May 20, 2007

The case for the return of the Bronzes of Benin

Posted at 1:01 pm in Similar cases

The people have been asking for the return of various bronze castings for many years. Here, a number of the arguments for their continued retention are examined & deconstructed.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Sunday, 20 May 2007

When questioned about his views during the Symposium, Prof.Feest indicated that he had more developed elaborations which due to time constraints could not be presented. It is remarkable though that those views corresponded to opinions attributed to him in a Supplement of the conservative Austrian newspaper Die Presse issued to coincide with the opening of the Exhibition and which was distributed in the Museum after the opening on 8May, 2007(Feuilleton,die Presse,Mittwoch,9,Mai 2007,Seite 37).

In the Introductory Note already cited above, the Oba of Benin, declared:

“We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past. As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country” ibid.

On the third page of the Catalogue, p17, after the Oba’s very modest request to those countries and museums holding pieces of the illegally acquired objects, comes, in my opinion, the response of four museum directors of Western countries in a very remarkable preface which in its eurocentricism, arrogance, immorality and cynicism is only surpassed perhaps by the infamous declaration on universal museums:

“In 1897 a British punitive expedition seized outstanding works of art and ivory from the Benin royal palace. These subsequently entered museums across Europe, the United States, and Nigeria. From our 21st century perspective the military action taken seems unjustifiable; however, we must recognize the role it played in bringing these works of art to far broader attention. They are now forever on the map of world art and we are uplifted by the extraordinary aesthetic and cultural achievement they present…….The present consideration of these works within multi-layered discourses on the past – and on identity in the competing contexts and claims of local tradition, the nation state, and globalization – is part and parcel of the continuation of shifts in meaning and the persistent viability of the material documents of the past. Rather than catering only to western notions of other cultures, museums strive to explain the general causes and specific articulations of the past and present cultural diversity of the world. This approach enhances the pleasure of aesthetic enjoyment, while providing the necessary basis for the understanding of the cultural content behind the visible forms. History, whether tragic or glorious, lies forever behind us. We stand on its shoulders and direct our gaze to what lies ahead. We trust that this exhibition contributes to an ongoing dialogue between the past and the present, and between Africa and Europe and NorthAmerica, and thus to the collective shaping of the future against the backdrop of the lessons offered by the past.”

The Preface is signed by Prof. Christian Feest, Director, Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, Jean-Pierre Mohen, Director, patrimoine et collections, musée du quai Branly, Paris, Dr.Viola Koenig, Director, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and James Cuno, President and Eloise W.Martin Director, The Art Institute of Chicago.

We leave aside the way in which the brutal and unprovoked aggression against Benin and the burning and sacking of Benin City is presented in the text. No mention is made of the fact that the stolen objects were sold later on. The text merely states “These subsequently entered museums”. An attempt is also made to implicate the state of Nigeria and Nigerian museums in the illegal activities even though that State had not been born in 1897.

The Preface by the Western Museum Directors is a brazen attempt to justify the unjustifiable and to cover up matters which should be made open. True, elsewhere in the catalogue these matters are discussed in detail but for a proper understanding of the implications of their peremptory statements we need some facts.

What are the implications of the statement in the Preface?

a) Even if we think the British aggression against Benin was unjustified and illegal (and the directors are not taking any position on this matter). ”we must recognize the role it played in bringing these works of art to a far broader attention.” In other words the subsequent spread of these objects in the world is being advanced to justify or reduce the gravity of the initial aggression. If we follow the logic of the directors, one could advance the argument that however bad slavery was (and one is not taking any position on this), it developed America or, to stay within the arts, it brought to the attention of a broader public the immense richness and the great variety of African culture. Would anyone buy this argument? We shall soon be hearing that however atrocious and illegal the invasion of Iraq may have been (and we are not taking any position on this), it did bring to the attention of a broader public the ancient cultures of the country and its glorious past. Is this the way some minds are working after all the revelations and discussions on such matters?

b) Whilst in their original context, the Benin objects expressed values determined by religious believe and dynastic interests, through their enforced sojourn in the west they have acquired new values based on the “technical brilliance, formal elegance and iconographic complexity of their execution.” This shift in attribution of values should at present be seen within the “competing contexts and claims of local tradition, the nation state, and globalization”. Packed in this argument is a claim by the Western holders of Benin works of art that in the past these works symbolized religious believes and could be claimed by the Benin dynasties but now, because of a shift in their values, mainly aesthetic, technical and formal elegance (determined by their Western owners) they do not belong to Benin alone. The authors throw in the nation state of Nigeria as having its own claims and in addition, there are claims said to derive from globalization. “Globalization” here presumably represents the interest of the authors and the western holders. Even if there were competing interest of the state of Nigeria in this (as opposed to Nigeria assisting Benin to recover its stolen property), and I have no concrete evidence of this, it seems really strange that this should be articulated by western museum directors and not by the Nigerian state and the Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. On the contrary, in his Foreword in the Catalogue, after referring to the forcible removal of these objects by a British military expedition in 1897 and to the fact that:

“The show presents works by artists of ancient Benin whose works were shaped by tradition, beliefs, cosmology and the demands of their environment”, the Director-General declares that: “ The cultural legacy of this great kingdom is being represented by bronze plaques and ivory sculptures, ceremonial symbolic items and musical instruments, making the essence of this unique African kingdom visible, whose traditional skills live on within the modern polity of Nigeria”.p.15. There is no hint of any competing claims between the nation State of Nigeria and Benin.

c) The declaration that “History, whether tragic or glorious, lies forever behind us is quite remarkable as it comes from a group of western scholars in whose countries history seems to be of tremendous value and from directors of museums where evidence of history, whether in the form of objects or documents are of primary importance. Here we have these scholars telling the people of Benin (and by implication all Africans) to forget their history or at any rate, not to put too much emphasis on historical facts such as the aggressive British attack on Benin in 1897. They should forget their past and accept the present situation of continued illegal detention of their cultural goods by western museums and private collectors.

This confirms my theory that when it comes to dealing with Africa, some western intellectuals and their governments often request us to suspend our common sense and our ability to think. How else is one to explain such declarations? Can one imagine such a declaration being made with regard to the British, French, Germans, or Austrians or US Americans?

It seems the dialogue which is called for in various speeches and in the Preface is not seriously meant or it is a dialogue with pre-determined conclusions but not a call for a serious and genuine examination of the complex relations between Africa and the west in this area. A genuine dialogue presupposes an honest and open intellectual exchange of ideas. But how is this possible when we are presented with arguments guided by partisan intentions that are so clear to all who reflect a little.

It appears that the European and the US American museum directors have little respect for the intelligence of those who oppose their self-serving arguments. In this connexion, it is worth noting that Dr. O.J. Eboreime, Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, did not join his western colleagues in their Preface and issued a statement of his own in the Foreword. We have no information whether any attempt was made to issue such a joint statement and it failed. We can only speculate.

The Museum Directors write about the perspective of 21st Century but in reality they place themselves in a perspective not very different from that of earlier periods when the Europeans and US Americans thought the world belonged to them and did not have to account for their conduct and did not care about the views of their own people either. The period in which there was no United Nations or UNESCO.

If the Directors would talk to their own fellow citizens, suspending any elitist
feelings of superiority, they would be very surprised by the reaction of their own people towards the claims they make on their behalf, especially the young ones who are definitely in the 21st Century and are experiencing all the effects of globalization.

Most European youth that I have spoken to (German, French, British and Austrian) are shocked to learn that museums in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin are keeping African art objects of doubtful acquisition. They simply cannot believe that Europeans have used force or other doubtful means to acquire African art objects. Many are not even aware that museums in their own towns have such objects and one has to educate them about these art works.

The suggestion that these African objects have become part of their culture evokes unanimous disbelief and rejection in a youth that has been brought up to think that Europe is the pinnacle of civilization and that the colonial enterprise was to bring civilization to Africa.

When confronted with the claims of museum directors that they are now considered to be admirers of African cultural and religious objects to which they have become accustomed and attached through long possession, they laugh in utter disbelief and wonder where all this is coming from. They state that the Christian cross is the only religious symbol they know and recognise.

The Museum Directors may wish to explain to the Christian churches how African religious cultural objects have become part of the culture of the countries that consider their basic values to be informed by Christianity. One young man I spoke to and to whom I explained the ongoing debate about restitution, said he was surprised. He thought politicians were the only ones who created disputes and problems with other countries and peoples.

None of the Europeans I have spoken to (excluding ethnologists) thinks that the retention of African cultural objects in Europe is of any benefit to the European peoples and they genuinely wonder why they were taken in the first place and have not yet been returned to their countries of origin. I have always directed them to the museum directors.

The fear of European and US American museum directors that their museums would be empty if they were to return any of these objects to their country of origin is quite unfounded. Nobody is asking the British Museum or the Museum für Völkerkunde to return all such objects. One is asking for arrangements where some objects could be returned and some loaned to the Europeans and the US Americans on permanent loan. Most claims for return of cultural goods are made in the hope that the present holders will return some of the objects but if this persistent refusal continues, one will be forced to make legal claims and resort to judicial proceedings where the claimants are bound to establish their case and request full restoration and compensation such as in the attached claim which was made by a Benin Royal in 2000 in the British House of Commons (see attachment)

It is also to be discussed whether for the purposes of enlightening their public about other civilizations, it would not be enough to secure good replicas. After all, apart from the specialists, how many persons can tell the difference between and old replica and the original? If originals are needed for all educational purposes, we may wonder what the other countries, such as most African countries, that do not possess original works of European art can teach their peoples about European art and culture.

This Exhibition of the Museum fur Völkerkunde Wien-Kunsthistorisches Museum is in cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, the Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris.
The Exhibition is in Vienna from 9thMay to 3rd September, 2007, in Paris from 2nd October to 6th January 2008, in Berlin from 7th February to 25th May, 2008 and in Chicago from 27th June to 21st September 2008.

It is to be noted that the Exhibition will not go to Nigeria or any other African country. We have been given no explanation for this and so are left to our own speculations. In the end one may wonder how long the Benin Royal Family and the Nigerian Museums can continue to cooperate with Western museums if they cannot show their people any tangible and concrete result from their cooperation with Western museums. We hope at least that the museum authorities are in contact with their governments to make arrangements to enable Nigerians and other Africans who may want to visit their countries in order to see the Exhibition can do so without too much hassle and hindrance. African artists have experienced of recent considerable difficulties in entering the countries where the Exhibition will
be shown even when invited to perform.

I should add that the exhibition itself is excellent and the curator, Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner who also edited the very voluminous (535 pages) and informative catalogue should be congratulated for her outstanding performance even though this does not detract from the continued debate over the return of cultural goods stolen or illegally acquired to their country of origin. Although no attempt has been made in connection with the Exhibition to seek a solution to the problem of the return of cultural goods, the Preface of the museum directors, like the Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, has highlighted the problem and the need to continue working towards a solution. It has also demonstrated in a clear way how unwilling the western countries are to part with stolen cultural goods of others:

“When the National Museum in Benin was opened in the late 1970s, an appeal was made through the International Council of Museums to give long-term loans, or to return one or two pieces to Benin City so that its ancestral art could be exhibited in this museum. The resolution was adopted and the appeal made without any response. The museum was therefore left to display lesser objects and mere casts and photographs of the pieces that once belonged to Benin.” Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.123

The Case of Benin
Memorandum submitted
by Prince Edun Akenzua

I am Edun Akenzua Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa-Iko, brother of His Majesty, Omo, n’Oba n’Edo, Oba (King) Erediauwa of Benin, great grandson of His Majesty Omo n’Oba n’Edo, Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the cultural property was removed in 1897. I am also the Chairman of the Benin Centenary Committee established in 1996 to commemorate 100 years of Britain’s invasion of Benin, the action which led to the removal of the cultural property.

“On 26 March 1892 the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul, Benin District of the Oil River Protectorate, Captain H L Gallwey, manoeuvred Oba Ovonramwen and his chiefs into agreeing to terms of a treaty with the British Government. That treaty, in all its implications, marked the beginning of the end of the independence of Benin not only on account of its theoretical claims, which bordered on the fictitious, but also in providing the British with the pretext, if not the legal basis, for subsequently holding the Oba accountable for his future actions.”

The text quoted above was taken from the paper presented at the Benin Centenary Lectures by Professor P A Igbafe of the Department of History, University of Benin on 17 February 1997.

Four years later in 1896 the British Acting Consul in the Niger-Delta, Captain James R Philip wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, requesting approval for his proposal to invade Benin and depose its King. As a post-script to the letter, Captain Philip wrote: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.”

These two extracts sum up succinctly the intention of the British, or, at least, of Captain Philip, to take over Benin and its natural and cultural wealth for the British.

British troops invaded Benin on 10 February1897. After a fierce battle, they captured the city, on February 18. Three days later, on 21 February precisely, they torched the city and burnt down practically every house. Pitching their tent on the Palace grounds, the soldiers gathered all the bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests that escaped the fire. Thus, some 3,000 pieces of cultural artwork were taken away from Benin. The bulk of it was taken from the burnt down Palace.

It is not possible for us to say exactly how many items were removed. They were not catalogued at inception. We are informed that the soldiers who looted the palace did the cataloguing. It is from their accounts and those of some European and American sources that we have come to know that the British carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property. They are now scattered in museums and galleries all over the world, especially in London, Scotland, Europe and the United States. A good number of them are in private hands.

The works have been referred to as primitive art, or simply, artifacts of African origin. But Benin did not produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums. At the time Europeans were keeping their records in long-hand and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze, carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important event took place which they wished to record. Some of them of course, were ornamental to adorn altars and places of worship. But many of them were actually reference points, the library or the archive. To illustrate this, one 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.

In view of the fore-going, the following reliefs are sought on behalf of the Oba and people of Benin who have been impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property.

* (i) The official record of the property removed from the Palace of Benin in 1897 be made available to the owner, the Oba of Benin.

* (ii) All the cultural property belonging to the Oba of Benin illegally taken away by the British in 1897, should be returned to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.

* (iii) As an alternative, to (ii) above, the British should pay monetary compensation, based on the current market value, to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.

* (iv) Britain, being the principal looters of the Benin Palace, should take full responsibility for retrieving the cultural property or the monetary compensation from all those to whom the British sold them.

March 2000 (Memorandum submitted to the British House of Commons,in 2000)
Bild Akenzua, Niko Formanek

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