France mulls over return of Africa's plundered art

Statues from the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) on display at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Benin is demanding the return of its national treasures.
Statues from the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) on display at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Benin is demanding the return of its national treasures.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Half-man, half-beast, the tall African statues dominate a busy gallery in Paris' Quai Branly Museum. But few of the visitors are aware they are looking at what might be considered stolen goods.

The three imposing wooden carvings were plundered by French troops in 1892 from the kingdom of Dahomey - modern-day Benin.

From London to Berlin, Europe's museums are packed with hundreds of thousands of colonial-era items. Increasingly, they are facing the awkward question of whether they should be there at all.

The "Scramble for Africa", as Europe's 19th-century land grab came to be known, brought with it a clamour for trinkets from conquered territories. Bought, bartered and in some cases stolen by soldiers, missionaries and anthropologists, they ended up in museums and private collections all over Europe. The controversy is hardly new, nor does it concern Africa alone.

Lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of Hollywood actor George, has advised Athens on its bid to reclaim the Parthenon marbles, vast sculptures which have been in Britain since the 1800s.

The massive Koh-i-Noor diamond, part of Britain's crown jewels and claimed by India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, is another spectacular example.

But in Africa, a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron last November spurred hope for change. "Africa's heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums," Mr Macron said in Burkina Faso then.

He charged two experts with working out how to give African artefacts back within five years, prompting speculation that museums across Europe could be pressured to follow suit.

Museums have long wrestled with a tangle of legal and ethical problems concerning who really "owns" such objects. Even in well-documented cases of pillaging, the law often prevents countries from giving them back.

Last year France flatly refused Benin's bid to reclaim its treasures, saying they were exempt from seizure as state property.

European conservationists have also raised practical concerns, worrying that artefacts could be stolen or handled improperly if given to inexperienced museums in politically unstable countries.

However, many African officials say these treasures should be at home, attracting tourists and boosting national pride.

Few cases inspire more outrage than the Benin Bronzes, hundreds of exquisite metal plaques seized in 1897 by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria. Most are now in the British Museum and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.

The idea of loaning the bronzes, and Ethiopian items displayed in Britain, has been floated, but some African officials are affronted by the suggestion of "borrowing" what they see as their own property.

Mr Crusoe Osagie, spokesman for the governor of Nigeria's Edo state, said it is simply wrong that his children must go to Britain or Germany to see their heritage in a glass-fronted cabinet. "These objects belong to us," he said.

As for suggestions that Africans might not look after such objects, he finds the idea insulting. "It's like asking me how to look after my child," he said. "We are ready to look after them with great care."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2018, with the headline 'France mulls over return of Africa's plundered art'. Print Edition | Subscribe