The United Kingdom is set to return approximately thirty artifacts looted from the Ashanti Kingdom during colonial times, shedding light on a historical chapter that spans 150 years. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum recently unveiled a loan agreement, allowing the artifacts to be temporarily housed in Kumasi, Ghana, for an initial period of three years, extendable upon agreement.
The impending return of what Ghana considers a national treasure marks the equivalent of Crown Jewels for the Ashanti Kingdom, encompassing ceremonial swords, brooches, jewelry, and headgear, predominantly crafted from gold and silver.
These items, stolen by British colonial forces in the 19th century, have been on display in London’s British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), with the latter housing iconic pieces such as the Rosetta Stone. The repatriated collection is destined for exhibition at the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, the residence of Ashanti King Osei Tutu II, who is commemorating his silver jubilee this year.
However, it’s crucial to note that the artifacts are not being permanently returned; instead, they are on loan for three years, with the possibility of renewal. The agreement was brokered with representatives of the Ashanti Kingdom, which, although now holding a ceremonial role, maintains a symbolic position, rather than with the Ghanaian government.
Under current legal constraints, national museums like the V&A and the British Museum are prohibited from directly restituting “contested” objects. This process must involve the respective governments, a step the Ghanaian government has approached with caution. A key argument against full restitution is that London possesses the means to properly preserve and restore these artifacts, a guarantee that the countries of origin may not provide.
The museums operate under a “retain and explain” policy, wherein they retain contested collections but attach explanatory plaques detailing the acquisition context. This issue extends beyond Ghana, as British museums house numerous artifacts from former colonies, sparking restitution demands worldwide.
Nigeria seeks the return of Benin bronzes, while Greece has persistently demanded the restitution of the Parthenon friezes for four decades, only to face staunch opposition from the British side. A spokesperson for the V&A suggests that temporary loan agreements could serve as a pragmatic interim solution, fostering constructive dialogues between the involved parties.