In late November 2018, a dramatic report urging French museums to send their entire collections of “looted” African art back to Africa was delivered by academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to French President Emmanuel Macron. The report captured world headlines by calling for the return of many thousands of objects to Africa – France presently holds an estimated 90,000 in its museums. At the same time, the Musee Quai Branly announced the return of twenty-six artworks to Nigeria.
In October, preceding the French report, there was a less-heralded, but arguably more substantive announcement by the British Museum and other institutions that concrete steps have been taken to build a more practical structure for sharing art and artifacts between established European institutions and Benin. The announcement by the Benin Dialog Group sets forth plans for the return of key African objects for a permanent display through long term loans, beginning with the most famously looted African objects of all, the bronzes, ivories, and other treasures seized in an 1897 punitive expedition against the Kingdom of Benin.
The arrangement is not simply for the return of objects, but to provide advice and training as well as to develop the African museum. The brief Statement from the Benin Dialogue Group, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, The Netherlands, 19 October 2018 reports that “the European partners will provide advice, as requested, in areas including building and exhibition design. European and Nigerian partners will work collaboratively to develop training, funding, and legal frameworks to facilitate the permanent display of Benin works of art in the new museum.”
After working for over a decade through the logistics of building the Benin Royal Museum and establishing its collections, the Benin Dialogue Group has announced that the Nigerian institution will be completed in three years. Final details are still to be negotiated, but major institutions from around the world have agreed to loan objects in their collections from Benin to the Benin Royal Museum when it opens. Such loans would represent a shift in Western museum practices, which have placed first priority on the security of objects, and required museum preservation and conservation to match Western standards. For the museum members of the Benin Dialog Group, making these objects accessible to a wide-ranging public, including in the country of origin, is the current, supervening goal.
The Benin Dialogue Group
The long-term loan arrangement is the brainchild of the Benin Dialogue Group. Over the last ten years, this multi-lateral working group has brought together museum representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to work in collaboration with the Edo State Government and the Royal Court of Benin, with the support of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (NCMM).
The project will move forward over the next three years under the guidance of a steering committee comprised of the Nigerian organizations and three of the eight European Museums; the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, the British Museum London and the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK), Hamburg (formerly the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg).
The Benin Dialogue Group is planning three more meetings leading up to the ribbon cutting of the Benin Royal Museum; one in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2019, one at the British Museum, London in 2020 and the final meeting at the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg in 2021.
The Benin Dialogue Group notes that their work “occurs within a wider context and does not imply that Nigerian partners have waived claims for the eventual return of works of art removed from the Royal Court of Benin, nor have the European museums excluded the possibility of such returns. However, this is not part of the business of the Benin Dialogue Group.”
Other preliminary attempts to arrange either permanent or loaned returns, such as The Benin plan of action for restitution, have not succeeded.
The Looting of Benin
In early 1897 over one thousand British troops seized what is now Benin City in Nigeria, bringing to an end Benin Kingdom, one of the oldest and most highly developed West African civilizations. The destruction of the capital of the Benin Kingdom took place during a British “punitive expedition” launched in retaliation for a massacre of all but two of two hundred fifty British troops on orders of the Oba (Divine King) of Benin.
Tensions had been building in the region; its rulers had grown rich through trade with the Portuguese for ivory, pepper, and slaves. The British had been eyeing its wealth and resources for decades and viewed the continuing power of the Oba of Benin as a hindrance to access and exploitation. Pressure between British forces and the Oba mounted after the signing of a trade agreement, the terms of which the Oba may not have understood. According to Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate, the Oba had been reluctant to sign the document. The British perceived the Oba’s noncompliance with the accord as a hostile act, and advanced with two hundred fifty men on the capital, arriving during a festival in Benin city. The Oba responded to their uninvited presence as a hostile act and attacked and killed almost all. The punitive expedition followed.
Troops burned and looted the city and residence of the Oba. At the end of the ransacking, the British left with over 2,500 pieces of “religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks.” Most of the objects taken were from the royal palace and many had served as a record of royal history. Some of these items were auctioned to pay for the expedition, some were gifted to individuals in the British military, and almost a thousand pieces were accessioned to the British Museum in London. Others were acquired by American and European institutions. Though these objects, now found in museums all around the world, are often called the “Benin Bronzes,” that term applies to objects made of many different materials including ivory, cloth and wood. The items that are made of metal are not actually bronze, but an amalgam more closely resembling brass.
A key question for the European institutions that have been part of the Benin Dialog Group or which have participated in other discussions on repatriation is, “If the object goes back to its country of origin, will it be well cared for?” Nigeria’s answer to that question is not yet clear.
Nigeria has experienced significant political upheaval, civil unrest and poverty that have left a number of heritage sites at risk. There is currently a serious lack of funding for preservation of historic and ancient, monuments and objects in Nigeria. Most notable of these monuments are the ancient Kano wall (which is being actively destroyed by a growing city) and the Alok Ikom Stone Monoliths, a collection of over 300 oblong carved stone figures arranged in circles in over thirty different communities in Nigeria, which are at risk from neglect. (See CPN article, Nigeria: Kano’s Walls Will Disappear: Heritage Structures are Crumbling, but Natural Heritage Shrines Survive)
Nonetheless, Nigeria has made serious attempts to build a cultural infrastructure and to regain objects dispersed during the colonial period and early periods of independence. Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and began work on a national museum during the following decade. In 1973, acting through the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Nigeria requested that foreign museums holding Benin collections return some of their Benin items to represent the nation’s cultural heritage – Nigeria only possessed about fifty bronzes and other objects from 19th century Benin at the time. This request was met with silence. Now, after years of negotiation, it appears that a selection of the Benin bronzes may once again reside in their city of origin but under the watchful eye of loaning museums.
The Benin example highlights the amount of time the process of restitution can take even when foreign museums acknowledge that they came into possession of Benin objects through acts of violence or overt oppression. In the case of Benin, it appears that this is not foot dragging, it is process – and the process beginning with assistance in building an appropriate repository for long-term loans adopted by the Benin Dialog Group is the first truly significant result.
All that is in a museum is not stolen
The mission of universal museums, a category which includes many of the museums represented in the Benin Dialogue Group, is to protect and display the global heritage of the world for all people to enjoy and learn from. A number of these museums have an annual attendance of millions of people a year. The museums act not only to preserve the heritage and history of the world, but also to inspire and inform individuals who would never have the opportunity to see such objects in their nation of origin. For countries with diverse populations, a universal museum is where they are exposed to the cultural heritage of their neighbors and fellow citizens.
A recent and much promoted misconception regarding universal museums is that their collections are all stolen or looted, prompting demands for repatriation and restitution that are cheered in the court of public opinion, even if the country of origin has a poor record of preserving its heritage or is, in fact, a dictatorship that rigorously controls cultural expression.
The realities are more nuanced. Both public perception of what is right and proper, and laws governing ownership of cultural heritage have changed over time. Objects deemed legally acquired a hundred years ago – or even twenty-five years ago – might not be considered legally acquired if taken by the same means today.
Nigerian writers have long argued that the plundering of Benin City and the removal of its art and artifacts has left a wound in the cultural psyche of its people. Many attempts have been made over the years to bring the objects back to what is now Nigeria. In the 1950s, when the British Museum sold some of the works from Benin, Nigeria bought the majority of the objects offered for sale. (One recently appeared at auction of the Merton D. Simpson Collection in the US.)
In an article entitled, The glory of Benin kingdom and the shame of British Empire by Anthony Okosun, Okosun explores what the Benin Bronzes mean to the Nigerian people. He describes the objects made of ivory, wood or bronze as a form of historical record for the people of Benin, used in the same way that other cultures use a written script or as the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics. For Okosun, many, though not all of the Benin objects were actually the equivalent of a library or archive of the Kingdom of Benin.
Okosun states in illustration, “[O]ne may cite an event which took place during the coronation of Oba Erediauwa in 1979. There was an argument as to where to place an item of the coronation paraphernalia. Fortunately, a bronze-cast of a past Oba wearing the same regalia had escaped the eyes of the soldiers and so it is still with us. Reference was made to it and the matter was resolved. Taking away those items is taking away our records, or our Soul.”
Given these conflicting perspectives, there is no absolute or universally accepted definition of right or wrong that can be applied to objects taken from other nations or cultures. There are certainly instances where both museums and source countries agree that it is appropriate to repatriate, especially when an object was taken in incidence of actual theft or clear wrong done to indigenous or minority communities.
To educate the public in the complexities of these issues, as well as to dispel widely held public misperceptions that all art in museums is wrongfully acquired, the British Museum has reached out to the public through a series of Collecting Histories talks which examine “how, why, and in what context British Museum objects have been acquired, displayed and interpreted. The talks will explore histories of collecting objects from around the world, from the establishment of the Museum in 1753 up to the present day.”