Ghosts of Africa haunt European museums

Centuries of colonialism robbed Africa of many things, priceless artefacts and artworks among them. In recent years there have been growing calls for European countries to return said artefacts – and this week, Benin scored a huge victory.

In 2016 the West African nation, formerly a French territory, demanded that some of its treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey be repatriated. The artefacts were stolen by French troops between 1892 and 1894 and are held at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. On Tuesday France’s president hosted his Beninese counterpart for a ceremony to return 26 of the pieces. 

The Benin Bronzes are another famous example of colonial art theft. Thousands of these exquisite metal artworks once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. Most were stolen by British forces in the late 1800s as they consolidated imperial control of the area. (Maddeningly, Europeans were shocked that people “supposedly so primitive and savage” could create such complex objects. Some even suggested Beninese knowledge of metallurgy came from Portuguese traders – but many of the dramatic sculptures date to the 13th century, hundreds of years before Europeans arrived!)

According to reports, thousands are now held in museums across the US and Europe. Nigeria has pushed for about 1 000 Benin Bronzes to be returned from Germany. In September, Berlin agreed to give back hundreds, starting next July.Other institutions are holding out, however. The British Museum, which has the largest collection, refuses to return any of its bronzes. It argues that its foreign artefacts, including the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon in Athens, are best housed there, AFP reports. 🙄 It seems some countries’ colonial mindsets can’t be shifted.

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 18 November 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.