9, November 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron hosted his counterpart from Benin, President Patrice Talon, on Tuesday to formally seal an agreement to return 26 artworks taken from the former French colony’s Palace of Abomey – today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The 26 pieces, from a trove of objects snatched by French forces in 1892, were exhibited at the Quai Branly museum in Paris in the run-up to Tuesday’s ceremony. They will be shipped to the West African country in the coming days.
The decision to return them follows growing calls in Africa for European countries to return the colonial spoils from museums.
It is part of a drive by French President Emmanuel Macron to improve his country’s image in Africa, especially among young people.
The treasures are from the kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin and include the throne of Dahomey’s last king, Behanzin, as well as three totemic statues, four palace doors, several portable altars and three warrior dance staffs.
The Élysée said Macron’s commitment for Africans to be able see their cultural wealth at home and not just in European museums “marks an important step in building a new relationship between France and Africa”.
Last month, Macron announced that a “talking drum” cherished by Ivory Coast’s Ebrie people, also at the Quai Branly, would be handed back as well.
Some museum directors have criticised the move to return works they deem of “universal” interest.
But Quai Branly president Emmanuel Kasarherou said he welcomed the “soul-searching” that those calls had triggered about the provenance of artworks.
‘Ripped from their cultures’
The Quai Branly, which has a vast trove of African artefacts, has begun a sweeping review of its collection of 300,000 objects.
The aim is “to identify works believed to have been taken through violence, without the owners’ consent, or as war booty or through the coercion of the colonial administration”, Kasarherou told AFP.
“Not all objects that are in European collections have been stolen,” he emphasised, but “what proportion were? Our objective is to find out.”
Since his election in 2017, Macron has gone further than his predecessors in admitting to past French abuses in Africa.
In a speech to students in Burkina Faso soon after taking office, he vowed to facilitate the return of African cultural heritage within five years.
An expert report commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them at the Quai Branly alone.
The restitution calls culminated last year in a vote in the French parliament, where lawmakers overwhelmingly backed returning a group of artefacts to Benin and Senegal, another former French colony.
Macron has predicted that the 26 objects taken from the Abomey palace will be “the pride of Benin” when they are returned.
They will be exhibited at various sites in Benin, including a former Portuguese fort in the city of Ouidah, once a slave-trading hub, while awaiting the completion of a museum in Abomey to house them.
Benin’s Talon has previously said he was “not satisfied” with the “small steps” taken by France and called on Macron to go further.