Ghanaians’ reactions to the UK loaning back treasures it looted from them

For the first time in 150 years, gold and silver regalia belonging to the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom, which was stolen by Britain, will be temporarily returned. Ghanaians have taken to social media to express their displeasure about this loan deal.

As reported by the BBC, the items are scheduled for display at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana’s Kumasi city later this year to commemorate the Asante king's silver jubilee. However, this will be under a three-year loan commitment made with Otumfo Osei Tutu II, the current Asante king, known as the Asantehene, who attended the coronation of King Charles III last year.

In collaboration with the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London and the British Museum, the Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana made this announcement in a statement on January 22, detailing what they called “an important cultural collaboration.”

Major museums in the UK, including the V&A and the British Museum, are restricted by the British Museum Act of 1963, from permanently returning contested items in their collections. The loan deal is the only way the museums could facilitate the return of objects to their countries of origin.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the special adviser to Ghana’s culture minister, emphasized the cultural and spiritual significance of the objects, stating to the BBC, “They’re not just objects; they have spiritual importance as well. They are part of the soul of the nation. It’s pieces of ourselves returning.” She views the loan as a positive step on the anniversary of the looting, a gesture toward healing, and a commemoration of the violence that occurred.

She said the loan was “a good starting point” on the anniversary of the looting and “a sign of some kind of healing and commemoration for the violence that happened.” According to a report by the Conversation, the looting happened in Kumasi during the third and fourth Anglo-Ashanti wars (1873–74 and 1895-96). This plundering was not only an opportunistic act but also had a political purpose, aiming to humiliate the inhabitants of the Asante kingdom, as highlighted by both the BBC and the Conversation.

In an interview with the BBC, Nana Oforiatta Ayim said the loan agreement wasn't established with the Ghanaian government but directly with the Asante king because of certain complications. In contrast, dealing with the Asante king proved to be a simpler process. The agreement originated from the V&A and proceeded to the Ghanaian attorney general's office but faced rejection because of numerous stipulations on how the items should be received back in Ghana. But, as highlighted by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Ghana is believed to have the capability to determine how to care for its own items.

Details about the objects

As revealed by the BBC, a total of 32 items are being returned to Ghana: 17 pieces by V&A and 15 from the British Museum. They include three soul-washers’ badges, a sword of state, a ceremonial cap and a cast-gold model lute-harp. The soul-washers’ badges were acquired during the 19th century from an auction, while the sword of state and ceremonial cap were looted during conflicts in the Asante region. However, the cast-gold model lute-harp was not looted but was a gift to the British writer and diplomat Thomas Bowdich in 1817, and was intended as a gift from the Asantehene to the museum to demonstrate the wealth and status of the Asante nation.

Reactions on social media

Ghanaians have taken to social media to express their displeasure about this loan deal.

Several social media users questioned how something stolen is being loaned back to the original owners. One user on X (formerly Twitter) said:

As highlighted by OkayAfrica, many believe that using the word “loan” implies that ownership doesn’t belong to Ghana.

Another user on X said:

Social media reactions highlight the sensitivity of the issue, with individuals questioning the concept of loaning stolen items and emphasizing the need for restitution.

A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that a staggering 90 percent of African cultural property is currently housed in European museums. Calls for the repatriation of these stolen artefacts displayed in Western Museums have intensified, particularly those representing the cultural heritage of oppressed people looted by colonial armies in the 19th century or acquired unfairly by missionaries and ambassadors. Notable examples include the Parthenon sculptures (The Elgin Marbles) and the Benin bronzes, which Greece and Nigeria have been trying to get back for many years.

This movement gained significant momentum in August last year, triggered in part by incidents of thefts at the British Museum, as noted in an article in the UK Guardian. The notion that Western museums are the safest place to store the world’s treasures has been undermined by security breaches and the overwhelming number of stored items. Furthermore, critics argue that the museums struggle to reconcile their mission of cultural understanding with the display of looted goods.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim observed that the law has been changed for the Holocaust items, noting that the British Museum can also push for a change in the law to allow for the permanent return of looted items.

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