In Benin, the exhibition of the 26 works that France returned is a hit: more than 147,000 visitors in three months. The event takes place in the Presidential Palace, exceptionally open to the public, with at the same time a large exhibition of contemporary Beninese artists. It ends this Sunday, May 22, 2022. It is the beginning of the process of recapture of objects looted in 1892 by French troops, during the conquest of the Kingdom of Danhomé.
Interview with Alain Godonou, Director of the Museum Program at the National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and Tourism Development, Benin
RFI: How do you explain this popular success?
Alain Godonou: I would say that it is because it was a very long wait, with political and media interest, and in the end the objects came back. Everyone wants to see them with their own eyes. And many Beninese people were incredible, even when the boxes arrived in Cotonou, they wondered if they were not empty! It should be noted that visitors usually come in groups: family, association, community, sometimes 100, 200 people. Some print t-shirts or loincloths with the image of objects, it is a phenomenon that we see at weddings or funerals here.
The Beninese who are in contact with these pieces express their feelings and their pride. Did you expect such strong reactions?
Not really. Some bow, make prayers, there is always a moment of emotion, regardless of ethnic origin and religious affiliation. These objects have been shown a lot in pictures, but when people are in front of them they are amazed at their size, at their quality, they say: “Ah, at that time our ancestors could do that?”. They testify to the greatness of our past.
The authorities talk about “royal taxes”. What role should they be given?
Obviously, they no longer have the functional role that was theirs in the realm they left. No one will sit on the throne anymore, the statues of kings Guézo, Glélé and Béhanzin will not be used to galvanize the army. They are the cement of a collective, historical memory. It’s a regular Beninese treasure! These pieces are now listed as national heritage, with an inventory number, as “significant quality objects for our identity and our history”. That is why the provisions of the law on the protection of cultural heritage [votée en octobre 2021, NDLR]are important to ensure their maximum conservation in terms of technical attention, conservation, state assurance and their ability to circulate as representatives of Benin. They also have this role, they are witnesses to a part of human history.
The parts will first go to Ouidah and then to Abomey. Will not the challenge be to maintain the same enthusiasm?
Yes, but in Ouidah, the International Museum of Memory of Slavery will be a new facility with a new appeal. There will be exhibitions related to the slave trade and slavery. The national narrative will take a different form.
The school and the academic public will be given priority, we prepare programs for schools and scientific research. There are different times: after the emotional stage we experience, it will be the educational stage.
What place and what funding will Beninese researchers be given?
At the future Museum of the Amazons and Kings of Danhomè in Abomey, it is planned to have a research department open to Beninese and foreign academics to get these objects to speak, put them in correspondence with those who have remained, analyze the results of archaeological excavations, and that it goes into a scientific production.
There are already points that are discussed in the documentation we have received from the Quai Branly Museum, we hope that the researchers will be fruitful to inform us about the gray areas.
We know that Danhomès’ history and the archeology of southern Benin are of interest to universities around the world, so there may be cross-funding. This is how it works in Greece and Egypt.
Do you think that this return will change Beninese’s relationship with the cultural heritage?
This is the big surprise, it is already changing! It was said that Beninese do not go to museums too much, that they are not interested in heritage. We find that they are deeply interested in it. In addition, the fact that people come in groups is important: I notice that after the exhibition, the members of the same family clan begin to discuss what they have, ask questions to themselves about their heritage. It is a social movement in progress.