In 2006, a private museum in the African country of Benin presented artifacts from the ancient Dahomey kingdom. Almost 250,000 people came to see them. But even though the pieces are part of the country’s history, they did not belong to Benin. They were on loan from France, which colonized and ruled the country for over 60 years.
Now, France has promised to give Benin back 26 artifacts taken by the French army in 1892. This may prove a major change for other African countries asking for their art to be returned.
Marie-Cecile Zinsou is French-Beninese. She is among Africa’s strongest supporters of returning African art that has been taken. Her Zinsou Foundation hosted the Dahomey exhibit in 2006. She told VOA she believes if Benin succeeds in showing its cultural history, major changes will be possible.
"Then you'll have a real example of how African countries are getting their heritage back and showing it to the public. Then people will believe," said Zinsou.
Change may be coming
Up to 90 percent of African artifacts are located outside the continent. That includes in France, where an estimated 90,000 African artifacts are housed in French museums. Most are in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris.
But some recent events show change may be coming. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to temporarily or permanently return artifacts to the continent within five years.
And in November, two researchers delivered a report asked for by Macron. It recommended France permanently return objects taken through "theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent."
Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy wrote the report. In it they noted that 60 percent of the population of the African continent is under the age of 20. Young people should be able to enjoy and learn about “their own culture, creativity and spirituality from other eras," they wrote.
The report has had an effect. In December, the United Nations General Assembly put a resolution in place supporting returning objects to their home countries. The British Museum has also promised to return priceless metal artifacts to Nigeria. And Germany is helping Kenya find its valuable stolen artifacts that ended up in western museums, including German ones.
Some experts are not so sure about the moves. "We know the shortage in African museums" of quality conservation, art expert Alexandre Giguello told Agence France-Presse news agency.
France's culture minister supports loaning artifacts to Africa rather than permanent returns. Quai Branly Museum head Stephane Martin described the report on returning art as a bad answer. He told Le Figaro newspaper there were other ways to support cultural exchange with Africa.
Meanwhile, new museums are either being built or planned to be built across Africa. Supporters say the new museums disprove the arguments that the continent cannot properly house its heritage.
Returning art to places whose borders have changed over the years presents still other problems. Charline Kopf is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo. She noted that current claims for the return of artifacts are being made by a number of African nations. But sometimes such claims are also made by indigenous communities who do not accept some border divisions.
Robert Jonard sells African artifacts in Paris. He says smaller dealers like himself are not worried they may lose ownership of their most valued pieces. "It's mostly a discussion at a higher level, among leading experts and museum heads," he says.
Instead, Jonard is worried about returning valuable artifacts to places where they risk being stolen or badly cared for.
"Consider what might happen to French museums if all the art Napoleon plundered in Italy was sent home?" Jonard adds. "What will remain in the world's museums if each country asks for its art back?"
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Lisa Bryant reported this story for VOA. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. We want to hear from you. How should former colonial powers answer these requests to return artifacts to their home countries? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
artifact(s) – n. a simple object, such as a tool or weapon, that was made by people in the past
colonize(d) – v. to take control of an area and send people to live there
heritage – n. the traditions, achievements and beliefs that are part of the history of a group or nation
theft – n. the act or crime of stealing
despoilment – n. the removal of belongings, possessions, or value
consent – n. permission for something to happen or be done
priceless – adj. extremely valuable or important
conservation – n. the things that are done to keep works of art or things of historical importance in good condition
indigenous – adj. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment
plunder(ed) – v. to steal things from a place, such as a city or town, especially by force