President Emmanuel Macron made the landmark decision last year to return 26 royal artifacts including King Ghezo’s throne that were taken from Benin by French troops over a century ago and later housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
The AFP reports that although Macron wants the artworks returned “without delay”, 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”.
Abomey is a city in southern Benin that was the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to 19th centuries and is home to 12 royal palaces from that period. The 47-hectare (116-acre) UNESCO World Heritage Site is however now in ruins.
A loan of 20 million euros ($22.5 million) from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum which will house the artifacts and potentially increase visitors of the site.
Gabin Djimasse, the local tourism chief echoed this to AFP as he toured the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom, saying, “These objects are a chance for the survival of the site. They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable.”
However, the physical infrastructure is only one part of the challenge. Djimasse also explained that the other major priority is finding skilled manpower and developing the expertise to properly care for and restore the artworks.
“Four years ago, the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration,” he said. “We looked everywhere for scientists, but we couldn’t find any — and in the end we sent a history student.”
The “first batch” of students aged from 23 to 53 are in a new training programme at the School for African Heritage in Benin’s capital Porto-Novo so as to cultivate the various skills required to join the project.
“At a museum there is more than just the curator,” said Richard Sagan, the student’s teacher and a specialist at Benin’s heritage agency. “There is a whole chain of trades, from skilled technicians and craftsmen.”