PARIS (AP) — In a move with potential ramifications for other European museums, France is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artifacts for one last time before returning them to Benin — a decision authorities in the West African country described as “historic.”
The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army 129 years ago. The French will have a final glimpse of the objects, from the collection known as the “Abomey Treasures,” in the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from Tuesday through Sunday.
Calixte Biah, curator of the Museum of History of Ouidah, Benin, where the artefacts will first be exhibited, said the occasion was historic.
“It’s been more than one century that they have been removed from their historical context. And when you look at the quality of each of these artifacts altogether, you realize that ... there were great artists,” he told The Associated Press.
Benin is founding a new museum in Abomey, partly funded by the French government, that will ultimately house the works.
President Emmanuel Macron suggested that France now needed to right the wrongs of the past, making a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said he can no longer accept "that a large part of many African countries’ cultural heritage lies in France.” It laid down a roadmap for the return of the royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony.
So far, however, France has only turned over one item — a sword handed to the Army Museum in Senegal. And the 26 works going to Benin represent a tiny handful of the more than 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa alone held in French museums.