France hands back Benin cultural treasures at historic museum ceremony

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French President Emmanuel Macron attended a ceremony to formally hand back 26 items taken from the kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin, currently exhibited at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris. It is the first step in a process undertaken in 2017 to improve the relationship between France and Africa.

The 26 pieces, from a trove of objects snatched by French forces in 1892, are being shown for just six days at the Quai Branly museum before being shipped to the West African country later this month.

Macron attended a handover ceremony on Wednesday afternoon at the museum in the presence of Benin's foreign affairs minister Aurélien Agbenonci and the Quai Branly president Emmanuel Kasarherou.

It comes on the heels of a day-long scientific summit as part of the Benin cultural week at the museum.

The treasures to be returned 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.

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.

A sword and sheath belonging to El Hadj Omar Tall, is also to be returned to Senegal.

The decision to return them follows growing calls in Africa for European countries to return the colonial spoils from museums.

Appeal to youth

The move is part of a drive by Macron to improve his country's image in Africa, especially among young people.

In a speech to students in Burkina Faso soon after taking office in 2017, he vowed to facilitate the return of African cultural heritage within five years.

"It marks an important step in building a new relationship between France and Africa," Macron's office said.

Quai Branly president Emmanuel Kasarhérou told RFI on Wednesday: "It's an important moment in the history of our collection.

"It's also important for the people to see these objects as part of their heritage. They are prestigious objects from another time, which mark a difficult period of history, a shared history between France and Benin during the Dahomey royal military campaign. They are culturally and spiritually significant."

Calixte Biah, Curator at Benin's museum told RFI the move was an "historic step".

"These are exceptional items, of great value which have been out of their proper context for over a hundred years, so this represents a proud moment for all the people of Benin and for Africans in general," he insists.

An expert report by Senegalese and French researchers Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them at the Quai Branly alone, 46,000 which arrived during the colonial era.

The restitution calls culminated in December 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.

Although some museum directors have criticised the move to return works they deem of "universal" interest, Kasarherou said he welcomed the "soul-searching" that those calls had triggered about the provenance of artworks.

Extensive collection

The Quai Branly, which has a vast trove of African artefacts, has begun a sweeping review of its collection of 300,000 objects, many from Africa, but also from the Oceania, Asia and the Americas.

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," he told AFP.

"Not all objects that are in European collections have been stolen," Kasarhérou emphasised, but "what proportion were? Our objective is to find out."

Experts estimate that 85 to 90 percent of African cultural artefacts were taken from the continent. But establishing how an object came into European hands can be very tricky.

Some items were seized by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed down to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe.

Others were presented as gifts or discovered during scientific expeditions.

Common goal

"It's always a difficult question for curators whose principal concern is to preserve works, to see artworks taken away. What is new is finding a balance, to rebuild links and try to find a common position for the present and the future of the works," Kasarhérou says.

Quai Branly is working with experts from the US and Canada to ascertain where and how these items were obtained. It's a very long process, seeking further information and possibly contradictions in the research. The museum has earmarked more resources than usual to speed up the process, he says.

"It's a pleasure to know we have kept these items in excellent condition over the years ready to hand them over to other experts so that a maximum amount of people can enjoy them."

Other than Benin and Senegal, other countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, and Madagascar have made requests to have works returned.

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