The ‘Gallery for Returning Treasures’ in Kumasi will be much more than a conventional museum. Elsie Owusu describes plans for housing works of art stolen from Ghana under colonialism.
As a young architect, I led a student competition in the 1990s to design a ‘Gallery for Returning Treasures’ (GRT), co-sponsored by the Africa Reparations Movement led by Bernie Grant MP and the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Liverpool docks were the site for the GRT complex. This location referred to the city’s history, as the hub of the slave trade, a distillation and condenser of its tragic essence.
However, the project never got off the ground due to lack of traction from the British government. Nearly 25 years later, the concept has been reborn as a new gallery in Ghana, within the Kumasi City Hall Complex.
In the ‘punitive campaign’ of 1873-4, Sir Garnet Wolseley’s army raided Kumasi, ancient capital of the Ashanti kingdom in what was then Gold Coast, West Africa.
The British troops destroyed the city and looted large quantities of royal and sacred regalia. The present king, HRH Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II has demanded the return of these treasures. Many bought at auction by British cultural institutions, including the V&A, now form part of the target for the global movement for restitution.
A visionary brief
GRT and its artefacts is envisaged as more than a conventional collection; more than a gallery and museum. It is about display, data, information and academic exchange.
The new GRT deals simultaneously with notions of dis-settlement and re-settlement.
The artefacts, taken from their original use-in-culture, are currently viewed in conditions of alienation. Under the Return of Icons programme, many treasures will be returned to their original homes, places and locations, which may have undergone radical social and political change.
The new, visionary brief of this building encompasses these complex issues and proposes a simple, beautiful temporary home for the study and display of historical artefacts.
Located in Kumasi, which was pivotal to the slave trade, colonialism and the struggle against the British Empire, the GRT and its allied educational and research institute is to be a place where objects speak to one another and to their multiple audiences, locally, nationally and internationally.
The architecture of GRT is to make a powerful statement of resilience, reconciliation, hope and reparations. In addressing the brutality of the past, the spaces will offer a sense of confidence and the promise of wellbeing, in anticipation of the return of icons to the continent of Africa.
Most importantly, GRT will be a centre of excellence on the African continent, a catalyst for lobbying for and, if necessary, raising funds for the purchase of treasures and artefacts so they can be returned to their countries of origin.
Elsie Owusu OBE RIBA FRSA is a London-based architect. She is a director of JustGhana, an organisation dedicated to investment in the people and culture of Ghana.
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.