Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home | Modern Society of USA

Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home

Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home

DAKAR, Senegal — The 19th-century sword rests in a glass case alongside a frail Quran in a spacious gallery where scrolls hang from the wall and soft religious chanting is piped in. The saber’s etched copper handle is shaped like a swan’s beak, with a ring at the end. Its leather sheath rests nearby.

The sword belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader in the 1800s in what is now modern-day Senegal. His quest to conquer nearby territories put him in armed conflict with France, which had its own takeover ambitions. The French colonialists eventually won and seized not just large swaths of West Africa but also the region’s treasures, including the sword. Like most artifacts from France’s African colonies, it wound up in a French museum.

But the sword is now back in Senegal — and the Senegalese would like to keep it here. It is one of the most important pieces on display at Senegal’s new Museum of Black Civilizations, which has opened its doors amid a heated discussion about Africa reclaiming art that was looted during the colonial era.

The scale of artifacts in question is staggering. Up to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. France alone holds 90,000 sub-Saharan African objects in its museums.

The 19th-century sword here is on loan to Senegal, which in 1960 gained independence from France. At the end of the loan period, it is due to return to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris.

In November, Mr. Macron announced that he was giving back 26 African treasures plundered by French colonial forces in the late 19th century. The thrones, statues, palace gates and regalia belonged to what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey, a territory that is now part of Benin.

In building exhibits for the new museum, Mr. Bocoum, who is also an archaeology professor at Dakar’s main university, wants to set aside the ethnographic approach, reinventing displays, discourse and design to create a new kind of space for self-representation. Exhibits include “The Cradle of Humankind” and “Africa Now.” Another called “The Caravan and Caravel” tracks how new African communities abroad grew out of the slave trade.

The first of its rotating displays focuses on Haiti and Cuba, work “that enables us to have the back story of African history.”

If the timeline of African humanity were just one day, he said, colonization and slavery “were just one minute.”

“We should not forget that Africa existed before that and how Africa has contributed to the globalization of blackness,” he said. “What is important to us is to retrace the history of Africa until now.”

estimated that the number of artifacts Senegal would demand might total “a few dozen objects.” He said Senegal was not about to demand the return of all works of Senegalese origin at Quai Branly, which that museum has estimated at 2,249.

Not that the Dakar museum couldn’t house all of it. The museum’s 14,000 square meters of space (roughly 150,000 square feet) rebut the old position that Africa doesn’t have room to hold its artifacts that are now on display thousands of miles away.

“We can say now this museum can receive anything and everything taken away from Senegal,” said Ousmane Sène, director of the West African Research Center and a member of the museum board.

On a visit earlier this week, dozens of people — both locals and foreigners — were milling about. In one untraveled corner, grit from construction dust still scraped underfoot. The museum is free until February while finishing touches are applied.

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