Benin’s new museum for artifacts looted by France is being built using a French loan

Royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
Royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
Image: REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
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The construction of a new museum in Benin, which is slated to house 26 artifacts looted by France in the colonial era, will be funded by a French loan. 

The French Development Agency, the development arm of the French government, will lend 20 million euros (or $22.5 Million) to the West African country to help fund the new museum in the southern city of Abomey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The move comes nine months after the release of a report—commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, and conducted by French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, and Senegalese writer, Felwine Sarr—which recommended objects seized by France during the colonial era be returned to their countries of origin, once the country asks for them. The 26 artifacts, which include statutes and thrones looted by French troops during a military raid against the once powerful West African Kingdom of Dahomey in 1892, are among some of the 5,000 artifacts requested from France by Benin.

Most of these artifacts are stored in the Parisian Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, a museum for indigenous art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas that is still in possession of the 26 artifacts which will be housed in the new Abomey museum slated to open in 2021. 

The construction of the French-funded building will also take place on land that formerly housed the royal palaces of the Kingdom of Dahomey from the 1600s to 1900s. “These objects are a chance for the survival of the site,” local tourism chief, Gabin Djimasse, told AFP, “They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable.”

While president Macron had promised the return of the artifacts “without delay” following November’s commissioned report, the move is still pending approval in the French parliament and has faced legal challenges. In addition to internal holdups, Benin’s Heritage Agency has also expressed caution over the speedy return artifacts before they are “truly ready“ to house them once the new museum opens in two years. 

Aside from the 5,000 Dahomey artifacts, 90,000 African artifacts looted by France from sub-saharan countries are in French museum today, with an estimated 70,000 in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum. 

France’s initiative comes alongside a renewed debate in European museums, from London to Berlin: through the Benin Dialogue Group, a museum consortium created in 2007. Plans are moving ahead to establish a permanent loan to Nigeria’s Benin city of the looted Benin Kingdom bronzes, that were taken by invading British troops in 1897. In Germany, the Humboldt Forum is already being rocked by controversies linked to the need for addressing ill-acquired African artifacts.

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