The Benin Bronzes in the British Museum  are often highlighted when restitution cases are discussed. There are also numerous other institutions that hold artefacts from the ancient kingdom – often acquired in circumstances of similarly dubious legality.
Modern Ghana 
BENIN TO BERLIN ETHNOLOGISCHES MUSEUM: ARE BENIN BRONZES MADE IN BERLIN?
By Dr. Kwame Opoku
Wed, 13 Feb 2008
Berlin, Berlin, Berlin, Benin bronzes burnt in Berlin? Berlin boasts 482 Benin bronzes but Benin bleeds badly.
“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause. (1)
Head of Queen Mother-iyoba. Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin
The Benin Exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals. Court Arts from Nigeria goes to Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum from February 7 to May 25, 2008. The Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, renamed Ethnologisches Museum as from 2000,was legally established on 12 December, 1873 largely due to the tireless efforts of Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), its first director who is considered by many as the founder of German Ethnology and who insisted on collecting cultural material from the peoples of Africa and Oceania who he thought would soon disappear due to contact with European civilization. (2) According to the catalogue of the exhibition, several German museums lent their Benin art works to the exhibition. (3) Alone, the list of German museums holding African cultural objects is impressive and shows the extent to which the former colonial power plundered the colonies for art works.
It is not often remembered that the German museums have several art works from Africa and that Germany had been a colonial power on the Continent, having had under its control, Togo, Cameroon, German-East Africa (Tanganyika, Burundi and Ruanda) and German-South-West Africa (Namibia) until the end of the First World War. We leave aside the Brandenburger-Prussian colonies Gross Friederichsburg in Ghana, (1683-1718), Arguin, in Mauritania, (1685-1721). It should also be remembered that colonialist ideology in Germany did not start with Germany’s possession of colonies nor did it end with Germany’s loss of colonies after the First World War.
Many people do not even seem to recall that the infamous imperialist meeting that divided Africa among the colonizing powers, the Berlin Conference of 1884, took place in the then and now capital of Germany, Berlin under the chairmanship of Bismarck, the chancellor (“Reichskanzler”). Moreover, German ethnologists and archaeologists had been very active in Africa, the most famous being Leo Frobenius (1873-1938)who collected several thousands of artefacts from the Continent and made a contribution to the Africa collection of the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum. He considered forced labour and corporal punishment in the German colonies as necessary and fair. Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire seemed to have derived some inspiration for their negritude from an incomplete reading of his works but a thorough study of his works reveals his deep-seated colonialist and racist views. (4) He was also alleged to have stolen some items and was actually brought to justice. Glenn Penny recounts this story in his book, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany:
“During his travels in Nigeria in 1911, Frobenius came into direct conflict with the British authorities concerning his collecting policies in what has come to be known as the Olokun Affair. This incident developed following complaints by the inhabitants of Ife, the sacred capital of the Yoruba country in southern Nigeria that Frobenius had mistreated and deceived them, and had taken away religious objects without their consent. The principal item in dispute was the bronze head of the god Olokun, which Frobenius claimed to have “discovered” in a groove outside the walls of Ife, but which the town’s inhabitants accused him of stealing. As a result of the complaints, which followed Frobenius’s departure from the city British authorities summoned him before an improvised British court and eventually forced him to return many of the items he had acquired from the area”. (5)
When we recall the German colonial rule, a very brutal regime, remembered for its genocide of the Hereros and Namas in South West Africa (now Namibia), as revenge for the killing of some German settlers who had seized their land and were dominating, we may assume that the life of the Africans was not an easy one and that many of the art objects in German museums were obtained through coercion or intimidation even if presented as purchases or gifts. It should also be recalled that the colonial State was no “Rechtsstaat”. (6) Outright force was of course not excluded beatings and caning were widespread, many times exercised by the employer for absenteeism from work and the death sentence was more often enforced in the colonies than in Germany itself. It is quite clear that the structural violence of the colonial situation and the frequent actual use of force by German colonial administrators and the German settlers made Africans amenable to parting with the objects the Europeans wanted. If the present German museum directors are not conscious of this, others in the colonies did not fail to notice this, Cornelia Essner has remarked:
“That the acquisition of ethnografica in the colonial time was on the basis of more or less “structural violence” will not be pursued in detail in this context. Some individual contemporaries were perfectly aware of this fact. Thus one Africa-traveller and resident of the German Empire in Ruanda, Richard Kandt, wrote in 1897 to Felix von Luschan, Deputy Director of the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, as follows: “It is especially difficult to procure an object without at least employing some force. I believe that half of your museum consists of stolen objects.” (7)
When some museums indicate that certain objects were given as gifts, one must remember that these were not gifts from the African people but from German adventurers, settlers or colonial administrators. Certainly, no African peoples would readily give away any religious or ritual object to a foreigner unless under considerable pressure to do so. Moreover, in a system of arbitrary rule and fear, it would not be very difficult for European administrators to persuade African subjects to give up even their most precious possessions. The reputation of colonial administrators, whether British, German, French or Belgian to resort readily to the use of force is well established. The history of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin and how the cultural objects there were procured are well discussed in the excellent book by Christine Stelzig, Afrika am Museum für Völkerkunde zu Berlin 1873-1919. (8)
That the colonial subjects of Germany were in no position to exercise freely full legal and human rights has been well documented in several publications: David Simo, for example, declared that
“Europeans were supposed to combat local alleged wildness to establish a civilized order, but colonization in fact established a reign of violence and injustice.” (9)
Similarly, Helmut Stoecker in a study entitled, “The Position of Africans in the German Colonies”, declared ; “The almost total absence of genuine liberalism among the Germans in the colonies, the grim and obstinate anti-African racism already referred to, and the preference for direct and openly practiced oppression all combined to make a situation possible in which “nearly every white man walks around with a whip… and almost every white man indulges in striking any black man he chooses to, as Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg discovered in Dar es Salaam in 1907.” (10)
It is common knowledge that the Germans have some of the largest collections of African art in the world and in terms of quality, there is no gainsay that some of the best works ever produced on the Continent are in Germany, and particularly, in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin which has some 75,000 African works out of a total of 500,000 objects. Ample evidence of this is provided by the publications of the Museum. In an article by Frank Willett entitled “Benin”, it is stated that “The Ethnological Museum Berlin considers itself lucky to be the possessor of the largest and probably most important collection of Benin art in the world”. (11). Indeed, it was after the British Museum had realized how massive the German purchases of the Benin artworks were at the auctions by the British after the 1897 invasion and looting of Benin, that they sought more funds to increase their own stock. (12) Felix von Luschan (1854-1924), who succeeded Adolf Bastian as Director of the Ethnologisches Museum (1885-1911) is credited with making most of those purchases. He produced a famous work, Die Altertümer von Benin (1919) and was also credited with creating the infamous von Luschan’s chromatic scale for classifying skin colour, which consisted of 36 opaque glass tiles which were compared to the subject’s skin. Von Luschan was also known to have made some nasty remarks about Africans who did not accept the perception of themselves as the ethnologist assigned. He made nasty remarks about such educated Africans, calling them “trouser niggers” (“Hosen-niggers”). (13)
The German attitude and action towards restitution and compensation for art objects illegally acquired by them and reparation for large scale destruction of other peoples is very interesting. Whereas they are willing and indeed have returned art works stolen or seized by the Nazis from Jews and other Germans, and have paid reparation for Nazi atrocities against Jews, they are not willing to treat Africans in the same way. They have refused to return the bust of Nefertiti to the Egyptians and are not even willing to lend it for a short period for an exhibition in Cairo in 2012. The demands of the Hereros of Namibia for reparation for the massacre of their people and the confiscation of their property are met with either arrogance or indifference. Whereas the German have set up a Holocaust Memorial in honour of the Jews killed by the Nazis, I am not aware that any such memorial for the Hereros or other Africans has been erected or is even contemplated. Ironically, many of the perpetrators of the first Holocausts are all honoured with street names in Germany.
Colonialism preceded Nazism and offered sufficient examples of brutality and racism. Whether German colonialism was a step towards National Socialism or not is not my main concern here. I am only arguing for the need for compensation and equal treatment. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that most of the basic characteristics of the atrocious and evil practices of Nazi system were already practised in the German colonies such as Südwestafrika (Namibia) – concentration camps, pass system and racial oppression, eugenicist ideas and practices of racial selection, territorial expansion and confiscation of property. (14) The transposition of these nefarious practices from Africa to Europe caused more shock than their implementation against Africans. Why?
It is also not our intention to make a general assessment of German colonialism, however important this may be. We believe nevertheless that an examination of the circumstances or atmosphere in which the huge collection of the Ethnologisches Museum was made is not completely irrelevant to the question of restitution and since most of this acquisition was made in the colonial period, that period must also be our concern.
As for returning the Benin art works, the German position has been made very clear by the Director-General of the State Museums, Berlin by signing the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums by the major museums of Europe and America. In a note in explanation of his signing this Declaration, Peter-Klaus Schuster stated that “Through the Declaration, these museums wished to stress the vital role they play in cultivating a better comprehension of different civilizations and in promoting respect between them…
The collections in Berlin were acquired through the art market or private commerce. No deal was in fact possible without a contract of sale or permission to export. This does not mean that nothing was sold or exported. But it does mean that all objects came legally into the collections”. (15)
Is the director-general completely unaware of German colonial history or does he simply prefer not to remember the political and socio-economic structures that made it possible to collect many of the objects that are now in the Berlin museums? Or has German colonial history, with all its genocides, massacres, expulsions, expropriation of land, concentration camps and other inhuman treatment, nothing to do with acquisition of objects for the ethnological museums in Germany, especially, the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin? I would hate to have to refer to the hundreds of books and articles on German colonial history written by Germans and others. (16)
The bold and categorical general denial by the Museum Director does not stand even a cursory examination of the facts. It is also interesting that at the same time as the museum directors were proclaiming that requests for restitution should be examined on case by case basis and that there cannot be any general decision to repatriate all objects, the same directors did not hesitate to make sweeping statements regarding the legality and legitimacy of all objects in their museums. It is true that strict logic and respect for historical facts are no longer relevant factors for many museum directors when it comes to protecting the objects they illegally hold in their museums. Moreover, the Director of the Ethnologisches Museum was equally a signatory to the ill-advised preface in the catalogue of the Benin Exhibition. (17)
The astonishing view expressed by Peter-Klaus Schuster that all objects in his museums were legally acquired is, fortunately, not shared by many of his colleagues. Lüderwaltd from the Übersee-Museum Bremen stated in an International Symposium in 1979 that:
“When I now look at the source and history of individual collections and objects in the Übersee-Museum Bremen which I represent here and try to trace back, then I must say that abysses will be opened up; not that the objects were appropriated with violence as in Benin. There are other possibilities of illegal acquisition; there is gentle “force”. I therefore appeal to all museum officials to research the history of their collections; we would then show more understanding for the demands for restitution.” (18)
At the same Symposium, Kussmaul declared:
“If the demands are now restricted essentially to the colonial territories, then this is a substantial progress and all German ethnology museums have at their disposal so much materials from the old colonies that from these collections small representative collections could be given where the museum conditions are such that a museum official could defend the restitution, and where the objects of similar quality and similar times are today lacking.”(19)
Interesting enough, none of the museums claiming universality has a governing body which is any where near being universal and their budgets are wholly dependent on national resources. Are they then universal bodies with national budgets? This is clearly an absurdity which can be easily confirmed by a quick look at the laws and regulations concerning their operations. It is also relevant to notice that when the museums that pretend to have a universal mandate talk of cooperation with the African museums, they are only thinking of cooperation as regards the stolen African artworks. The museum directors can only think and act from a purely Eurocentric view point; they never consider the need for Africans to introduce European art and culture to the African public and the need for Africans also to have European artworks for the African museum public. How about sending some Picassos, Rembrandts, Rubens, Klimts and Goyas on loan to Accra, Lagos, Dakar and Nairobi? Should the African public not also be given the opportunity to see and study European art at first hand just as Europeans can go to London, Paris and Berlin to study African art icons? To raise this issue is already the sign of the beginning of the end for these pretentious universalists whose universe begins and ends in Europe.
It is not clear on what basis the Germans choose to treat the Africans’ claim differently from those of the Jews. Is it on the basis of colour of skin or continental basis? Is the genocide of the Hereros any less atrocious than the Nazi atrocities? Are the long colonial suppression of the Namibian peoples and the illegal acquisition of stolen art objects not ground enough for restitution and reparation? It is interesting to note that the Germans who are asking the Poles to return German artworks the Nazis stole and hid in Poland, are not willing to do the same unto others. The Germans proudly announce everywhere their joy at the return of African art works, some 25,000 objects which the Soviets took during the Second World War and returned on German reunification. (20) One cannot help but feel that in the conscience of many Germans, there appears to be nothing wrong with oppressing and massacring Africans and stealing their goods but a similar atrocity should not be meted out to Jews. The self assurance with which the German officials talk about stolen African art objects is just amazing. One Director of a museum is in love with Nefertiti and would not allow her to leave Berlin. Besides, it appears the old lady cannot travel from Berlin to Cairo without some damage although she made the journey to Berlin decades ago, at a time when travel conditions were not as good as today! The commercial profit behind the German position is clear for every blind person to see. Many tourists flock to Berlin in order to visit the famous lady, an advantage the Germans do not want to miss. Whilst one can understand this, there are no honest and serious justifications for keeping the Egyptian lady in Germany against her will and the will of her people in Egypt. The same goes for keeping Queen mother Idia of Benin in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin.
Within the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee dealing with restitution, a meeting was held on 19 November 2002 between Turkish and German representatives in Berlin with regard to the return of the Bogazkoy Sphinx to Turkey. “Germany proposed keeping the original Sphinx and having a replica made to give to Turkey. Turkey proposed the return of the Sphinx to Turkey and giving a replica to Germany. Neither proposal was accepted.” (21)
Will the Ethnology Museum of Berlin give, in a similar situation, a different answer from what the Völkerkunde Museum, Munich gave to a request by Prince Kum’a Ndumbe, from Cameroon (formerly, Professor at Free University Berlin and founder of AfricAvenir) for the return of his grand father’s royal symbol, the tangue, the bow of a ship which the Germans stole from the palace of the king Kum’a Ndumbe in 1884 before they burnt down his palace as reaction to the king’s resistance to German rule:
“Nowhere does this connection between ethnology and colonialism appear more clearly than in today’s exhibitions in ethnology museums. They show almost exclusively exhibits derived from the wars of plunder and conquest. Many of the efforts of the post-colonial discourse at relativization govern the policy of the ethnological museums. If one judges the “collections” by European law, then it is, in principle, a show of stolen goods. Even the hint to think about the restitution of the objects is considered as exaggerated or ignored. The founder
of AfricAvenir, Kum’a Ndumbe, who requested from the Ethnology Museum, Munich the return of an object which was proved to belong to his father, received a response that the museum did not have enough money for that purpose. The museum could, however, at the costs of Kum’a Ndumbe, secure a duplicate for him.” (22)
In the acquisition of art objects and artefacts from the German colonies, the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin enjoyed a position of great significance. A decision of the Bundesrat (“Bundesratsbeschluss – Decree of the Federal Council”) of 21 February 1889 gave the Berlin Museum fűr Völkerkunde priority in the purchase of all ethnographic objects acquired from the German colonies. This meant that any ethnographical object from the German colonies acquired through the resources of the Reich had first to be sent to the Berlin Völkerkunde Museum which then determined whether it wanted to keep it or, in case of duplication, send it on to the other ethnographical museums in Germany. It appears there was very little fair distribution and the other museums complained. This gave the Berlin Museum an unchallengeable pre-eminence among Ethnology Museums. The 1889 decision was in effect an authorization to loot and plunder the colonies. Unlike the Loi Griaule, given to Marcel Griaule, the French ethnologist and leader of the Dakar- Djibouti expedition, to take whatever he wanted in the French colonies, the German law in effect encourage all German travellers to the colonies to plunder and loot. We know from the dairy of Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme (1950) how such authorization was effected in practice.
Most of the time the museum had far too many objects as it could reasonably display or store. Quite a lot of the objects were collected by the German military in its various invasions of African territories and were considered as war trophies.
“Trophies, which were won in wars with the Zulus”, or concerning the gift of a wooden figure “taken from a group of figures erected around the tomb of an Nyam -Nyam chief.” (23)
Sometimes the military bought objects from the missionaries who had “persuaded” the Africans to give up their heathen objects for disposal by burning.
Sometimes symbols of power and regalia, e.g. throne of King Njoya, Mandu Yenu, was listed as a gift from the king symbolizing his recognition of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. We can be sure that such gifts, if at all given by the Africans, were under tremendous military and political pressure.
In the various reports of the museum very little was said about the circumstances under which the objects were acquired. Definitely, nothing was stated about objects being acquired through the various punitive expeditions (“Strafexpeditionen”) of which there were many under German colonial rule whenever the Africans put up resistance. Apparently, the museum did not want to hurt the sensitivities of the German public who might be amazed at what was being done in their name and might start having doubts about the “mission of civilization” advanced as argument for colonization. Many of the ethnologists were of the view though that the collection of objects under war conditions for science was justifiable. Bastian and Luschan were definitely supporters of colonialism and the use of force to acquire ethnographic objects:
”Bastian’s eagerness for the collection of ethnographic curiosities also led to
articulating a specific interest – above all in the African region. As a result, the ethnologist Bastian approved and supported the process of “opening-up the colonies.”
“Felix von Luschan was an unconditional supporter of German colonial domination since he considered the colonies above all as suppliers of anthropological and ethnographical materials.”(24)
One of the rare cases in which the museum’s report wrote about the circumstances surrounding an acquisition related to the Benin bronzes seized by the British after their conquest of Benin in 1897. The purchase of the many Benin bronze and ivory works by the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum and German benefactors was explained as follows:
“As the British annexed Benin in 1897, several unexpected booty of art works fell into their hands, a considerable part of which reached the Berlin Museum.” (25)
From the above, it becomes clear that any assertion that all the objects in the Berlin State Museums, and there are about five major ones, have been legally acquired is an unsupported and irresponsible statement.
But what about the acquisition of the Benin bronzes and other objects? The answer of the Germans, like that of the Austrians, is that they acquired Benin objects from the British by a valid contract. As is known a contract of purchase of a stolen or illegally acquired item is only valid if the purchaser had bona fides, “guten Glauben”. That is to say he was not aware that the goods had been stolen or illegally acquired. In the case of the acquisition of Benin bronze by the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum, it was known to all that these objects had been taken from Benin by the British as a result of their invasion and looting of Benin. According to Stelzig, at one meeting where art from Africa was discussed and the Benin bronze were shown, it was mentioned that only Berlin was in possession of a relief plaque which, according to the information of the dealer in London, was already in London since 1879 and that it was the only piece of this form that had reached Europe before the destruction of Benin by the British. Von Luschan, Director of the Ethnologisches Museum was one of the first persons to recognize that Benin bronzes came from Africa and not from some mythical place or people outside the continent: He also confirmed that not a single Benin bronze was in Europe before the Punitive Expedition of 1897. “He, von Luschan did not know of a single plaque or a single head or other bronze art work that was in a museum, or in the art market or in private possession that came from Benin to Europe before 1897.” (26)
Thus the alleged purchases by the Germans, knowing fully well that these objects had been looted by the British in their invasion of Benin in 1897, are null and void.
Members of the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects
In her comments of the presentation of the Benin bronzes by Luschan, Stelzig notes that he left out entirely the violent context in which the objects were acquired. The author also points out that the subject of the violent acquisition was also left out in the celebrations on 17-23 February 1997 of the 100 years Anniversary of the conquest of Benin by the British. The only exception here was Ekpo Eyo who criticised William Fagg for refusing to talk of “sack” of Benin and for presenting the plundering as an unofficial act by some British soldiers. Stelzig also adds that in the catalogue of the exhibition Afrika:Kunst und Kultur (1999) by the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde there is no critical discussion of the violent context in which the Benin bronzes were acquired. It is simply stated in a contribution by Willet that when members of the British Punitive Expedition broke into the palace of the Oba:
”To their amazement, the soldiers came across there a great number of bronze objects and ivory works. In accordance with the customs of the period they seized these as reparations for paying the costs of the expedition and some of the officers were allowed to use part of the booty for private purposes.” (27)
Similarly in the next important publication of the museum, a catalogue of the exhibition Kunst aus Afrika opened on 26. August 2005 there is no critical examination of the violent circumstances of the acquisition of the Benin art works. The catalogue begins with a foreword by the Director-General of the Berlin State Museums, Peter-Klaus Schuster, boasting about the greatness of his museums and claiming the title of “Universal Museum” for his complex of 17 buildings and four Research Institutes and the exhibition by the Ethnologisches Museum on 1 January, 2004 entitled “Arte da Africa” in the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, a former colonial power displaying stolen art objects from Africa to descendents of former African slaves who were violently detached from Africa and sent to America. We are informed about the African collection of the museum totalling 75,000 objects and thus one of the largest in the world. This self praise of stolen objects ends with a statement about “The master works of Africa in the historical centre of Berlin”. (28)
Thus the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin that is so proud of its collection of Benin art works did not find it worthwhile to discuss critically the circumstances under which these objects were acquired. A similar silence on the violent circumstances of the acquisition of the Berlin objects is also found in the very informative and interesting article by Paola Ivanov, entitled “African Art in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin”, Ivanov proudly informs us that the Ethnologisches Museum possesses 482 Benin pieces but no where does she discuss or even mention the British military attack, looting and burning of Benin in 1897 which made these pieces available to the Germans. (29) Apparently many of the ethnologists approved of the use of force in acquiring ethnological artefacts. Adolf Bastian who is credited with the founding of the museum and was its first director was not averse to the use of force if this was necessary to procure objects from peoples he thought would soon disappear from the world under the impact of contact with European culture. He thought the British attack on Benin was a good example to follow in order to secure more artefacts. Bastian is quoted by H.Glenn Penny in his book, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany, to have stated in a letter as follows:
“That military campaigns can bear fruit for scientific fields of research and can be exploited for this purpose, is evidenced by multiple examples – recently again through the results of the conquest of Benin – and already proven most sensationally during the earlier French expedition to Egypt, which (through concomitance of a staff of 120 academics, artists, technicians and engineers) laid the groundwork for the magnificent blossoming of Egyptology following the discovery of the Rosetta stone, the key to decoding hieroglyphics, which threw a flood of light onto the grayness of prehistoric times.” (30)
In her article on African Art in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Paula Ivanov does not mention that when the Germans apparently bought most of the pieces in auctions organized by the British, they were fully aware of the violent and illegal circumstances of their acquisition. Nor is there a discussion or mention of the question of restitution. Ivanov happily informs us that “The new presentation of the African collection was prompted by another event of great significance that occurred after the fall of the Berlin wall: the return of approximately 23,000 objects that had been considered casualties of war.” (31)
Would it not have been equally significant or even more significant if she could have announced at the same time that the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum was preparing to return to Benin some of the 300 Benin objects which were returned? Most probably such a thought has never crossed the mind of any of the German officials dealing with the matter. But what kind of sensitivity do the German officials have? If they expect the Soviets to return to them 23,300 stolen objects, why can they not think of the people of Benin and the other Africans from whom, on the museum’s’ own admission, they now hold some 75,000 objects in Berlin, not taking into account what there are in Hamburg, Bremen, Frankfort, Köln, Dresden, Munich, Leipzig, Stuttgart Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Krefeld, Lübeck and other German museums?
Ivanov declared that “The ongoing discussion about the arts of societies which traditionally have been the object of ethnological research, and the recognition of these arts, is also reflected in the history of this institution. Indeed the museum has shaped the debate fundamentally.” (31) Were there no critical voices among German ethnologists raising the issue of stolen art and the need for restitution as well as the colonial or neo-colonial method of presentation in the ethnological museums? Was there in 2000 a total amnesia of all the critiques made in the 1970s about ethnology and its relationship with colonialism? Volker Harms wrote in his article entitled “The Aims of the Museum for Ethnology: Debate in the German-speaking Countries” as follows:
“Indeed, it was only in the context of quite another debate that began several years later and is still going on that inflation in the prices of non-European art objects was taken into account (e.g., Kussmaul). This debate was concerned with the return or restitution to their countries of origin of ethnographic objects that had been taken to Europe and later to the U.S.A. during the colonial oppression of the societies of the Third World. Beginning with a speech by the premier of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1973, this discussion aroused considerable emotion, and it is no surprise that the question was also vehemently debated in the Federal Republic. Involved in the debate were, among others, Ganslmayr ( I980), Auer ( I981), and Kussmaul (1982) (see also Redaktion der Museumskunde 1982, von Paczensky and Ganslmayr 1984). In spite of the intensity with which the issue was debated, it has not so far had much influence on the educational work of museums for ethnology.” (32)
One can only speculate that there is a tacit agreement among some German ethnologists and museum specialists not to raise these issues. But is this honest scholarship? Are they afraid that by raising and discussing these issues they might conclude that the acquisition of the vast majority of the objects in the museums was only possible due to the colonial system which in turn was only possible because of the superior force of the Europeans and their determination to use force if necessary to achieve their objectives? They might also want to avoid the conclusion that Europeans have been largely responsible for making military force a relevant and decisive factor in the International Relations of the last five centuries. They may well ask whether these issues are for ethnologists but can they honestly and realistically ignore them, given the close relationship between ethnology and colonialism? Glenn Penny has remarked that:
“There is no question that, as George W. Stocking has argued, colonialism was the ‘sine qua non of ethnographic fieldwork’. Colonial expansion expedited the very act of going into “the field” and provided many of the basic structures and conditions for ethnologists’ experience.” (33)
Looking at the publications and the practice of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, can one subscribe to the following statement, from Anna Laura Jones, Exploding Canons: Anthropology of Museums.
“Despite the growing literature that criticizes the colonial context under which most non-Western art has been collected, few museums have dealt with this aspect of the history of their collections in exhibitions and catalogues. There is widespread agreement that museums served as “legitimizers of imperial exploitation”. Reconstructing the histories of particular collections can reveal painful stories of greed, theft, racism, and exploitation by respected scholars and institutions. Some authors feel that “no conscious anthropological remorse, aesthetic elevation, or redemptive exhibition can correct or compensate the loss because they are all implicated in it”. The sanitized histories of museums and collectors, which have so far dominated this trend of historicism, are hardly the heady stuff of “historical self-consciousness.” (34)
Some German museum directors, like their Austrian, French, British and American colleagues write on the question of restitution as if the United Nations, UNESCO, and other institutions never existed. They treat these universal institutions with utter contempt by not referring to their resolutions and recommendations. I have even heard the Director of the Museum fűr Völkerkunde Wien declare at an international symposium that we should forget about these organizations since they are ineffective. The United Nations, which represents the majority of persons on this earth has almost on annual basis recommended to Member States to return cultural objects to their countries of origin .For example, the General Assembly has in Resolution 42/7 of 22 October 1987, entitled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” emphasized the “importance attached by the countries of origin to the return of cultural property which is of fundamental spiritual and cultural value to them, so that they may constitute collections representative of their cultural heritage”. The same resolution also reaffirmed that the restitution to a country of its “objets d’art”, monuments, museum pieces and other cultural or artistic treasures contributed to the strengthening of international cooperation and the flowering of universal cultural values through fruitful cooperation between developed and developing countries. In the most recent resolution of 4 December 2006, (A/RES/61/53, para. 2) the General Assembly reiterated the importance of restitution to these countries and called upon all bodies of the United Nations and UNESCO as well as Member States “to continue to address the issue of return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin and to provide appropriate support accordingly”.
Since 1972, the General Assembly has passed almost at every session a resolution on this item and yet certain western governments, especially those with museums holding extensive stocks of art objects of others, stubbornly refuse to implement these resolutions and behave as if they were not part of the international community or members of universal organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO. They openly defy the Organization in such matters. One often reads statements that resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding as if to say no one should even give them any consideration. These resolutions represent the views of the overwhelming majority of mankind and those aware that the world does not begin and end with Western Europe and the U.S.A. would do well to show respect for the views expressed by such organizations.
One sometimes hears argument from the Austrians, Germans and others holding stolen art works in their museums that the owners have not asked for their return. This is an interesting argument. We know that for years the Egyptians have been asking for the return of Nefertiti to Egypt with no success. The Turks have been requesting the return of the Bogazkoy Sphinx with no more success but only to be insulted with an offer of a replica. The British have been refusing to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Britain has persistently refused to return to Ethiopia stolen art works. When Nigeria asked Britain to loan a Benin ivory pendant mask, Iyoba which was the mascot of the Festival of African Culture (FESTAC, 1977), Britain refused. It is not therefore surprising that many countries are not asking for the return of stolen art objects. But is it really honest on the part of countries holding illegally objects of others to use this argument? Will Germany hand over the Benin artefacts if Nigeria asked for them? Must Nigeria ask for every single stolen object? Philip Dark, in his study, “Benin Bronze Heads: Styles and Chronology” refers to 6,500 objects of Benin art which are found in 77 museums and collections. (35) When one considers that many of these objects stolen in 1897 have not been seen since then by the owners, one realizes the hypocrisy of the situation. Nigeria has asked the British for the return of stolen art works. Must that State ask each and every one of all those countries and persons which got some of these objects after 1897 to return them? Should all States, on their own, not offer to return to owners objects that have been illegally transferred to their museums?
The following statement from Ekpo Eyo, leading expert on Nigerian art and former Director of The National Museum of Nigeria may be full of lessons:
“By the end of the 1960s, the price of Benin works had soared so high that the Federal Government of Nigeria was in no mood to contemplate buying them. When, therefore a National Museum was planned for Benin City in 1968, we were faced with the problem of finding exhibits that would be shown to reflect the position that Benin holds in the world of art history. A few unimportant objects which were kept in the old local authority museum in Benin were transferred to the new museum and a few more objects were brought in from Lagos. Still the museum was “empty”. We tried using casts and photographs to fill gaps but the desired effect was unachievable. We therefore thought of making an appeal to the world for loans or return of some works so that Benin might also be to show its own works at least to its own people. We tabled a draft resolution at the General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) which met in France in 1968, appealing for donations of one or two pieces from those museums which have large stocks of Benin works. The resolution was modified to make it read like a general appeal for restitution or return and then adopted.
When we returned to Nigeria, we circulated the adopted resolution to the embassies and high commissions of countries we know to have large Benin holdings but up till now we have received no reaction from any quarters and the Benin Museum stays “empty”.” (36). We wonder if Ekpo Eyo was aware at that time that there were in Berlin alone 482 Benin heads and that practically every German town had its own collection. The then Director-General of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, made an appeal to countries holding the cultural objects of others: “The men and women of these countries have the right to recover these cultural assets which are part of their being”. (37) The German delegate to UNESCO made a statement which might appear strange to some of the present museum directors in Germany:
“The cultural identity of a country or a people must be brought to the visitor’s attention. For this purpose, the presentation of objects and collections carrying such a message from those cultures is surely desirable. But the understanding of other cultures should also imply an understanding of these people’s wish to possess those objects and collections which are considered an essential element of their cultural heritage and their cultural identity. Otherwise one would hardly be able to understand the purpose behind the work of museum people because it would seem that the individual nation’s cultural heritage is judged after its present location and that the measure used is an ideological one.” (38)
Assuming that the African peoples have not requested the return of their stolen cultural objects, should this factor not be a ground for extensive speculation and research by those concerned with presenting African culture and for that very reason wish to keep African cultural objects? Where are the specialists on studies on psychology and mentality of peoples? Would such behaviour by a whole continent, with hundreds of different cultural groups, not be reason enough for concern by those whose personal interests or professional occupations relate to Africa? And where are the dissertations on this singular behaviour by a whole continent known for its rich diversity? Have they found here the unity which has escaped them for so long? Is this a trait of the traditional culture or a modern development arising from the contact with Europe? Is this a behaviour of the ruling classes or do the masses also share this trait? Where do the inhibitions for such demands come from? Are they afraid to make the requests or is someone exercising pressure on them? Are there some political, economic or military threats? Have they been pacified through gifts or other benefits and advantages, collective or personal to make them drop such requests? What kind of collective amnesia is this? If the African peoples and their governments are behaving in a different way from all others, this surely merits an examination.
The Germans have asked the Poles and Russians to return certain cultural objects but do not think of returning African objects to the Africans. The Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin management is happy that certain objects they thought they would never see again, including 300 Benin bronzes, have been returned but have no plans to return any to the Benin people. The Egyptians have been asking for the return of Nefertiti but the Germans think the old Egyptian lady really belongs to Berlin and in any case is too weak to travel. The Nigerians have asked for the Benin bronzes but few are reacting and some even pretend they have never heard of such a request. Even officials of the Völkerkunde Museum Vienna have been heard to say publicly in interviews and on the radio that there has been no official request from the Nigerians! The Ethiopians are requesting the return of various objects, including over 300 hand-written historic documents stolen or looted by the British during their invasion of Magdala on 13 April 1868 and are getting the most discouraging and insulting responses from places such as the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and the British Museum.
In the Introductory Note to the catalogue of the Exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa CFR, after emphasizing how important the Benin works are as records of Benin history and objects of religious importance, declared:
“As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humanness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.” (39)
What else must a king of a people whose cultural objects have been robbed with violence by the British under well-known circumstances do? The Austrian reactions to this request have been the negative statements by the Director-General, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in the Preface to the catalogue of the Exhibition (co-signed with directors from Musée du Quai Branly, Staatlischen Museen zu Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago) and in the Vienna newspaper, Kurier. (40) The modest request by the Benin royalty at the International Symposium on 9-10 May 2007 for some restitution was met by a total rejection of all claims for restitution by the Director of the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien at the Symposium in the Viennese weekly, Falter. (41) The Museum für Völkerkunde has so far refused to publish the proceedings of the Symposium and officials of the Museum still claim there has been no request for restitution by the Nigerians. Is this the beginning of a falsification of historical records?
It is interesting to note that the statement of the King of Benin is not first in the catalogue. Had a European monarch, Queen of Britain, King of Spain or King of the Netherlands written a statement for a catalogue on an exhibition on the culture of his or her country, would the editors have put it second after the preface by the directors and not the first in the book? Is this one of the subtle or not so subtle discriminations that Africans suffer? That kind of discrimination that has become so usual, and should we say, so natural that one does not even think about it? The preface of the directors is obviously an answer to the plea of the Oba and yet the answer comes before the question. The directors seem to have determined to nip the question of restitution in the bud. But they have wholly failed. By placing their statement of denial so prominently in the first pages of the catalogue, they have signalled to the reader that the most important question now, as far as the Benin objects are concerned, is their restitution. The statement of the directors overshadows whatever else comes later in the catalogue. They have put the issue of restitution clearly on the agenda for the next few years.
It will be interesting to see what the Berlin Ethnology Museum does as regards the information given on the various exhibits. Is the museum going to put out on display most of the Benin objects it has and thereby invite questions regarding its methods of acquisition as was the case in Vienna? An approach that might add fuel to the tensions already brewing in Chicago even before the exhibition arrives there, with threats of boycott and legal action by the large powerful Nigerian community there. Or is it going to follow the exhibition in Quai Branly by putting out a limited number of objects, and not encourage discussions in the press? Will the aesthetic again triumph over the ethnological and thereby signal a fundamental directional change by the museum of Adolf Bastian and Felix von Luschan? Will Berlin confirm the triumph of the aesthetic or mark the resurgence of the ethnological?
During the Benin Centenary celebrations, Elazar Barkan expressed the view that “There is a real chance for restitution if the public can be persuaded to recognize the historical injustice of the loss: that within the context of its own time, the removal was viewed as an injustice, or at a minimum, that it would be considered so today”. He further added that “…it is easy to imagine that a museum in Glasgow, Berlin, Vienna or elsewhere bowing to demands, thereby creating even more pressure on other museums to act similarly”. (42)
Was Elazar Barkan too optimistic? In any case, the museum directors in Vienna and Berlin have already given their negative answer in the infamous foreword to the catalogue of the present Benin exhibition. They have said we should forget the past and look forward; we should not judge past events with our present standards. The museum directors have consciously or unconsciously displaced the issue. Nobody is primarily concerned with sitting in judgement on past events or on actors who are not here to defend themselves. Although we reject and oppose the collective amnesia that the museum directors are recommending to Africans, our main interest is in the present situation where the best of African art has been stolen and brought to Europe.
The question of restitution is not a matter of judgement over past event. We are not interested in judging Captain Phillips and co. We are more interested in ensuring that art works which have been violently expropriated from Benin are restored to the people of Benin. The argument not to apply our present standards is obviously dishonest, spurious, immoral or at best amoral. This comes from museum directors in countries which have applied our modern standards in many cases. If their argument were to be accepted, we would not be able to try serious crimes. The Nazis were not tried in accordance with their own standards but the standards of others. Were they to be judged according to Nazi standards, none of them would have been punished. We are always applying our own standards because we have no other standards but those of our present times. We cannot apply Roman, Etruscan or some ancient Mali or ancient Ghana rules.
Barkan thought there was a need to convince the public about the injustice of the loss by Benin. With all due respect, the obstacle to restitution of cultural objects illegally in Europe and USA does not come from the public. The museum directors and officials and other anthropologists are the real obstacle. Some of them who have devoted a large part of their careers to preserving or studying these objects see in restitution the end of their career, if not the beginning of the end of the world. The general European public does not care about where African cultural objects are. It suspects they are to be found in Africa and is often surprised to realize that these objects are in Europe and the USA.
If all African cultural objects were to be returned today to Africa, I do not believe we shall see any protesters on the streets of European capitals. When the Italians returned the obelisk to Ethiopia, I did not hear of any riots or demonstrations. A public opinion poll in Europe will show that the overwhelming majority of Europeans, excluding museum directors and officials, will find it just that the stolen art objects are returned to Africa.
From the statements of museum directors, such as the ill-advised foreword in the catalogue to the present Benin exhibition as well as the infamous Declaration on museum of universal importance, it is obvious that they do not respect the feelings of the victims of imperialist aggressions; they do not care about historical injustice and do not realize or appear to understand that historical injustice is not about history but about present effects; at a minimum, one would expect those working in the area of African art generally, and specifically Benin art, to be very worried that much of this art is not in Benin.
The participation of the Nigerians National Commission on Museums and Monuments and the Benin Royal Family in the current exhibition is a clear indication that, despite a long-standing historical injustice, there is goodwill to solve the problem of restitution in an amicable way. But what do we see as reaction from the European side? A discourteous and unbelievable confrontational arrogance which can only be interpreted as confirmation of support and justification of the historical injustice.
The request of the Benin Royal Family for each of the museums holding Benin art works was not even discussed but was met with a presentation of unbelievably weak arguments why there should be no restitution. The Austrians and the Germans have not seized on this great opportunity to try to resolve the question once and for all. They could have made an offer in exchange for a definitive renunciation of all further claims. One is gradually gaining the impression that the question of restitution will be better settled by politicians and not through any discussions with museum directors and officials who do not seem to have any ability to suggest a reasonable compromise. I am sure that German politicians aware that Berlin alone has some 482 Benin art works and that in Germany as a whole there may be a thousand of these works, would find no great difficulties in giving away ten or twenty objects in exchange for definitive settlement. After all, the Germans were not the principal perpetrators of the injustice.
The African demand for the return of the stolen cultural objects will not disappear for many of these objects are expressions of the deepest feelings of a way of life, an understanding of the universe and religious expressions. Europeans who like to present themselves as defenders of human rights, including the freedom of thought and freedom of religion have shown scant respect for African religions and religious sentiments. Europeans have not been bothered that by stealing our religious objects they prevent us from practising our religions and expressing our understanding of the world. A well-known dealer in African art, who has made a fortune from selling African cultural objects, is quoted by Sally Price to have declared in an interview with Radio France as follows:
“Certain anthropologists claim that an African or Oceanian who’s deprived of his fetishes is a person who dies spiritually. Well, that’s not true! Man is much stronger than that! If you take away a Sicilian woman’s crucifix that she inherited from her grandmother, she doesn’t give up her Catholic faith! She doesn’t mope away in sadness. She goes to the next town, she buys a crucifix, she hangs it where the old one had been, and she returns to her prayers!” (43) Is this the way the Europeans hope to preserve freedom of religion and thought?
Despite all this arrogance, Africans will continue to seek the return of these objects. Amina Traoré, former Minister of Culture, Mali, has in her famous statement on the Musée du Quai Branly, brilliantly expressed this sentiment in addressing herself directly to these objects imprisoned in a European museum where they do not receive the veneration and respect due to them. (44)
As far as I am concerned, the urgent appeal made by Theo-Ben Gurirab (Namibia), then President of the 54 Session of the United Nation General Assembly still awaits serious reaction and action on the part of those to whom it is addressed:
“Having expressed our human yearning for a new millennium, I will not shy away from calling upon the children of Africa’s invaders and slave-traders for an honest and sincere apology, and upon the children of the victims, many of whom have been left stranded in the diaspora, for forgiveness. The horrors of slavery and destruction wrought upon Africa and its peoples cannot be forgotten. Now is the time for reconciliation and healing.
Such an act of mutual affirmation will never be truly complete unless Africa’s sacred relics, icons, art works and other priceless cultural objects are returned lock, stock and barrel to their rightful owners. Today these stolen African treasures adorn public museums, libraries, art galleries and private homes in foreign lands. They must come home to assuage the pain and anger in the hearts of the succeeding generations of Africans. Now is the time for atonement, reflection and renewal to foster
better human relations and rectify the ugly legacies of the past.” (45)
Vienna, 18 January, 2008