Benin readies for return of treasure taken by France - GulfToday

Benin readies for return of treasure taken by France

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The historical museum of Abomey is inscribed on the list of the world heritage of UNESCO. AFP

The display cases at the royal palaces in Benin's sleepy southern town of Abomey are coated in dust and the exhibition halls plunged in darkness.

But local tourism chief Gabin Djimasse hopes all this will change with the return of 26 artefacts from former colonial master France and the construction of a new museum to hold them.

"These objects are a chance for the survival of the site," Djimasse said as he toured the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom.

"They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable." 

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A view of the historical museum of Abomey, a 47 hectares site composed by a set of royal palaces. AFP

In November President Emmanuel Macron took the landmark decision to return the artworks — including a royal throne — taken by French troops over a century ago and housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

Now a loan of 20 million euros ($22.5 million) from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47 hectare (116-acre) UNESCO World Heritage Site more attractive for visitors.

While Benin has welcomed France's decision to return the objects, it has cautioned against doing so too quickly.

Macron wants the artworks returned "without delay" but the museum in Abomey is only set to be opened in 2021 and Benin's heritage agency says the country needs time to be "truly ready." 

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The historical museum of Abomey, composed by a set of royal palaces. AFP

Great opportunity

Djimasse said plans for the museum to showcase its history and heritage have already gone through several changes.

The latest project is set to be more low-key, fitting in with local architecture and relying more on natural lighting and less on plasma screens.

But building the physical infrastructure is only one part of the challenge.

"Four years ago the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration," he said. 

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Elected member of the Abomey City Council, Gabin Djimasse speaks as he visits the historical museum. AFP

Those in the class have already been working in the cultural field and insisted they felt the return of the artworks from France could be a big boost.

"It is a great opportunity for young people," said Messie Boko, a 28-year-old student and guide at a museum in the city.

"It is our duty to know how to spread this heritage".

World heritage

Alain Godonou is called "Mr Benin heritage" by his colleagues at the national agency.

He may have studied in France but he has never gained access to the roughly 5,000 artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey held by the country. 

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A cannon displayed in the parc of the historical museum of Abomey. AFP

A former UNESCO official, Godonou told AFP preparing for the return of the objects has been a "goal" of his life. 

But he insisted that Benin still needs to pass a comprehensive legal framework to protect heritage.

As for the 26 objects they should just be a start of a broader process.

Godonou said Benin wanted to "reclaim its property rights" over all the artworks held abroad — even if that doesn't mean returning them home permanently.

"We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy," he said. "In the end they are part of world heritage."

Agence France-Presse