More than 100 years after a British force torched the capital of the old kingdom of Benin and carted off the exquisite Benin Bronzes, an international campaign is being launched for a museum to lure back some of sub-Saharan Africa's lost artistic heritage. Based in Benin Republic, once the gateway of the slave trade, the future "Museum of Returned African Art" would exhibit a small share of the countless artistic jewels that have disappeared from Africa over the past 150-200 years.
"We are not accusing anyone of anything and we are not using words like 'looting' or anything like that," said Juha Vakkuri, a Finnish author of several works on Africa who chairs African Art Returns, a group he set up to establish 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 a sufficient quantity of works of African art to fill the museum by its completion in 2009 in Grand-Popo, Benin. The campaign, waged through the internet, the international media and the global network of museums, has as its first goal the acquisition by 2008 of 500 works of art, which would be stored in Finland until displayed.
Private sponsors and the Finnish government are expected to finance the 100,000-euro ($120,000) operating budget for 2006. In future years, the annual budget is expected to rise to 300,000-400,000 euros, half of which would come from Nordic governments and half from private sources. Vakkuri, speaking in an interview in Paris while in the initial stages of fundraising, said he would not be asking top museums to surrender the central works of their African collections. Instead, institutions may be asked at first to help with training of African museum staff and curators. Later, they may be asked to produce virtual exhibitions of their African collections for display within the museum. Finally, exhibitions of foreign museum's "African collections", long-term loans of art, and eventually the million dollar question of transfers of African collections are envisaged.
The central challenge will be gaining trust, Vakkuri said. Curators must be convinced that the "Museum of Returned African Art" has the security and technological sophistication to house significant works of art safely and to return them without damage. A working group of Finnish and African architects is now being assembled to design the building, Vakkuri disclosed.
In Europe, the enemy of African works of art is the dry museum rooms where some extraordinary wooden pieces are literally cracking apart. In Africa, the museum will have to shut out humidity, which could ruin ancient works of art in metal. "Now it is time to build a museum in Africa where the pieces will survive," Vakkuri said. "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."
For this reason, the museum will also organise touring exhibitions within Africa. It is also a question of pride for a continent that lost some of its greatest works to pillage, theft, and the illicit art trade.
Debate still rages, for example, about the Benin Bronzes, considered by many to be a case that mirrors the Elgin Marbles, the extraordinary collection of marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Greece by the orders of Thomas …