london — Two British museums are returning looted gold and silver artifacts to Ghana under a long-term loan arrangement as U.K. institutions face increasing demands to hand over treasures acquired at a time when the British Empire ruled over people around the globe.
The British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, together with the Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana, announced the “important cultural” collaboration on Thursday. The loan sidesteps U.K. laws that bar the repatriation of such cultural treasures and have been used to prevent the British Museum from returning the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, to Greece.
Seventeen items are involved in the loan arrangement, including 13 pieces of Asante royal regalia purchased by the V&A at auction in 1874. The items were acquired by the museums after British troops looted the royal palace in Kumasi during the Anglo-Asante wars of 1873-74 and 1895-96 and represent a small fraction of the artifacts held in the U.K.
“These objects are of cultural, historical and spiritual significance to the Asante people,” the museums said in a statement. “They are also indelibly linked to British colonial history in West Africa, with many of them looted from Kumasi during the Anglo-Asante wars of the 19th century.”
Countries including Nigeria, Egypt and Greece, as well as indigenous peoples from North America to Australia, are demanding the repatriation of artifacts and human remains amid a global reassessment of colonialism and the exploitation of local populations.
Nigeria and Germany recently signed a deal for the return of hundreds of Benin Bronzes, a general term for a trove of sculptures, cast plaques and royal regalia created from the 16th century onward in the West African kingdom of Benin. That followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to sign over 26 pieces known as the Abomey Treasures, artworks from the 19th-century Dahomey kingdom in present-day Benin, a small country west of Nigeria.
But the U.K. has been slower to respond. Officials argue that the objects were acquired legally and that institutions like the British Museum have long preserved them in an environment where they can be seen and studied by people from around the world.
The British government said the Ghana deal did not set a precedent for the Parthenon Marbles, which are the subject of a long-running diplomatic battle between the U.K. and Greece. The sculptures originally decorated the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens and were acquired by Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat and collector, in the early 18th century.
“This isn’t a new approach,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain. “There have been a number of loans. These take place from time to time between museums.”
He added that Britain “would expect the items to be returned at the end of that loan period.”
The items covered by the loan agreement include a “soul disk,” which the Asante king wore to protect his soul, as well as a peace pipe and seven sections of sheet-gold ornaments. They represent only a small portion of the Asante objects held by British museums and private collectors around the world. The British Museum alone says it has 239 items of Asante regalia in its collection.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, special adviser to Ghana’s culture minister, said the deal was a “starting point,” given British laws that prohibit the return of cultural artifacts. But ultimately the regalia should be returned to the rightful owners, she told the BBC.
“I’ll give an analogy: If somebody came into your house and ransacked it and stole objects and then kept them in their house, and then a few years later said, ‘You know what? I’ll lend you your objects back,’ how would you feel about that?” she said.