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UK museums to loan looted gold artifacts to Ghana

The United Kingdom will send back gold and silver artifacts looted from Ghana in the 19th century after a long-term loan agreement was struck.

Both the British Museum and the V&A will send items related to the Asante royal court to Ghana, where they will be displayed at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, according to a press release from the UK museums Thursday.

Many of the items, which include 13 pieces of Asante royal regalia, were looted during the Anglo-Asante wars, while some were part of an indemnity payment that the British forcibly extracted from the Asantehene, or Asante king. Others were sold at auction, entering private collections and museums worldwide.

A gold ornament with three bands of decoration. - Victoria and Albert Museum
A gold ornament with three bands of decoration. - Victoria and Albert Museum

Items displayed at the V&A in London were selected as “exemplars of the brilliant goldsmithing techniques practiced for centuries by the Asante royal goldsmiths” and served as inspiration for British artists and designers, reads the release.

Now they will be displayed in Ghana for the first time in 150 years, as part of an exhibition celebrating the 2024 Silver Jubilee of His Royal Majesty, the Asantehene, Osei Tutu II, as well as commemorating the Anglo-Asante war of 1873-74.

The items also include a small gold ornament in the shape of a sankuo, or lute-harp, and an ornament in the form of an eagle.

A cast gold badge. - Victoria and Albert Museum
A cast gold badge. - Victoria and Albert Museum

“Since the foundation of the Asante empire during the late 17th century, gold has been central to Asante identity, spirituality and economic stability,” reads the release.

“Asante kings grew powerful on local gold deposits and the palace in Kumasi became the focal point for a lucrative international gold trade,” it adds.

Gold is also used to decorate the royal throne and the Asantehene himself, as well as high-ranking court officials, according to the release.

“These ornaments carry meaning beyond their material value. They are invested with the spirits of former Asante kings and their decoration can be read by those familiar with the visual lexicon,” it continues.

The items will be displayed in Ghana on a long-term loan. - Victoria and Albert Museum
The items will be displayed in Ghana on a long-term loan. - Victoria and Albert Museum

Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, said that he’s “proud” of the partnership.

“As part of our commitment to sharing collections with a colonial past, we are excited to see these items on public show, in Ghana, as part of Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations,” said Hunt in the release.

Lissant Bolton, keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum, hailed the partnership with the Manhyia Palace Museum.

“This relationship is of great importance to us. We are delighted to be lending these beautiful and significant cultural objects for display in Kumasi,” added Bolton.

The agreement comes amid ongoing calls for Western museums to give back stolen property – the cultural heritage of oppressed people plundered by colonial armies in the 19th century or taken unfairly by missionaries or ambassadors.

No less than 90% of African cultural property resides in European museums, according to a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has decided that much of it must be returned.

However, the British Museum has refused to give back to Greece the half of the Parthenon Marbles stolen by Lord Elgin, and the issue is a source of uncomfortable conversations at many other cultural institutions.

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