March 31, 2008

The British Museum’s stolen African artefacts

Posted at 1:35 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Whilst Britain talks about rebuilding a British identity & constructing museums of Britishness, the British Museum continues to hang onto huge numbers of disputed African Artefacts.


Me2We News
Retrospective: British Museum and Africas stolen artefacts
Sun 30 March 2008

A year ago, British Prime Minster Gordon Brown pledged support for the UK’s first ‘Museum of Britishness’. Meanwhile the British Museum still refuses to return the artefacts raided and pillaged from Africa as recent as a hundred years ago.

The proposal for what would be the first National Museum of British History was reported by the Telegraph newspaper as part of their ‘Call yourself British’ campaign. Writing for the paper, Gordon Brown commented ‘while so many other countries have a museum dedicated to their history we in Britain…still do not’.

In his support for former Tory MP, Kenneth Baker’s proposal, Brown continued that the museum could lead in the narrative of british history, also celebrating what he referred to as ‘the great british values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped’. Brown added that the museum would complement a greater emphasis on the teaching of british history in schools, repeatedly stating the importance of history in the child’s relationship to their national [and personal] identity. The omission of historical fact and denial of the brutality exemplified by the british empire highlights the hypocrisy of the ‘great british values’ to which Brown alludes.

This moral double standard is not the sole domain of british politicians, in March 2008, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York announced that “Britain must regain the values of mission and enterprise that had made it so successful when it had an empire”. He is not alone. In 2003, Trevor Phillips used a racist anti-African newspaper to publicly chastise author Benjamin Zephaniah for publicising his rejection of an OBE and with it its formal membership into the british empire.

Defending his own decision to accept an OBE and genuflect before british imperialism the former head of the governments scrapped Commission for Racial Equality project and now chair of the governments Commission for Equality and Human Rights said “you can’t rewrite history – Empire happened. It wasn’t all bad”. Phillips later went on to claim at a Tory party conference that the british empire had an upside. What is astonishing about this is that both these men are Africans. Trevor Macdonald, June Sarpong, Floella Benjamin, Kelly Homes, Trevor Beresford Romeo (Jazzy B from Soul II Soul), Lenny Henry, Linda Bellos, Novlette Rennie, Kanya King, Doreen Lawrence are just a few of those willing to betray and one day meet their Ancestors as official members of the institution that enslaved, raped, murdered and continues to exploit and oppress them.

When considering Britain’s seminal and often leading role in the enslavement of African people, then the progression to the destruction of cultures and land grab of Africa that defined colonialism and neo colonialism reveals a story that is in fact one of a ‘culture, politics and society’ shaped by repugnant racist ‘white’ male supremacist ideology.

Collectively many of the museums in the major cities of the UK have dedicated their resources to boastfully reflecting british history by documenting and ‘collecting’ artefacts from the history of other cultures and civilisations, notably those destroyed by Britain, colonised by Britain; or both. As a result there is an ongoing debate between the consortium of national museums across Britain and representatives from countries across the world on the issue of returning items displayed within these institutions to the land and peoples from which they originate.

Today the peoples of many African nations are denied daily access to their own heritage and Ancestral legacy. As a result much physical evidence of the thriving African civilisation pre-european contact, invasion and destruction exist in the basements and vaults of Britain and not in the museums, schools and communities across Africa.

The most notorious of all for the appropriation of cultural-historical artefacts is the British Museum, internationally condemned for their persistent refusals to repatriate the stolen items they illegally hold in their possession.

Pan African Community Action

Last May, the Ligali organisation along with other members of the African community, paid a visit to the British Museum requesting to meet with the museum director, Neil MacGregor. Upon arrival they told senior management of the institution that the sought to discuss their illegal possession of the Benin and Ife artworks. While staff at the museum assured the members of the African community present that MacGregor would see them, the group decided to leave when it became clear that the director was too afraid to answer these questions about cultural theft, Ancestral ownership and morality in public.

Ligali submitted a renewed application to the British Museum calling for the release of all African artefacts within their holdings.

Of particular concern was the repatriation of a 16th century mask commissioned in honour of Queen Idia by her son, the Oba (King ) of Benin, in the 16th Century as recognition of her contribution to the success of his reign. The mask which is now commonly known as the FESTAC mask after famously representing the second Festival of Arts and Culture which took place in Nigeria in 1977.

This festival of global African art and culture was inspired and paid homage to the African spirit of resistance and fight for self determination. It followed a succession of conferences, starting with the convening of the Pan African Cultural Society of 1956, by some of the first ever Africans to refer to themselves as Pan Africanists. This era spawned the rebirth of the awareness and knowledge of African culture leading to the FESTAC mask being chosen to represent the spirit of Pan Africanism.

The Ligali application represented one of the latest efforts in the battle to have the mask and all the articles of the former Benin Kingdom and Ife Kingdom the museum has in its possession emancipated and returned to their ancestral home and people since the museum accepted these stolen artefacts from the Foreign Office in 1898.

The location of the treasures of the Benin kingdom – fractured, now span the globe, the majority of which having been sold by the Foreign Office to both private collectors and museums across europe and North America, the proceeds of which was seen as ‘reimbursement’ for their warmongering.

Indeed, up until the mid 1970s the British Museum was still selling it’s stolen artefacts. It is estimated that the british carted away in excess of three thousand items from the Benin kingdom. This is why the FESTAC mask, the Benin bronzes and the many ivory ornaments and figurines that are on display in the museum’s lower ground ‘Africa’ section represent just a small fraction of the total African artefacts stolen and brought to Britain.

In the application for repatriation Ligali highlighted the unlawful possession of these items; not only because the war that seized them from their native territories was illegal but also because they are the property of the African people and Britain presiding over them asserts the nation maintains the same arrogant misperception of entitlement that exemplified Britain’s imperialist past. Despite its many years in captivity, the FESTAC mask has come to symbolise unity against the continued struggle of African people worldwide.

The incompatibility of the British Museum and all it connotes (“britishness”) with the cultural and spiritual value imbued within the African items was also brought to the attention of MacGregor in the request for the return of the pieces. That these items are moreover displayed as ‘things’ to be gawped at bereft of their functionality and purpose while detained by the british has been one of the key focal concerns for African people.

The calls for the return of these artefacts have been persistent since Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Most notably, the Benin royal family have petitioned for their repatriation with Prince G.I. Akenzua, the brother of the Benin monarch, arguing that the continued retention leaves African people “…impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property” continuing that the repatriation to their rightful owners is instrumental in teaching the history and culture of Africa to African people.

In 2003, the people of Zimbabwe received a soapstone carved bird representing the national emblem of the country after a German museum returned the symbol which had been stolen by europeans over 100 years ago.

In 2005, Ethiopia successfully fought for the return of one of its national religious treasure, the 1,700-year old Axum Obelisk. The spiritual obelisk that was looted over 70 years ago by Italy finally arrived in Addis Ababa, April 2005 to a rapturous homecoming from its rightful owners.

The British Museum has refused to participate in an open forum debate where the Pan African community in Britain can comprehensively address these issues with both the director and museum trustees in public. Perversely some of the trustees to the museum such as Emeka Anyaoku and Bonnie Greer are African. Despite Anyaoku being of Nigerian heritage he is also an official member of the british empire who was initiated as an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCBVO) by the british monarch. Greer was given her four year appointment by the british prime minister on 4 April 2005.

The Board of Trustees of the British Museum has statutory duties for the general management and control of the museum as well as for the appointment of the director. The political docility and amoral actions of the trustees have made them all complicit to the ongoing injustice. Worldwide they are seen as one of the major obstacles to the requisite action required to dismantle this particular odious and racist legacy of empire.

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  1. George Vardas said,

    04.03.08 at 5:06 am

    This article is illuminating because it reproduces correspondence between Ligali and Neil MacGregor of the British Museum. In response to Ligali’s eloquent and emotive plea for return of the Benin artefacts MacGregor responds that the BM will only deal with representative bodies such as a national government, ie, it will still reject the claim but it first has to come from a national government. More interestingly, in his letter of 20 July 2007 MacGregor again refers to the BM’s standing as a “universal museum”. At the recent UNESCO conference in Athens there was talk in the margins of that conference that the British Museum was no longer referring to itself as a “universal museum” and instead was resorting to phrases such as the museum of enlightenment or the encyclopaedic museum. This is just a semantic game as the real agenda of the BM is revealed in the letter to Ligali. The museum world is slowly coming to terms with requests for repatriation in an increasingly enlightened way … except for the British Museum which continues to be blinded by its own nineteenth century self-conceptions. It is time the BM properly engaged in the debate rather than hiding behind spin doctored slogans and rhetoric.

  2. truth said,

    04.17.08 at 4:57 am

    This article was very insightful but unfortunately it is rare in the public discourse. One wonders if the British and by extension the British Museum will ever give up on this archaic idea of “empire”.

  3. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    05.13.08 at 6:30 pm

    One can only say,”Amen” to what George Vardas has said. Somehow,it seems the British Museum seems to have problems in coming to terms with a changed world in which words or ideas coming from London are not automatically accepted by all but are examined on their merits.
    Kwame Opoku

  4. Emeka Esogbue said,

    08.03.08 at 7:20 pm

    Britain should realise that the cultural heritage of peoples cannot be stolen to represent those of others like she is seeking to do. Britain should return the stolen artifacts to the rightful owners and realise that the country (Britain) has since lost what she had as super since the suez Canal days.

  5. fred said,

    11.03.11 at 9:00 pm

    You have to ask yourself, what kind of miserable race would be desperate to hang onto the cultural history of other peoples. They should give everything they stole back. It isn’t complicated at all. They should give it all back and fill the museum with their own historical artefacts, or don’t they have any?

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