A U.S. museum has returned a batch of royal regalia to Ghana that was looted by British colonial soldiers 150 years ago, marking the first major return of stolen artefacts to the West African nation.
The Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said the items, all royal objects from the Asante kingdom, were purchased by an American collector and donated to the museum after his death.
Representatives of the museum handed them over to the Asante king, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, in the city of Kumasi on Thursday.
The move comes amid growing demand for the repatriation of priceless objects appropriated in colonial times. Nigeria and Ethiopia are among a number of countries seeking repatriation.
However, some museums say they are banned by law from permanently returning contested items in their collections.
London’s British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum said last month that they would loan 32 objects taken during the Anglo-Asante wars to the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi.
The items returned by the Fowler Museum include an elephant tail whisk, two royal stool ornaments, a royal necklace, two strands of beads and an ornamental chair.
Four of them were taking during the 1874 sacking of Kumasi, and three were part of an indemnity payment later made by the Asante kingdom to the British, the museum said.
“These are objects that connect the present to the past… the very essence of a civilization,” Ivor Agyemang Duah, director of the Asante royal museum, told Reuters.
The Fowler Museum said the return was permanent and voluntary, as it shifts toward the idea of museums as custodians “with ethical responsibility towards the communities of origin.”
A historian at the University of Ghana, Kwaku Darko Ankrah, said the return was important for Ghana but expressed hope that it would also trigger a conversation about how the Asantes came by the items.
“Looting was also one major trait of the Asantes at the height of their supremacy and there is historical evidence of things they looted from other tribes they fought (across Ghana),” he said.
Ankrah wants returned items to be identified and the original owners found.
“They (the original owners) also have equitable rights to those items. If they are not identifiable but the Asantes agree they are looted treasures, then the artefacts should become national treasures of Ghana,” he said.