Museum to lure back African art

More than 100 years after a British force carted off the Benin Bronzes, a campaign is being launched for a museum to house some of sub-Saharan Africa's lost artistic heritage.

    Finnish and African architects will design the new museum

    Based in Benin, once the gateway of the slave trade, the Museum of Returned African Art is set to exhibit a share of the artistic jewels that were taken from the region during the past 150 to 200 years.

    Vakkuri chairs African Art Returns, a group he set up to found the museum.
    Through acquisitions of new works and by cooperating with the world's great museums, missionary societies and private collectors, he hopes to amass enough works to fill the museum by its completion in 2009 in Grand-Popo, Benin.


    The museum's first goal is the acquisition by 2008 of 500 works of art, to be stored in Finland until display.
    Private sponsors and the Finnish government are set to finance the 100,000-euro ($120,000) operating budget for 2006.

    Vakkuri, while fundraising in Paris, said he would not be asking top museums to surrender their African collections.

    Instead, institutions may be asked to help with staff training

    and to produce virtual exhibitions of their collections for display in Benin.


    Finally, exhibitions of African collections from museums abroad, long-term loans and property transfers are envisaged.

    Benin was once the gateway of
    the slave trade

    The challenge will be gaining trust, Vakkuri said.

    Curators must be convinced that the museum has the security and technological sophistication to house significant works safely and to return them without damage.

    A working group of Finnish and African architects is being assembled to design the building, Vakkuri said.

    In Europe, the enemy of African works of art is the dry rooms where some extraordinary wooden pieces are cracking apart.

    In Africa, the museum will have to shut out humidity, which could ruin metalwork.

    Question of pride


    t is extremely important, if one thinks in democratic terms, that those Africans who cannot afford to go to Europe or to America have a chance to see their own cultural heritage in Africa"

    Juha Vakkuri
    Author and chair of  African Art Returns

    "It is extremely important, if one thinks in democratic terms, that those Africans who cannot afford to go to Europe or to America have a chance to see their own cultural heritage in Africa."

    The museum will organise touring exhibitions within Africa.

    It is also question of pride for a continent that lost some of its greatest works to pillage, theft, and the illicit art trade.

    The Benin Bronzes is considered by many to be a case that mirrors the Elgin Marbles.
    In 1897, Admiral Sir Harry Rawson led an expedition against the Kingdom of Benin as a reprisal for the killing of eight British representatives.

    Benin City, capital of that empire lying in what is now southwestern Nigeria, was conquered and burned. Its art was destroyed or dispersed.
    Benin Bronzes

    The Benin Bronzes, portrait figures, busts and depictions of animals, humans and royal court life created in iron, carved ivory and brass, were seized and given to the British Foreign Office.

    Two hundred were transferred to the British Museum and many more spread to collections around the world as London auctioned them off to pay the costs of the expedition.

    The humiliation of the fall of Benin was intense.

    According to some accounts, the king, Oba Ovonramwen, was forced to kneel and eat dust before the British military resident.

    Nigeria bought back about 50 of the Benin Bronzes in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and has called in vain for the return of the remainder.
    Ironically, the dispersal of the bronzes shattered the European concept of African art as an elementary form of tribal craft, not on the same level as Western art.



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