The city of Abomey in Benin, west Africa, is home to one of the African continent’s most remarkable heritage sites, a complex of 12 palaces built by a succession of kings – and one queen – between 1625 and 1900. Known for their outstanding architecture and craftsmanship, each palace was created according to the distinctive taste of the individual monarch. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomé, as Benin was known in precolonial times, and was protected by the Dahomey Amazons, a 6,000-strong female military corps.
Dahomé derived its wealth and military power from the transatlantic slave trade; at one time, around 20% of all enslaved people sent to the Americas came from the kingdom’s conquered territories. In one of the complex ironies of 19th century geopolitics, the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century weakened Dahomé’s rulers, while at the same time driving the European appetite for empire. The kingdom was invaded by French troops in 1892, colonised and subsequently stripped of much of its internationally significant cultural heritage.
Last year, Abomey – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – caught the world’s attention when France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, announced the return of 26 artefacts to the site from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, initially on long-term loan. It’s a small fraction of the 5,000 Beninese objects held by the museum, but a significant step for the French authorities, who had, until recently, rejected Benin’s longstanding requests for restitution.
The move was a symbolic gesture timed to coincide with the publication of the landmark Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by Macron, which advocates for the large-scale restitution of cultural property taken from colonised African countries. The report, written by the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, laid bare the shocking extent to which the colonial powers exported the continent’s heritage, estimating that between 75% and 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s historical artefacts are now located outside their countries of origin.
“The Sarr-Savoy report was a pleasant surprise in Benin’s political, intellectual and professional circles,” says Alain Godonou, the director of museums at Benin’s national heritage agency. “It is close to the stance that we have held for 30 years. The speed of Macron’s response was a second surprise, as great if not greater than the first.”
The artefacts, which include statues and a royal throne, will be displayed in Benin’s Musée de l’Épopée des Rois et des Amazones (Museum of the Saga of Kings and Amazons), a new institution, due to open in 2021, that will act as a gateway to the royal palaces. The French Development Agency recently offered a €20m (£18m) loan towards its construction and the renovation of a number of the palaces, which have fallen into disrepair.
Since the election of a new government three years ago, Benin has focused on making cultural heritage a central part of its economy. The objects that are being returned will play a key part in this, but their significance goes beyond economics.
“In Benin, unlike what is happening in France or elsewhere in Europe, these objects continue to have a social and cultural life,” says Godonou. “A few weeks ago a new king was enthroned in Abomey. A significant part of the ceremonies took place in the royal palaces, which are a museum today. Objects were borrowed from the collections to serve either directly or to be copied when they were too fragile.”
In neighbouring Nigeria, another new museum, also planned for 2021, is taking shape that may well play a central role in the discourse on restitution. The Royal Benin Museum will be located in Benin City, the capital of the southern Edo state, and is intended to provide a home for the Benin bronzes, the panels depicting royal court life that were looted from the city by British troops in the UK’s Benin Expedition in 1897. The plunder of the city was so extensive that it was condemned even by the imperialist UK parliament of the time. The bronzes, now dispersed in museums across Europe, have been the subject of a fraught and longstanding restitution dispute since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.
The plan for a new museum emerged out of discussions by the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), which comprises museum and government representatives from Nigeria, and the European museum sector. In addition to Benin City’s permanent collection, the venue will display bronzes loaned from European institutions on a rotating basis. They will also provide curatorial advice and training.
David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian architect who was responsible for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, US, recently met with the BDG in Benin City to discuss the new museum’s design.
“It will be an ultra-modern museum that will incorporate the city’s historic sites and palaces,” says Enotie Ogbebor, a Benin City-based artist and expert on the bronzes, who is one of the Nigerian representatives on the BDG. “It will be able to showcase the city’s proud history and culture and increase our tourism footprint. The museum will give people here the opportunity to engage with these artefacts and be inspired by their excellence. How many people here can travel outside this country to see the artefacts? Very few.”
The long-term loan model envisaged in both Abomey and Benin City is a sticking point in the restitution movement. Proposed by European institutions as a solution to the difficulties they face in deaccessioning, loans are unsurprisingly seen by those on the African side as unsatisfactory – a mere stepping stone to full restitution.
“The [European] directors and curators have come up with the idea of loans, but we are more interested in building the museum so the works can be displayed here permanently,” says Ogbebor. “We want to see them returned to their rightful owners.”
Ogbebor acknowledges that the issue has to be solved at government level. The European representatives on the group “have been open and forthcoming with the truth that it is above their pay grade,” he says. “They’re only suggesting the loans because that’s all they have the authority to do.”
This model comes with other complications too; one of the reasons for creating a new museum is that, in order to comply with loan requirements, it must conform to European standards – a high bar to set for under-resourced museums elsewhere on the continent.
Crucially, the Sarr-Savoy report supports the African viewpoint, advocating for the return of full legal ownership. Godonou says the importance of this is not just symbolic. “There is an economic dimension that we do not talk about: once the right to property is recognised, the costs and economic benefits generated by the valuation of these collections will return to the owners,” he says. “Access to researchers and the public, image rights and insurance costs – they all contribute to the economy and their cumulative impact over time is not insignificant.”
The two museums planned for Abomey and Benin City are part of a wider renaissance happening across Africa’s cultural heritage sector. In the postcolonial period, some countries came to see museums as a relic of colonialism, and did not prioritise investment in their heritage infrastructure. Now, however, a host of capital museum projects are under way or have recently opened in postcolonial African countries (see box).
“There is currently a boom of new and newly renovated museums in Africa,” says Rudo Sithole, the executive director of the Zimbabwe-based International Council of African Museums (Africom). “Slowly but surely, African governments and the heritage sector are beginning to realise that museums are the faces of nations. They are usually the first port of call for tourists and are drivers of economic development.”
These new institutions may differ vastly in terms of content, but they share a common purpose, she says – one that directly confronts an enduring argument against restitution often heard in the European museum sector: “A lot of African countries are building new museums or renovating in preparation for the return of their heritage and to make sure the west does not continue to use the excuse that African museums lack capacity and knowledge to curate objects that have been in western museums.”
The Sarr-Savoy report exposed deep divisions in Europe and has undoubtedly succeeded in moving the dialogue on restitution forward significantly in a short space of time. Its impact in Africa has been no less dramatic. The document has been celebrated by museum and heritage professionals across the continent.
“It has created a global discussion,” says Egbebor. “It means governments can no longer hide their heads in the sand.” And Sithole says: “The restitution of cultural heritage that was taken during the colonial era would mean a lot to Africans. It would be the icing on the independence cake.”
But there are complex issues to deal with first. Many people have concerns over the sincerity of Macron’s focus on restitution. A number of heritage professionals told Museums Journal that they were dubious about the French president’s motives, with one saying “he doesn’t really care about heritage, it’s all politics”.
There is a feeling that focusing on restitution is a way for Macron to position himself as leader of the Francophone world; some have described his interest in the subject as a “cultural recolonisation” – a way of demonstrating that “France was here first” to countries such as China and South Korea, which have been making diplomatic inroads across the continent.
As a result, some heritage professionals in Africa have greeted the Sarr-Savoy report “with the suspicion that European institutions are going to try once again to avoid doing this by any means possible”, says Nontobeko Ntombela, a freelance curator based in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Until we see concrete examples where such gestures have been fully realised I will remain sceptical.”
This scepticism reflects the power imbalance that remains between former colonial powers and the countries they once colonised. Collaboration between institutions on both sides can be fraught, says Ntombela. “It’s riddled with power dynamics of western institutions holding power in the form of money and historical knowledge or discourse of the objects. This always means the conversations are uneven and lopsided.”
There is also disquiet among the African heritage community that European institutions are once again in the driving seat on the issue. “There is concern that this is a debate that is European and being led by Europe – that the train is going forward and the people here aren’t really on it,” says Sarah van Beurden, a Kinshasa-based scholar who writes about the history of museums in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Breaking away from its traditional international partner, Belgium, the country has built a new national institution – the National Museum of the DRC, which is due to open in November – funded with investment from South Korea. The purpose-built venue will enable around 40,000 artefacts, collected during the postcolonial period, to be displayed for the first time.
“One of the things that was appealing about cooperating with South Korea was that it is outside that old power dynamic,” says Van Beurden. “South Korea leaned on the rhetoric that ‘we were also colonised and we’ve overcome it’.”
In a country where extreme poverty and violent conflict are endemic, however, the Sarr-Savoy report led to questions about whether restitution should even be a priority. “But there is a growing consensus that it is, because it’s about respect,” says Van Beurden.
The report also sparked more philosophical discussions in the DRC, she says. “The artistic scene here is vibrant and in those groups people are thinking in much broader ways about how colonisation left voids that shaped the culture and history, and that can’t be undone. People are asking whether we should be investing in repatriating those objects or looking at how that void shaped us.”
After the national museum opens, the country’s government is planning to submit a formal repatriation claim to Belgium’s Africa Museum, which is the largest repository of Congolese cultural heritage in the world. But the return of artefacts, if it happens, would not be straightforward. Many of the contested objects represent pre-Christian belief systems, and they would be arriving in a country much changed from the one they left.
“The evangelical Christian community here is very much against the objects in those collections,” says Van Beurden. “A way would have to be found for populations here to develop new relationships with them.”
As impressive as Kinshasa’s new national institution will be, there is a question mark over who the venue is intended for. Tourists and affluent communities may come, but will the museum engage with parts of the population that currently have little access to their heritage? “They are thinking about it but I don’t think they have discovered how they are going to do that yet,” says Van Beurden.
This reflects a wider debate among the heritage community across Africa. For some, the old model of a museum remains a colonial tool, imposing a top-down, gatekeeping approach to history and culture that does not value indigenous knowledge or ways of working. In many countries, there has been an explosion in grassroots, community-based museums that rethink what – and who – cultural heritage is for.
One such example is the Museum of British Colonialism, a digital institution founded in 2018 by representatives in Kenya and the UK. It documents British colonial rule in Kenya; a recent project showed digital reconstructions of the concentration camps where Kenya’s Mau Mau independence fighters were held and tortured by the British army in the 1950s.
“I grew up unaware of the camps and I have been trying to understand how we don’t know about it,” says Chao Tayiana, one of the museum’s co-founders. “Here, everything is under the National Museums of Kenya and that level of control dictates what kind of narrative comes to the front.
“A lot of work needs to be done to break down barriers to access and participation, and it has to come from the bottom up. Our approach to the museum is that we are also learning. For me that has been the key point: collaborating, learning and gathering information together.”
A lot of that collaboration is manifesting itself online, says Tayiana. “There has been a push into digital spaces for new narratives and new representation. Kenya has high levels of internet penetration. New narratives have just begun to emerge that we wouldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.”
As an institution, the Museum of British Colonialism sits outside the restitution debate because it does not collect physical heritage, though it is campaigning for the return of Kenya’s historical archives, which are still held at the National Archives in London.
But on a personal level, there is no question for Tayiana about the importance of restitution. “For Kenyans, our history has always been a contested subject. You grow up embarrassed, being told you’re primitive, that your ancestors lived in trees. Then a report like this comes out, saying that 90% of your heritage is overseas. The damage of its removal is not even the physical loss. It’s emotional, mental, psychological. It’s affected how we see ourselves. It’s about objects but also a sense of affirmation and confidence.
“It’s like: you belittled a culture for so long – yet now you decide you like it and you want to keep it?”
Other museum developments across Africa
Musée des Civilisations Noires (Museum of Black Civilisations), Dakar, Senegal
This museum, a long-held ambition of the country’s first president – the late Léopold Sédar Senghor – opened in the Senagalese capital in December 2018. It celebrates pan-African culture and aims to act as a creative laboratory to shape the continent’s sense of identity. Space has been set aside in the venue in the expectation that restituted artefacts will be displayed there. The museum was funded with £27m from China.
Ngaren: The Museum of Humankind, Kenya
Scheduled to open in 2024, the Daniel Libeskind-designed museum will show how Africa is at the epicentre of human evolution. It will be located on a cliff edge in the Great Rift Valley, where the most complete skeleton of early man, Turkana Boy (currently held at the National Museum of Kenya, Nairobi), was discovered. The museum will present research and discoveries spanning two million years, exploring how evolution, biodiversity, war, disease and the changing climate have shaped the human race.
Musée International de la Mémoire et de l’Esclavage (International Museum of Memory and Slavery), Ouidah, Benin
Along with the museum in Abomey, the Beninese government is creating a museum focused on one of the most difficult aspects of the country’s history: its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Benin is seeing increasing numbers of tourists coming from the Americas to the country to trace their ancestral heritage, and the museum complex will be in the southern city of Ouidah – the port through which thousands of enslaved people left their homeland for the last time.