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Can artefacts really be more important within the British Museum than in their homeland

Following a visit to the British Museum, Kwame Opoku [1] questions what significance some of the museums artefacts (that were immensely significant to their original owners) can have within the context of the museum. In the majority of cases, the answer to this would be far less. Certainly, more people may see them, but in many cases they pass by it quickly – the piece means nothing to them, once it is displayed isolated from its culture.

SPY Ghana [2]

Sat, May 26th, 2012

A recent visit to the British Museum confirmed what we have observed in previous years: many Western visitors to the museum have no specific interest in any particular Benin object, even if they visit the Sainsbury Gallery and look at the Benin Bronzes. They are mostly unaware of the looted Queen-Mother-Idia (?Iyoba?) ivory mask.

Have the hundred years of illegal retention of this mask had any effect on the knowledge and interest of the average Western visitor to the museum? It seems hardly any European visitor is even aware that the mask represents an important personality in Benin history. Most Western visitors are certainly unaware of her important and decisive role and influence in stabilizing the Kingdom of Benin

during the civil war at the end of the 15th Century, a crucial period in Benin history. Contrary to the propaganda of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, Benin culture has not become part of European heritage and culture even though Benin artefacts have been illegally detained in Western museums for more than hundred years. (See also, Tom Flynn THE UNIVERSAL MUSEUM). The display of the ivory mask with many other looted Benin artefacts does not draw any particular attention to the Queen-Mother.

Museum visitors are thus not in a position to understand why her image has become a symbol for Nigeria, Africa and the African Diaspora. They would thus not be able to assess the arrogance and insult by the British Museum and the British Government in refusing to lend to Nigeria the Queen-Mother Idia mask even for a continental cultural festival, Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture FESTAC in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.

Once we move from the Sainsbury Gallery to the Egyptian gallery and approach the Rosetta Stone, it becomes immediately evident that many visitors to the British Museum are aware of the importance of this artefact from Egypt which the British have also refused to return to Egypt despite multiple requests.

At any time during a visit to the museum, we see the Rosetta Stone surrounded by a crowd of visitors, busy taking photographs. Somebody has informed them about the importance of this stone in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But do they also know that the Rosetta Stone is part of Egyptian culture and not British culture? Are the visitors aware that there is no longer a need for scholars to decipher the language of the Rosetta Stone and that it would now be most appropriate to return it to its homeland, as the Egyptians have requested, so that it can be placed in a new museum of Egyptian culture?

Queen-Mother Idia clearly plays no role in the culture, imagination and thinking of Westerners. So why keep her captive in London when she would be a subject of veneration and reverence in her homeland Benin, Nigeria?

Why do the British Museum and the British Government still insist on keeping in Britain cultural artefacts of others, against the will of the owners?

So far, we have not come across any reasonable justification for such an attitude. Perhaps some have not yet recognized that the world has changed since the colonialist and imperialist epoch:

?The time has come when the British Museum should recognise the change in relative status between Britain and the rest of the world. We are no longer the imperial masters and increasingly need to build constructive working relationships as between equals.? Peter Groome (?It’s time to gracefully relinquish the Rosetta Stone?, http://www.independent.co.uk).

Constructive and harmonious relations in matters of culture do not seem to matter to the British Museum otherwise we would not still be talking about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone and the Benin Bronzes. (See also Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone Benin Bronzes)

The British Museum seems more interested in telling the histories (or stories as some prefer) of other nations rather than let the others tell their own histories, with the restitution of some of the millions of materials that the museum keeps, some with doubtful acquisition histories.

Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J A Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Articles by Kwame Opoku, Dr.