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That was almost a year ago to the day. Benin saw itself restored by France the 26 works of the royal treasures of Abomey. The Beninese authorities hope that other works will be returned to them in the coming years. But before that, they work, for temporary exhibitions, on the loan of certain renowned pieces such as the famous statue of the god Gou. Alain Godonou is the Director of the Museums Program at the National Agency for Heritage Promotion and Tourism Development in Benin.
The works of the royal treasures of Abomey were therefore returned to you a year ago. They were exhibited in the Palace of the Presidency for several months. How were they received by the public?
Alain Godonou: Let’s say it’s a welcome beyond our expectations. You had an exhibition in two stages: a first season from February to May, about 40 days of exhibition, and we had about 190,000 visitors, with a daily average of almost 4,500 to 5,000 visitors. Then, at the request of the public, we reopened the exhibition from July 16 to the end of August and we had about 34,000 visitors. So it was a huge, popular success that surprised us.
What will become of the works now? Will they be exhibited in Ouidah, as was initially announced?
We are thinking about it and we are asking ourselves the question: is it really worth exhibiting them again in Ouidah, given that there has been plenty of time, given the statistics we have, to visit them, or should we take care of them, treat them and simply wait to expose them definitively in the natural setting of Abomey?
As you said, these works should eventually be exhibited in Abomey, at the Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and the Kings of Dahomey. How is the construction of this museum going? Work progressing normally?
Yes, the construction of the museum is progressing. We have decided to put this museum, this museum space, inside the classified site of the royal palaces of Abomey, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for this, we need professional technical discussions, but which also take into account what is called the OUV, the outstanding universal value, of this site. We had this dialogue with Unesco, which is now over. Therefore, the final studies are in the process of being completed and the company, which must complete the work, will be chosen shortly. And the opening of this museum is scheduled for the start of the 2024 school year.
Did the popular success of the exhibition of these 26 works prompt you to formulate new demands for restitution from France?
When President Patrice Talon was in France at the Élysée to record the return of these 26 treasures, there was a reminder of the works we wanted to receive. This request is still on the table. Now it’s the business of politicians. We know how it is in France. We know that President Emmanuel Macron has launched the study of a law which facilitates regulatory provisions, which facilitates restitution. Probably it will take time. Now we are on a more technical level. We are in a cooperative arrangement. We are for the circulation of works and we are in discussion with French colleagues, perhaps not for restitution, which is a political and sometimes legislative issue, but for the sharing of existing collections. So we expect museums in France and professionals, curators in France, that we can discuss, so that the works they have and which interest us here in our exhibitions can circulate in this direction, so that we can welcome and introduce them.
Which pieces in particular would interest you in the short or medium term?
Sure. You know that there is a piece that has been in our request for a long time, the god Gou for example. From the moment we set up the International Museum of Voodoo, all the works that could come under this heritage issue, the voodoo which has an identity in Benin, it is normal that we can think of welcoming them. It is not only the god Gou, there is all the Ifa furniture, the divination attached to the famous diviner of the kingdom of Abomey, Gèdègbé, which are on the table following our request for restitution or circulation. I have cited the most emblematic. But there are others that find their place in the exhibitions that we want to do here.
When could these works be loaned to you?
There is a work between the institutions whose responsibility, the mission is to take care of these collections and we, we are starting the discussion with the French part. We organize our discussion elsewhere through the support of Expertise France and French professionals from the Ministry of Culture on these issues. To give you a date, a deadline, at the start of the 2024 school year from September, we should again have very large exhibitions in Benin which would perhaps include, if we arrive safely, what we wish, these objects- the.
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Guest Africa – Alain Godonou: in Benin, “the exhibition of the treasures of Abomey was a surprising popular success”
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