The Royal Palaces of Abomey are said to be the historic capital of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, which ruled for nearly three hundred years from roughly 1600 to 1900. Once home to one of the most powerful empires of the continent, the UNESCO world heritage site has seen better days. The enclosure and museum situated on the 100-acre property (located in what is now the country of Benin) was hit by a tornado in March 1984 and never fully recovered, despite a 2007 renovation project. And in 2009, a bushfire destroyed much of the Royal Palaces, spreading rapidly across the tombs of past kings and queens.
Ten years later, reconstruction of the palace grounds may be fast approaching. Eight months after French president Emanuel Macron recommended the permanent and full restitution of looted African objects in a landmark government report, his government is preparing to loan €20 million (~$22.5 million USD) through the French Development Agency to Benin for the creation of a new museum in Abomey.
France holds roughly 5,000 artifacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey, most of which are now stored inside the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac of Paris, an institutional repository of African objects looted during the nineteenth century. Currently, the French government plans to loan just 26 objects to Benin once the new museum in Abomey can house them. Although Macron urged for artworks to be returned “without delay,” this transfer won’t happen for another few years. The museum at the Royal Palaces is not scheduled for completion until at least 2021.
Although the release of 26 objects may seem negligible compared to the vast troves of stolen African artworks held in Europe, locals in Abomey see the return as crucial to the region. “These objects are a chance for the survival of the site,” Gabin Djimasse, the area’s tourism chief, told the publication Agence-France Presse. “They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable.”
The plan is for the new museum to showcase its history and heritage, having already gone through several changes and renovations. According to Djimasse, designs for the new museum value blending in with the local architecture and relying less on high-tech equipment than is necessary. Another problem the future museum must solve is the lack of art expertise in the area.
“Four years ago the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration,” Dijmasse told AFP. “We looked everywhere for scientists but we couldn’t find any — and in the end we sent a history student.”
Now, a dozen students between the ages of 23 and 53 are enrolled in the School for African Heritage in Benin’s capital of Porto-Novo to cultivate the skills required to specialize in the country’s cultural heritage.
Alain Godonou, a former UNESCO official, teaches the program with the goal of preparing his students for the return of the Benin artworks. In his opinion, he would like to see his country “reclaim its property rights” to the artworks held abroad, even if it doesn’t stay at home permanently.
“We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy,” he said. “In the end they are part of world heritage.”