ABOMEY-CALAVI, Benin (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 told AFP 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.”
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.
The move has piled pressure on other former colonial powers to hand back looted artefacts to their countries of origin – and fired up dreams of a lifeline in Abomey.
The Kingdom of Dahomey reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and became a major source of slaves for European traders before conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule.
Now a loan of EUR20 million (USD22.5 million) from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47-hectare 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 said the country needs time to be “truly ready”.
Djimasse said plans for the museum to showcase its history and heritage have already gone through several changes.
At first “it was all 3D videos, and you would have thought you were at a theme park or in Dubai,” he joked.
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.
Djimasse said the other major priority is finding people to work as guides and develop 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.”
At the School for African Heritage in Benin’s capital Porto-Novo a dozen students aged from 23 to 53 are diligently working to be part of the project.
This is the “first batch” of a new training programme aimed at cultivating the various skills required, said their teacher Richard Sagan.
“At a museum there is more than just the curator,” said Sagan, a specialist at Benin’s heritage agency.
“There is a whole chain of trades, from skilled technicians and craftsmen.”
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.”
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. 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.”