In Benin, Françoise N’Thépé builds a setting for the Amazons and the kings of Dahomey

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Aerial perspective of the Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and the Kings of Danhomè, on the royal site of Abomey which should open in 2024.

“For a first project in Africa, I couldn’t have dreamed of better! »let loose, not without pride, the Franco-Cameroonian architect Françoise N’Thépé, in charge of building in Benin the future Museum of the epic of the Amazons and the kings of Danhomè (another name for Dahomey in the Fon language), in Abomey, in the heart of the palatial site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The institution, installed on approximately 3,000 m2, will house some 350 objects, including 26 royal treasures, which, returned to Benin in February by France, have found their land of origin after more than a century of exile. Added to this is the renovation of three royal palaces, the installation of a craftsmen’s village and the opening of shops and restaurants.

At a cost of 50 million euros, it is one of the most ambitious museum projects desired by President Patrice Talon. The State of Benin has pledged 10 million euros. It has also taken out a loan of 25 million euros from the French Development Agency (AFD) which, at the same time, is donating 10 million euros. It is also the most political of the cultural projects carried out by the Head of State, elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2021.

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The objective is to reconnect the people of Benin with “Three centuries of continuous history, the birth of a Constitution, of a State, of a multi-ethnic nation”insists Alain Dogonou, director of the “museum” program at the National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and Tourism Development (ANPT) in Benin.

On her first visit to the former royal capital of Abomey, in 2018, Françoise N’Thépé was impressed by the presence of the high walls and the sequence of palace courtyards. “There was such a historical force in this site that you feel cut off from the world, out of time”, she recalls. The questions are immediately jostling. How to build a contemporary museum while avoiding mimicry with existing palaces? How to make local color without falling into pastiche, anchoring the building in modernity without succumbing to banality or, on the other hand, the spectacular?

Local materials and common sense

The architecture she imagined is sober, unfussy. The idea, here, is not to put the forms in conflict in a debauchery of plastic effects, but to exalt local materials and traditional know-how by agreeing with the red and ocher colors of the site. Françoise N’Thépé favored raw or terracotta, “which will also limit supply problems”, she says. She reinterpreted the roofs of palaces and matched the height of her building to that of the walls. “I didn’t want to do anything too brutal, but for the building to dialogue with what surrounds it”, she summarizes. Starting from uses, from context, in short from life, such has been its credo since its inception.

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