November 10, 2021 will remain one of the most significant dates in the recent history of Benin. In a festive ceremonial worthy of those who accompany the greatest political, cultural and sporting events, the France returned to this African country 26 works of art from royal treasures of Abomey, looted in the XNUMXth centurye century by the French colonial troops of General Dodds during the sacking of the Abomey Palace in 1892.
Suffice to say that we are touching here a "sensitive chord" of national pride, and it is not surprising that this return has been in the conversations of the Beninese. for several weeks.
Preserved at the Quai Branly museum in Paris since 2003, after having passed through the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography and the Museum of Man in the same city, these treasures indeed include major cultural and religious works such as the famous totem statues of the ancient kingdom of Abomey (man-shark, man-bird, man-lion), or the carved wooden thrones of kings Ghézo and Glèlè.
The kingdom of Abomey was vast - from western Nigeria to Ghana - and highly respected since its founding in the XNUMXth century.e century. It will remain so until 1890 under the reign of King Béhanzin, the last independent sovereign who fought valiantly against the invaders. The return to the land of 26 works of art is thus part of a history that is as rich as it is glorious. Moreover, this is not a unique case, and other African countries, like nigeria, are in a comparable configuration.
Three sequences (plus one) for a successful return
First sequence: in 2017, during his speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the French president clearly undertakes to facilitate within five years the various restitution - whether temporary or permanent - of cultural and religious works belonging to African heritage. and identified in French collections.
Second sequence: in 2018, in a report for the Ministry of Culture which caused a sensation entitled Restitution of African cultural heritage: towards a new relational ethic, its authors Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy announce that "there is no longer the impossible".
Third sequence: in December 2020, a important law is voted. It makes restitution possible by explicitly authorizing exceptions to the principle of "non-transferability" of works owned by France which were the result of characterized looting and theft.
The three sequences, at the same time political, diplomatic, cultural and legal, do not therefore begin in 2021. This “historic moment of national pride” for the Beninese authorities began in 2016, that is to say a little before the so-called “Ouagadougou” speech, under the presidency of François Hollande.
A first request is made by Benin, but refused by the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, for legal reasons linked, precisely, to the inalienability of goods in public collections. It is therefore President Emmanuel Macron and his Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, who will receive their Beninese counterparts - President Patrice Talon and Minister of Culture Jean ‑ Michel Abimbola - to sign and solemnize in Paris the return of the 26 works of art.
Two symbolic pairs - the heads of state and their ministers of culture - signed the act of transfer of property from France to Benin and allowed the works to return to their country after nearly 130 years of exile.
As in any transfer of title to property, the issue of logistics inevitably arises. Surprisingly, the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy never speaks of the “logistics” associated with the return of works of art.
This dimension is probably obscured by ignorance or simply by "denial of complexity". Transport is barely mentioned in a few words, page 69:
“The return of works requires in any case a budget dedicated to transport and insurance costs, which we know can be very high depending on the fragility of the work in question and its market value. "
It is obviously a little short in the face of the challenges in terms of inventory, identification, packaging, transport and storage / destocking, collection and disbursement (in the strict sense)! All this is not trivial, and it is indeed the Beninese delegation which, symbolically, brought the treasures of Abomey by plane to African soil.
Known routing constraints
Let's start by quickly drawing up a picture of unique logistics, which has little to do with logistics relating to consumer goods.
Organizing the transport of works of art is not easy, especially from one continent to another, and the logistics involved raise formidable difficulties which the 26 works have not escaped.
We know, among other things, that the damage inflicted on works of art generally comes from conditions for carrying out transport and storage. The age of a work of art determines in particular a given level of fragility, knowing that a temperature and a hygrometry too high or too low can generate an irremediable degradation following uncontrollable chemical reactions.
The logistics of works of art also require special attention when it comes to handling operations. To reduce the risks taken during handling, manual or mechanical, each work of art requires specific packaging depending on the nature of the object, as well as the mode (land, sea or air) and the duration of transport.
The technique known as dabbing, most often used, is based on three layers of protection : a chemically neutral envelope covers the work; a flexible envelope reduces hygrometric variations and vibrations; a rigid casing protects against all shocks.
Operational logistics ...
The 26 works of art from the royal treasures of Abomey reach Benin on November 10, 2021 by plane from Paris, then the Benin presidential palace by special truck.
Since Benin is located in sub-Saharan Africa, on the Atlantic coast, climate data has nothing to do with those of Paris. A period of acclimatization of about two months to Benin's heat and humidity conditions is therefore essential, before a three-month exhibition at the presidential palace. Storage conditions are therefore critical.
Subsequently, it is expected that the treasures will be re-cashed and transported by road to the old Portuguese fort of Ouidah, on the Atlantic coast, west of Cotonou, where they will be exhibited in the governor's house, that is to say on the historical and symbolic sites of the history of slavery and European colonization.
The 26 works of art will wait there for some time, until the construction of a new museum in Abomey to welcome, conserve and protect them. Once again, warehousing will be at the heart of the success (or failure) of the return, and it is easy to understand that other African countries, such as Chad, are already facing challenges. questions about the organization of their own upcoming renditions.
... to “memorial” logistics
However, it would be awkward to reduce the logistics of returning the 26 works of art to purely operational dimensions and concentrated in a short time.
The actual logistics adventure begins with their looting in 1892 to continue in France, as reported, since they were transported, stored and exhibited at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, the Musée de l'Homme and, finally, the Musée du Quai Branly.
The logistical dimension remains however very unique because, on the one hand, these works are physically fragile (wood, stone, sculptures, setting, etc.) and, on the other hand, they are culturally sensitive because they symbolically represent the spirits of Kings. , the spirits of families and the spirits of power. As such, they can neither be handled nor stored without paying attention to the place, to the temporality and to the proximity with other objects, with other energies, among other constraints and specificities.
The interview granted to Point by Flavien Brice Alihonou, a practitioner of voodoo worship, November 10, 2021 offers undoubtedly one of the best explanations of the symbolic significance of the restitution of the 26 works of art:
“For us, they are not simple objects, they are witnesses of the power and the wealth of our African kingdoms before colonization. Most artists and artisans had the function of magnifying power. The recades are sacred, the thrones, the position of the cowries draw signs of the Fâ, our system of divination. They bear witness to the veracity of the sacred value of these works. "
In short, we do not transport and handle such sacred objects as if they were ersatz made in China for tourists on a spree.
We can speak here, on the contrary, of real “memory” logistics which cannot rely solely on traditional performance criteria (cost, time, integrity).
We are in the presence of a powerful animism within which logistics must be careful to respect mystical spirits. From this point of view, it goes far beyond the simple museographic logic of respecting the integrity of objects, today well known and mastered by large companies. specialized in the provision of logistics services.
Such logistics - much more sensitive - conceal a developing market which will be complex to manage because Europe has around 90% of Africa's cultural and religious heritage. For example, the collections of the Quai Branly museum contain almost 70 works of art from sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of which were exfiltrated during the French colonial period. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, and many other museums are concerned by these projects or, at least, by requests from Chad, Ethiopia, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and many other nations to reclaim their memory, heritage and culture.
The dilemma of universalism versus culturalism
Obviously, the central issue linked to the return of works of art to African countries is not of a logistical nature, but first of all of a legal and diplomatic nature, as we have stressed previously. She places the nagging at the center of the debates guilt of the West, and how to repair offenses against ancient civilizations.
To imagine "in the European way" that the organization of the repatriation of these works of art will be a simple matter of stewardship would lead to a serious error. There is a unique logistics, of a "memorial" nature, in the return of the royal treasures from Abomey which indicates that it is becoming more essential than ever to take into account the culturalist dimensions logistics.
We offer here a first draft of the definition of “memorial” logistics: this can be seen as a global management approach aimed at controlling the physical, informational and spiritual circulation of works with a cultural and / or religious dimension transferred via the logistics chains of several institutions in the same country and internationally.
Undoubtedly it is necessary to stimulate a real updating dominant modes of thinking in logistics, based on significant normativity. Indeed, the organization and operation of logistics chains have been based for decades on advanced standardization / standardization and the search for maximum interoperability, in particular between material flows and information flows.
One of the best known examples is the palletizing system, which strictly defines the size that trucks, containers, warehouses, in-store storage spaces, robots, and ultimately the products themselves must be. !
Logistics has thus created over time "traffic standards" the objective of which is to fluidify as much as possible product exchanges. Wouldn't the return to Benin of the treasures of Abomey have an unexpected virtue here: signaling another path where the Human and the Spiritual constitute essential elements to be taken into account in the management of logistics chains?
Barnabe Thierry Godonou, Doctor in management sciences, New Dawn University; Aaron Sottima Tchando, Doctor of Management Sciences, Aube Nouvelle University of Ouagadougou, New Dawn University; Gilles Pache, Professor of Management Sciences, Aix-Marseille University (AMU) et Marc Bidan, Professor of Universities - Management of information systems - Polytech Nantes, Historical authors The Conversation France
Image credit: Creative Commons License / Wikimedia
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