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What can we do to push for more looted African items to be returned home?

Updated: May 11

The AKADi Magazine team attended a lecture by Dr Gertrude Aba Eyifa-Dzidzienyo in January 2024 detailing her research in tracking down and supporting the repatriation of looted items back to Ghana. She explains more. 

A common argument against returning looted African artefacts to their country of origin is that keeping them in the West allows the world to visit these collections.

But that privilege tends to be weighted in favour of people already living in the West; those that have the money to travel, and those that are not denied visas to visit.

This view fails to acknowledge the value and cultural importance that people connected to these items can gain from having physical access to them.

Understanding that reality hit home for me when I listened to a lecture on issues of restitution in Ghana by Dr Gertrude Aba Eyifa-Dzidzienyo at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge on 17 January 2024.

Displaced and decontextualised African artefacts

A member of the audience explained that it was only when she moved to the UK from Nigeria that she saw artefacts from her culture. She had never seen them growing up in her home country.

Observations like these are not surprising when you consider that up to 95% of African artefacts are housed outside of the African continent in private collections, museums, galleries, and universities.

This figure comes from a piece of research commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, which has been used to strengthen efforts to secure the return of cultural artefacts, human remains and religious items back to their owners in Africa.

Shockingly still, I have been reliably informed by three different museum contacts that the average museum only showcases 10% of its entire collection. This admission inevitably means that there are items that have never seen the light of day since they were taken from their original locations.

Not only that but some of these items were not labelled accurately or labelled at all.

A Guardian article published in December 2023, revealed that an estimated 2,000 items from the British Museum, including unregistered gems and jewellery, had been damaged or gone missing over ‘recent years’.

Photo by | helloiamtugce | :
Photo by | helloiamtugce/ Pexels

Instances like those described in the article have strengthened the call for the repatriation of looted artefacts.

The breadth and range of items taken from Ghana is vast. Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo explained that the list includes archaeological heritage taken from excavations in the name of science with the promise they would be returned, but never were.

They include examples of ethnographic heritage, such as arts and crafts, archival records, films and photographs, botanical, animal and human remains too.

“Almost all museums you enter [in the West], you find Akan goldweights in there but you come to Ghana, and you have just a few of them,” she said.

It is for this reason that the late University of Ghana chancellor Oyeeman Wereko Ampem II, bought up as many goldweights as he could afford with his own money when he came across them in art markets in Germany and through various dealers, Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said.

“He brought them back to the Institute of African Studies where they are exhibited,” she said. “He could not accept that we don’t have them in our own country.”

Looted Asante gold and silver regalia

This is one of the reasons why the bittersweet news that the British Museum and the V&A are to loan back 32 gold and silver Asante regalia to the Asantehene for three years, is so important.

Apart from the anger that has erupted in some quarters that regalia looted from the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Asante Region, will only be loaned back to the Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, other people are excited at the prospect that these pieces of history will be seen by new generations of Ghanaians.

The regalia will form part of a series of ceremonies during 2024.

The ceremonies marks the 150-year anniversary of the Sagrenti War (also known as the Third Anglo-Asante War) in 1874, and the centenary, marking the late Asantehene Nana Prempeh I’s return from a British-imposed exile. He was exiled to the Seychelles and was allowed to return in 1924.

“African cultural heritage is a living heritage – a heritage always in practice,” Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo explained during her lecture.

“So, when tangible materials associated with these cultural heritages are taken away, we lose the value attached to them. Oral histories can still be translated but the absence of the material creates a vacuum and again, that’s a reason why they should be restituted.”

The return of examples of Asante gold and silver regalia are testament to the continued demands people including the late Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, have made for the return of stolen items.

Most recently, the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, has agreed to permanently return seven royal artefacts looted from the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, during the Sargenti War.

Looted Koma terracotta figurines

Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo pointed to her research in repatriating looted Koma terracotta figurines from Ghana’s Northern Region as another example.

Seated female figurine, wearing a skirt, bracelets on the lower wrists, and a necklace and pendant. H. 19 cm, W. 9.5 cm, L. 6 cm. Photo: courtesy Manchester Museum/University of Manchester/University of Ghana
Seated female figurine, wearing a skirt, bracelets on the lower wrists, and a necklace and pendant. H. 19 cm, W. 9.5 cm, L. 6 cm. Photo: courtesy Manchester Museum/University of Manchester/University of Ghana

These clay-fired artefacts date from between 6 and 14AD, before the Islamisation of the northern part of Ghana and are thought to have been created by “a lost civilisation,” Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said. “The current people have no idea about how the materials were made.”

When excavation started in 1985, thousands of figurines – many still intact - were uncovered. But this also attracted looters and resulted in these artefacts ending up in museums across the globe.

A saving grace was that Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo’s team had published a list of the artefacts found from the dig, which has helped in locating some of the stolen items.

“I have found some in European museums so Ghana is calling for them back,” Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said.

These figures are also on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) red list, which publishes lists of the cultural artefacts that are most vulnerable to looting, theft and illicit trafficking.

Akpini royal regalia

Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo has been working to reinstate instruments including royal drums, ivory side-blown horns, royal smocks, and headdresses that the Germans looted in 1914 during the arrest of King Dagadu III in the Kpando area in Ghana’s Volta Region. The King was exiled to Cameroon on false charges.

According to Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo, research identified that 15 instruments were looted.

She explained that her work in researching looted items becomes an intricate process of piecing together the information about lost and stolen objects from pictures, inventories, oral history, articles, and leads from the communities linked to these artefacts and researchers.

In this instance, she was able to connect with descendants of the original community and spoke to one sub chief whose great grandfather had worked as an administrator during German rule.

This sub chief’s great grandfather had kept a handwritten book which had been handed down to him that showed evidence of the looting and King Dagadu III’s exile.

Some of these looted items have been identified as being in the Ethnologishes Museum in Berlin.

And in 2015, the late Chief Togbe Dagadu VIII, accompanied by Professor Apoh, who was also involved in the research, made a request to the previous German ambassador at his Embassy in Accra for these objects to be returned.

Various media outlets have reported that some of these items are to be returned but we are still waiting for their arrival.

Make databases publicly accessible

Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo’s presentation underscores the importance of ensuring that there is a public record of what has been looted and a need to out pressure on international institutions to do the same.

“African collections in European and American museums need to be published,” she told the audience in Cambridge. “We cannot know what is there if they are not published and it’s key for restitution to be successful.

“And access also means access for scholars to travel and enter these countries and access to the collections before we can claim restitution of the objects.”

It took around 170 years for the Netherlands to return the severed head of Ahanta King Badu Bonsu II to Ghana in 2009.

The discovery only happened because Dutch writer Arthur Japin (who was researching for his book ‘The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi’) happened to see it and reported it, Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said in her research paper.

King Badu Bonsu II had been hanged and decapitated in 1837, by the Dutch who controlled part of the Gold Coast at the time.

His head was discovered in a jar of formaldehyde in the anatomical collection of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands in 2002.

A year of return

The Government of Ghana is also stepping up support for the return of looted items.

The government has set up a 22-member committee chaired by Professor Kodzo Gavua, of the department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Ghana.

This committee has been established to identify and support researchers who are gathering data to advocate for the return of trafficked cultural heritage and artefacts.

There are several national and regional infrastructure expansion projects designed to house returned looted objects too.

They include the construction of the Pan African Heritage Museum, in Heritage Hills, Pomadze, on the Winneba Junction-Cape Coast Road, and the expansion of the Manyhia Palace in Kumasi.

Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo explained that some of these artefacts will be housed in Ghana’s museums, universities, and others will be returned to shrines or be buried to make peace with communities.

“In the first place, when they were picked from various sites across the country, they were not picked from museums, so the argument that restitution cannot be done because the  Africans do not have enough spaces to house them do not hold,” she said. “The objects were living in various context, being used, before they were taken away.”

There are 16 regions in Ghana and so far, only four official demands (those identified above) have been made, Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said – opening the door for other communities to do the same and signal their demands for the return of their cultural objects.

But this can only happen through collective action where communities are working with the help of researchers to detail the lost items and efforts are made to push institutions to make their databases public.

Returning looted artefact will deepen public awareness of cultural heritage, inspire a new generation to see value in their cultures, and can motivate people to reinvigorate and refine old techniques such as those seen with the ancient Koma terracotta figurines, Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo said.

European institutions have benefitted for centuries from having these artefacts through funding, tourism, and world prestige. Isn’t it time the communities that created them had the chance to do the same?


What you can do

Photo by Ron Lach :
Photo by Ron Lach/Pexels

1.    Be informed

Dr Gertrude Aba Eyifa-Dzidzienyo’s lecture was based on a paper she co-wrote in 2020 entitled: Looted and illegally acquired African objects in European museums: issues of restitution and repatriation in Ghana.

Dr Eyifa-Dzidzienyo is the first woman to receive her PhD in archaeology at the University of Ghana. She also holds an MPhil and is a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies.

2.   In 1970, Ghanaian filmmaker Nii-Kwate Owoo created the short film ‘You Hide Me’ after learning that many of our cultural artefacts were being stored in the British Museum's vaults. And watch an interview with the filmmaker himself here. 

3.    Visit a museum

Photo by Scott Webb:
Photo by Scott Webb/Pexels

Take an active interest in visiting museums, exhibitions, galleries, private collections made public, particularly those showcasing African collections, as they could feature items from your heritage.

4.    Ask to see your museum’s database collection

Increasingly, museums are publishing access to their collections’ database but there are others that have yet to do that. Being able to access these collections can help to identify where our artefacts are housed and help to start the discussion on repatriation.

Museums including the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology publicise their collections.

And you can learn about African Collections Futures - a project that aims to develop a better sense of where Africa-related objects and materials are across the University of Cambridge.

Dr Eva Namusoke, is the senior curator, African Collections Futures. Learn more about the project here.

5.    Get behind a cause

AFFORD UK is one of several organisations that is furthering the conversation around the restitution of African artefacts, human remains and religious items through its ‘Return of the Icons’ initiative.

AFFORD UK has already supported the return of some African artefacts including 72 items returned from the Horniman Museum, south London to Benin City in Nigeria.

You can check out our interview with Onyekachi Wambu, who led the initiative at AFFORD-UK.

6.    Follow the legislation

In the UK, there are a few laws that govern the return of looted artefacts. They include the British Museum Act (1963), and the Heritage Act (1983). Institutions including the British Museum and the V&A are bound by them. But not all museums are bound by these laws.

In addition, amendments to the Charities (2022) Act now mean that trustees of charity institutions have the powers to make ex gratia of ‘low valued’ property, with the value threshold dependent upon the gross income of the charity.

In 2023, The All-Party Parliamentary Group for African Reparation (APPG-AR) made seven recommendations including one outlining that parliamentarians should consider proposing new legislation that applies similar provisions of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) 2009 Act to stolen African artefacts and ancestral remains in UK collections.

The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) 2009 Act gives legal powers for items looted during Nazi occupation in Europe to be returned.

The APPG-AR brings together parliamentarians, campaigners, communities, and other stakeholders to examine issues of African Reparations and the repatriation of art and cultural artefacts, as well as exploring policy proposals on reparations and development, and how best to redress the legacies of African enslavement and colonialism. They periodically stage meetings that the public can attend. Find out more here.

This article is an original piece written by AKADi Magazine. The contents of this page cannot be reproduced without permission.

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