The UK is set to return some of Ghana’s historical treasures, looted 150 years ago from the Asante king’s court, under long-term loan agreements. The 32 items include a gold peace pipe, with 17 pieces coming from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) and 15 from the British Museum. The move has been welcomed by Ghana’s chief negotiator as a step towards “a new sense of cultural co-operation”.
However, UK national museums, including the V&A and the British Museum, are legally prohibited from permanently returning contested items in their collections. This has led to concerns that such loans could be used to suggest acceptance of UK ownership by the countries claiming these artefacts.
The items being loaned, many of which were taken during the 19th-century wars between Britain and the Asante, include a state sword and gold badges worn by officials responsible for purifying the king’s soul. Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, emphasised that this cultural partnership does not imply restitution.
The loan agreements, which last for three years with an option to extend for another three, are not with the Ghanaian government but with the current Asante king, Otumfo Osei Tutu II. The items will be displayed at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi to celebrate the Asantehene’s silver jubilee.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, special adviser to Ghana’s culture minister, stressed that these artefacts hold spiritual significance and are part of the nation’s soul. She sees the loan as a starting point for healing and commemoration of past violence.
The Asante kingdom was once one of West Africa’s most powerful states, known for its military strength and wealth. Many more items taken from Ghana are held in UK museums, including a famous gold trophy head of Asante regalia.
The British Museum is also loaning 15 items, some of which were looted during a later conflict in 1895-96, including a state sword known as the Mpomponsuo. Other items include a ceremonial cap and a cast-gold model lute-harp.
The British government’s stance for state-owned institutions is to “retain and explain” contested objects. Current legislation prevents museum trustees at some institutions from permanently removing items from their collections. However, Mr Hunt advocates for a change in the law to allow more freedom for museums to return items.
Despite concerns that loaned items may not be returned, Ghana’s chief negotiator Ivor Agyeman-Duah assured that agreements would be honoured. As Britain confronts its colonial past, such agreements may offer a diplomatic and practical way to address historical wrongs and foster better future relationships.