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Who Owns Culture? Historian Examines Art Restitution and Colonialism

The trove of Benin's opulent palace art can be found in museums across the globe.

Everywhere, that is, except Benin.

Art historian Marie-Cécile Zinsou is working to change that. Her Franklin & Marshall College March 10 virtual Common Hour lecture examined art restitution and colonialism.

"Almost all African heritage is in Europe and it has been for the last 130 years," said Zinsou, alluding to the countless artifacts seized during colonialism.

Founder and president of Fondation Zinsou, she has been a leader in the movement to repatriate artworks taken by France from Benin dating back to the 17th century.

The artifacts, including a royal throne and sculptures of the kings of Abomey, were looted after a prolonged siege of the Béhanzin palaces by the French in 1892.

"They were shown and almost presented as a triumph," Zinsou said of the seized items. "It was a way to show the power of France and how every African country was going to fall to colonial troops."

That sentiment prevails today — if not explicitly in attitude, then in volume.

"Almost no museums in Africa have more than 3,000 objects in their collection. If you look at the French collections, you have 90,000 objects in the French collections about Africa," Zinsou said.

It's not just France alone; Belgium tallies 180,000, England tallies 70,000.

"I could go on like that for a long time," Zinsou said.

New legislation could help remedy those numbers. Zinsou's efforts culminated in the historic transfer of 27 objects from France back to Benin in 2017.

A broader report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron called for thousands of African artworks in French museums taken during the colonial period to be returned to the continent. Legislation is underway to allow the cultural works to return to Africa.

"If we understand who we are, we can define where we are going. That's why it's so important to get this heritage back. We have very complicated histories because they've been erased," Zinsou said.

Zinsou's foundation recently opened the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ouidah, the first museum of contemporary art in Benin. These efforts have been instrumental in the dialogue between artists and the public and help build a cultural infrastructure in Benin.

"We'll show the world why restitution is so important," she said. "I don't think you fight for your past. I think you fight for your future."

"I don't think you fight for your past. I think you fight for your future." — Marie-Cécile Zinsou


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