The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum have announced a landmark three-year agreement to loan gold and silver treasures, looted by the British army in the 19th century, back to Ghana.
This significant collaboration involves 17 objects from the V&A and 15 from the British Museum, set to be exhibited at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, the capital of the Asante region.
These precious artifacts, integral to the Asante royal court’s heritage, have been absent from Ghana for 150 years, making this a momentous cultural restitution.
The items involved in this deal, which include a gold lute-harp given during a trade treaty in 1817, were predominantly seized during the Anglo-Asante wars in the 19th century.
Some were part of an indemnity payment forcibly extracted during a tumultuous period. The historic agreement, reached with Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the present Asante king, signals a positive shift in addressing historical injustices and fostering cultural understanding.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, a special adviser to Ghana’s culture minister, expressed her optimism about the deal, describing it as a “good starting point” in addressing the violent colonial past of the UK.
She highlighted the spiritual significance of these treasures, noting that they are not merely objects but integral parts of Ghana’s national identity. Ayim sees the agreement as a form of healing and commemoration for the historical violence inflicted during the colonial era.
Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, emphasized the cultural importance of the items, likening them to “our crown jewels.”
He underscored the museum’s commitment to sharing collections with a colonial history and expressed pride in partnering with the Manhyia Palace Museum for the public exhibition during Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II’s silver jubilee celebrations.
The artifacts, being returned to Ghana after a century and a half, include a gold lute-harp presented to the British diplomat Thomas Bowdich in 1817.
The collection’s repatriation is a crucial step in recognizing and addressing historical wrongs and fostering a renewed appreciation for cultural heritage.
However, it’s essential to acknowledge the legal constraints faced by major UK museums, including the British Museum and V&A, which prevent the permanent return of contested treasures.
Items like the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes are subject to these legal limitations. Tristram Hunt clarified that the three-year deal, potentially extendable, is not an attempt at “restitution by the back door.”
Instead, it reflects a responsible approach to shared cultural heritage, opening avenues for partnerships and exchanges to ensure fair representation and understanding between the countries of origin and museums in contemporary times.