin wants to “reclaim its property rights” over all the artworks held abroad – even if that doesn’t mean returning them home permanently.

“We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy,” he said. “In the end, they are part of world heritage.”

The Kingdom of Dahomey reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and became a major source of slaves for European traders before the conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule.

Experts estimate that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts. Thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies.