More than a century after French and British troops plundered the West African kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey, which comprised parts of present-day Benin and Nigeria, museums in France and Britain are finally giving the priceless artifacts back.
For France, the return followed a report commissioned by the French government which recommended that any artifacts “taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions” by the French during its colonization of Africa be handed back to their countries of origin. This includes objects stolen by the French military, as well as colonial administrators and scientific explorers, according to the New York Times.
A day after the report was released, President Emmanuel Macron ordered 26 works of art to be returned to Benin “without delay,” reports CNN.
But as the Times suggested, the French report’s repercussions extended well beyond the Quai Branly, a national museum which houses 70,000 pieces of art indigenous to Africa. On Monday, the British followed suit, announcing the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. As CNN reports, Nigerian governments have asked for these deeply important cultural artifacts to be returned since 1960, when the country first gained independence.
However, the British plan differs from France’s in one significant way: While the French recommend complete restitution—meaning the objects will permanently sit in Beninese museums—Britain intends to offer the items back on loan. Not that Nigeria is necessarily going along with that plan.
“The present agreement notes that Nigerian partners have not ceded claims for permanent restitution, and officials remain determined to secure the bronzes on a permanent basis,” writes CNN.
Sounds like that art museum scene in Black Panther hit Macron in the chest. Britain? Not so much.
As one might expect, this problem extends far beyond the continent of Africa. Easter Island has been begging the British Museum (which houses some of the Benin Bronzes) to return an 8-foot-tall basalt figure the British stole in 1868.
The statue is referred to as Hoa Hakananai’a, meaning “lost or stolen friend.” The governor of Easter Island renewed his pleas for the statue’s return this week, saying the English “have our soul.”
Fiercely debated in the art world for quite some time, the topic of restitution is moving further into the zeitgeist. The push to return art plundered by colonial powers to their countries of origin is a significant part of a broader movement to decolonize art spaces, which have long profited, in reputation and finances, from these cultural treasures. Macron’s initiative could be huge, pending a real and substantial follow through (the report suggests that there will be a process for more countries to have their art returned). Hopefully, Britain follows suit—and takes their hand out of the cookie jar, too, without Nigeria and other former colonies having to make them.