August 21, 2009

Would Westerm Museums return artefacts if they could?

Posted at 12:57 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Many of the museums of the West, when faced with restitution claims, have insisted that they would consider returning the artefacts – but they are unable to do so. Common reasons given include the security of the artefacts if they were returned, the lack of a suitable place to house them, or statutes that forbid deaccessioning. Are these institutions really speaking the truth though, ore merely trying to throw up more barriers to prevent any sort of serious discussion of the real issues involved.

Due to the length of this piece I am reproducing it here in two parts.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | 12 hours ago

Corruption, like tango, requires two partners.

A seminal study by Peju Layiwola, dealt with the question of the cultural memory of a people whose development has been brutally interrupted and their cultural objects seized by a foreign invader. (1) In the specific case of Benin, the British seized more than 3000 artefacts during their nefarious invasion in 1879. (2) This date and the invasion have remained memorable for the people of Benin, Nigeria and the continent of Africa.

Peju Layiwola whose mother, Princess Elisabeth Olowu, is a well-known artist, was born in the Palace of the Oba in Benin City during the reign of Oba Akenzua II, her maternal grandfather. Peju spent her childhood in Benin City, went to school there and did her first degree at the University of Benin. Her doctoral dissertation at the University of Ibadan dealt with contemporary Benin brass casting. Peju is therefore from family affiliation, from childhood experience and education linked to Benin and inevitably, since she was drawn to art in her infancy, to the arts of Benin and the tragic loss of the Benin bronzes through the British invasion. The important question then is not why Peju is concerned by the continued loss of the Benin Bronzes but rather why some people are less concerned or even indifferent to attempts to recover looted or stolen artefacts.

How do we remember our cultural development and achievements when all or almost all our icons are elsewhere in captivity? In the case of most African societies, the vast majority of our cultural icons are in Europe and America. The study of African art is much easily done in Lodon, Paris, Berlin and Lisbon than in Accra, Lagos, Abuja, Doula or Maputo. Surely even Westerners must be aware of the difficulties involved when attempts are made to maintain a living and continuous culture in the absence of concrete objects symbolizing or indicating the chosen path of a culture. So why do Westerners keep stolen/looted African cultural objects?

Several arguments have been made by Westerners for their continued detention of looted/stolen African artefacts. We have in several articles examined most of these arguments and found them woefully lacking in logic, morality or legal foundations. (3) We shall examine here very briefly only the arguments based on the location and security of the looted cultural objects (I) which are linked also to the argument based on the alleged corruption prevalent in African countries such as Nigeria (II). We then discuss the Western determination to hold on to looted African artefacts (III) and conclude with proposals in the face of this strong resolve. (IV)

I. Suitable and Secure Location for Looted Cultural Objects

The security argument states basically that if looted objects were returned to Africa, they would not have a secure and fit place to be kept and would soon be again on the private illegal market. Supporters of this line of argument often refer to the absence of secure and well-run museums in Africa. This argument which at times seems solid has lost much of its strength since the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. It would be recalled that the British argued for decades that the British Museum in London was a better place for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and that Athens had no such respectable museum. There were also comments about prevailing climatic conditions in Athens, especially smog. However, since the Greeks built the new magnificent modern museum, there has been no sign that the British are in a hurry to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Indeed, the British refused to attend the opening ceremony even though invited. It has become clear therefore that arguments based on the nature of the future location of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles are merely excuses for delaying their eventual return to Athens. The British have used what may be described as “shifting arguments” to justify their refusal to return the Marbles to Athens. They have a whole line of justificatory arguments. Once you answer one, the next one follows so that it is difficult to know what the real ground is.

Regarding African countries, the absence of secure museums surely cannot be an acceptable justification for refusal to return looted cultural objects. Most African artefacts were not intended to be placed in museums. The colonialists and their allies found most of these objects in villages, in the open air or hidden in the ground. Intimidation and the threat or use of force were the persuasive factors that enabled the accumulation of enormous cultural artefacts by the colonial powers. Secure places did not deter the looters of cultural objects. (4) In some cases, such as the case of Benin, the artefacts had been well kept in the secure palace of the Oba for centuries before the British Army looted them. Are we expected to build museums that can resist the onslaught of the British Army? This army has convincingly proved in Peking (Beijing) in 1860, Kumasi, (Asante capital in Ghana) in 1874, in Magdala (Ethiopia) in 1886 and in Benin City in 1897, its will and ability to loot the cultural artefacts of others.

We all recognize the need to build better museums but this is for every State to decide. Building a better and secure museum cannot be made a condition sine qua for the restitution of looted objects. There are constant reports of thefts from museums all over the world, including museums in Europe and America. Security of cultural objects cannot be advanced by Western States for not returning looted objects.

How can those responsible for looting our artefacts now turn around and insist that since we do not have secure museums they will not return the objects? Are they allowed to adduce evidence of their successful looting as proof of our inability to protect our cultural heritage and hence disqualify us from reclaiming our cultural property? Has the looter now become a superior owner, able to dictate under what conditions he would be willing to return the looted objects?

African States can build as many first class museums as they want. This alone will not persuade Western States to return cultural artefacts looted in the colonialist and imperialist ages. Apologists for Western countries speak and act as if they had a moral duty or God-given obligation to keep and guard our artefacts. (5) They often imply that Africans are not even capable of appreciating the cultural objects produced within their own cultures. Some write and act as if the fact of being African in itself disqualifies us from understanding African culture and the importance of cultural objects.

The security argument is sometimes varied and presented as an argument based on corruption.

II. Corruption as ground for non-restitution
Bernard Mueller has argued that it would be wrong to return cultural objects looted in the colonial times to bloodthirsty and obscurantist African leaders. He himself admitted though that even if those bloodthirsty leaders were not representative of their people, this would not affect the legitimacy of the demand for restitution. His aim seems to have been to repeat some of the insulting vituperations often made even by well-intentioned Europeans when they deal with Africa. The disqualification of African States enabled him to propose declaring African cultural artefacts part of world heritage or “patrimoine universel”. The ploy here was to enable the Westerners to have a say in determining the disposition of the looted African cultural artefacts which now fill the leading museums in Great Britain, Germany, France, Netherlands and the United States. (6)

The alleged dictatorial nature of African governments can of course be matched by Europe’s own dictatorial governments. Franco, Salazar and Hitler were pure European products who did not need to learn from Africans. Nobody ever suggested that those European countries ruled by dictators should lose their cultural artefacts because of these evil men. This line of argument is no longer generally pursued by European critics. A more frequent argument is that based on the alleged corrupt conduct of Africans and African officials.

Very few will deny that there has been corruption in African countries and that this has at times involved museums and their officials. None of us would like to underestimate the extent and the seriousness of the looting of African cultural artefacts since Independence in the 60’s.

Peter Garlake, in Early Art and Architecture of Africa, makes some very pertinent remarks on the looting of Ife artefacts:

“Many Ife brass and pottery sculptures, including some of the life-size brass heads that are of such rarity and importance, have been stolen from different Nigerian museums. In many of these it has been alleged that senior museum officials responsible for objects in their care have been deeply implicated in thefts. The majority of sculptures from Obalara’s Land in Ife have also been stolen. Richly sculpted brass rings, earth still adhering on them and clearly related to Ife work, suddenly appeared in auction rooms and subsequently in leading museums in Europe and the United States in the 1970s. These rings are our only indication that another very rich and unknown site or sites had clearly been pillaged and all information about them lost.

Equally distressing is the fact that some of the most famous museums in the United States and Europe continue to accept donations of, buy, and display ancient African art that cannot possibly have left its country of origin legally. They claim there is no documentary proof of any wrongdoing and that no law of their countries has been broken. The museums around the world have proved willing to follow their example.” (7)

Prof. Folarin Shyllon commented on the corruption allegations as follows

“Professor Ade Obayemi, Director-General of the NCMM from March 1987 to August 1991, in his Handing Over Notes to his successor made the following troubling remarks concerning the matter: “The Chief Executive of the Commission will be shocked to find that the records show that officials of the Commission at very senior levels, were, or had been indicted as security risks and or agents of traffickers in antiquities . I will only quote the standing warning of Prof. Ekpo Eyo in his own Handing Over Notes that it has to be remembered that the greater risk could come from inside and this is what needs to be carefully watched.”(8)

Shyllon referred to the great Ekpo Eyo as having made in 1971 the following forecast:

“unless the theft of Nigerian collections was arrested nothing would be left of Nigerian antiquities in about ten years.” (9)

Michel Brent has also provided concrete cases of looting of cultural artefacts from various African countries and explains in detail the structure of the illicit trade: “Some African museums are rumoured to have organized thefts from their own collections. The thief brings the stolen goods to European antiques dealer, and a few weeks later the museum lodges a complaint with Interpol. That report is accompanied by the necessary proof of ownership as well as by the name of the antique shop that has those items in stock. In such circumstances (when the authorities have the proof of ownership, which was not the case in the Komaland story.) the intervention of the police always results in a speedy return of the stolen items to the museum without any financial compensation to the purchaser. Thus, one can easily see that if the same operation is repeated three or four times in different European countries, substantial profits can be made.” (10)

The late Frank Willet, well-known for his pioneering and everlasting contributions to Ife art and culture, felt reluctantly obliged to argue against the return of looted/stolen Nigerian cultural objects:

“It is indeed depressing that having spent the last forty years trying to demonstrate that the peoples of Nigeria have a history and an artistic heritage of which they can be proud, to find that those who now hold the roles we once did are not only not taking care of their heritage, but are exploiting this irreplaceable material by allowing its illicit export to dealers and collectors in the West”.(11)

Willet referred to various thefts which occurred in museums in Nigeria at Ibadan, Abeokuta, Esie, Jos and Owo. A most glaring case was the theft of a famous ancient bronze stool, from the Ife University Museum of Art, which was stripped of its collection in a series of spectacular thefts in 1993-94. Willet revealed that this stool turned up in America, “accompanied with what appears to be a valid official Clearance Permit issued on 20 June, 1994 and signed by an officer of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments as examined and found to be non-antiquity.” Willet wondered whether the authorisation of this export was due to incompetence or to corruption. He concluded that it would be unwise to return to Nigeria stolen/looted artefacts: “I have been keeping an eye on the art market and attempting to arrange for the return of pieces stolen from Nigerian museums ever since I left the paid service of the Nigerian Government in 1963, yet here I am recommending that objects should not be returned.” It is difficult not to be moved by the opinion of eminent scholars such as the late Frank Willet. (12)

Looting of African artefacts and the accompanying corruption in African countries must therefore be acknowledged as a serious matter that should worry all those interested in African culture.

But who benefits from the wide-spread corruption and looting? It is clear that those who sell these objects derive some profit. It is also clear that eventually the looted artefacts end up in Western museums. Indeed, it is the existence of a market for African artefacts and the high demand for them created by Western museums that the illicit traffic flourishes. Michel Brent puts it this way: “Just to show how widespread the responsibility for this plundering African heritage, I would like to turn once more to the Tervuren Museum. I must mention here that in Belgium museums are state-owned and therefore financed by the taxpayer. The Museum of Tervuren has all the outward appearances of a most venerable institution. Yet, if you look into the ways in which it acquired African works of art in the past twenty years, links with the illicit trade become evident.”(13)

In his excellent study entitled, “Nigerian Art as Endangered Species”, Dele Jegede, examines various cases of looting and corruption in Nigeria. However, he also underlines the support and contribution of the West to the looting of African artefacts: “One can contend that without the West’s overwhelming interest in African art, illicit trade in cultural property, on the continent would not have assumed the alarming dimensions that it has reached especially in the last three decades. As Peter Schmidt argues elsewhere in this volume, the erasure of Africa’s cultural past is a second stage in the process of denigration of the African past by the West; the first was colonization. Indeed, the story of the illicit trade in African art is, in large measure, the story of the unscrupulous Western of loopholes, perceived or created, within the organizational and social structure in Africa for personal gratification or corporate, institutional aggrandizement”. (14)

Recently, Eric Huysecom, archaeology professor at Geneva and Bamako, has condemned the continuing looting of African cultural heritage, directing attention, in particular to a current exhibition entitled “African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage”, organized by the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, which is well-known for its collection of African, Asian, Oceanic and Pre-Colombian arts. Huysecom and his colleagues contended in an open letter that many of the terra cotta in the exhibition must have been looted in contravention of the laws of Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Niger. It is understood that Nigerian authorities are considering taking appropriate action. (15)

In this connection, we recall the Nok terra cotta from Nigeria which were looted and eventually turned up at the Musée de Quai Branly, Paris. The French bought the three Nok and Sokoto terra cotta knowing fully well that they must have been looted and illegally exported from Nigeria since objects were on the Red List of ICOM (International Council of Museums). This list enumerates a number of items contains forbidden for export. It took the intervention of ICOM to bring the matter to discussion and to the embarrassment of the French who had bought the pieces in 1999 for the planned museum, Musée du Quai Branly. Eventually, France acknowledged the ownership of Nigeria in those pieces and signed an agreement by which Nigeria loaned the pieces to France for a period of twenty-five years which was renewable. The dubious agreement with France shocked those interested in the preservation of African heritage insofar as it sent a wrong message to looters and dampened attempts to prevent looting. The agreement also made nonsense of the rule of law: Violations of Nigerian Law and the ICOM Code of Ethics should not be covered by an agreement of dubious legality and legitimacy. Above all, allowing the French to keep the objects for 25 years and adding an option for renewal shows an absolute lack of respect for legality and the interests of African culture. Nigerians should carefully examine the agreement when it expires, if they cannot renegotiate those terms earlier. ICOM issued a reminder that“the looting of archaeological items in Africa causes irreparable damage, destroying vital evidence of the history of the continent and of mankind as a whole. Museums must therefore take a lead in combating the illicit trade in cultural goods, by adopting scrupulous acquisition policy in line with the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics for museum professionals. (16)

III. Western Determination to keep looted African artefacts

As if it were not painful enough that looted African artefacts end in Europe and the United States, there are museum directors vigorously advocating the right of Western museum to acquire African artefacts even if their provenance is dubious? James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, an institution that collaborated with Nigeria in putting up the recent exhibition, Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria has in books and articles propagated the doctrine that the Western Museums have the right and duty to acquire artefacts without regard to their provenance. Those countries that enact laws to prevent the looting of their artefacts are described by him as nationalist retentionists. Cuno also argues that attempts to regulate export of cultural artefacts are in any case ineffective. (17) He goes so far as to argue that the Nok terra cotta does not belong to Nigeria but to humanity and denies the right of Nigeria to regulate the export of such artefacts: “Anthony Appiah said something wonderful in his book Cosmopolitanism. He says, look we don’t know who made these Nok sculptures, these ancient sculptures that are found today in Nigeria. We don’t know if they were made for royalty or for one’s ancestors or on speculation. But what we know for sure is that they weren’t made for Nigeria. Because at the time there was no Nigeria.” (18)

Cuno who has no love for UNESCO and the United Nations, ignores the fact that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, imposes on a State such as Nigeria a duty “to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export?”. Moreover, Article 4 of this Convention provides that: “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:

a. Cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory;

b. cultural property found within the national territory;

c. cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;

d. cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;

e. cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.”

There is clearly no intention on the part of those maintaining views such as those of Cuno to respect legality and legitimacy. Cuno also refuses to repatriate the looted Benin bronzes in his museum.

The determination of the major Western museums not to return looted artefacts has been vigorously expressed in the infamous statement: Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. (19) In December 2002, a group of the world’s largest museums (The Art Institute of Chicago. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Louvre Museum, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Prado Museum, Madrid, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) signed a declaration instigated by the British Museum which cunningly did not sign it, with the aim of securing for themselves immunity against future claims for restitution. Among the arguments advanced was a statement that cultural objects which have been in these museums for a long time, have in the meanwhile become part of the culture of those countries:

“Over time, objects so acquired — whether by purchase, gift, or partage — have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.” Thus on this line of reasoning the African objects in the British Museum, London, Ethnology Museum Berlin, Ethnology Museum, Vienna and elsewhere have become part of the culture of those countries. So are the Germans, Austrians and the British now believers in Yoruba religion and cosmology ancestor? Have they adopted Benin culture or aspects of any African culture?

This absurd idea has also found room in some scholarly writings. Thus Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim write in their book, The Scramble for Art in Central Africa the following:

“We start with the premise that although African objects belong to, and derive meaning from, their use in Africa, once collected they enter into the repertoire of Western material culture. In the last decade such transformations in the meaning of things have been discussed from many points of view, most often in terms of process of appropriation, commoditization, and recontextualization”. (20)

These self-serving defences and explanations are also found in the catalogue of the recent Benin exhibition.

In the introductory note by the King of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, pleaded for the return of some of the Benin artifacts:

“As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.”

Almost immediately following the Oba’s note, there is a preface by the directors of the collaborating institutions (without the Nigerians) where this modest demand is rudely rejected by the museum directors who suggest we forget the past and look to the future: “History, whether tragic or glorious, lies forever behind us. We stand on its shoulders and direct our gaze to what lies ahead”.

The museum directors were also at pains to explain that the Benin objects had acquired added value in their exile in the Western world and were therefore not the sole property of the people of Benin:

“The transformation of what had been created as architectural ornaments into veritable archival documents, which has occurred up to the time of their alienation from the Benin royal court, illustrates the steady changes in the attribution of meaning and value even within their local context. 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 genera cause and specific articulations of the past and present cultural diversity of the world. This approach enhances the pleasure of aesthetic enjoyment, while providing the basis for the understanding of the cultural content behind the visible forms.” (21)

The claim of the right of Western museums to hold on to looted artefacts could not have been more clearly and better formulated than in this citation. We should note the Oba’s modest request for “some of the Benin artefacts” bearing in mind that some of the participants in the exhibition and signatories of this infamous preface have a large number of the Benin bronzes: Ethnology Museum, Berlin 580 and Ethnology Museum, Vienna 167. The Oba was clearly not given the royal treatment. Would the signatories have responded otherwise if the Oba had been a European monarch?

The refusal to return artefacts on grounds of corruption or lack of infrastructure is, not surprisingly, made mostly by those museums with large collections of African artefacts. Thus we read in the report of the UNESCO conference on the Return of Cultural Objects, the Athens Conference, 17-18 March, 2008 a statement presented on behalf of the Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren in Belgium and its Director, Guido Gryssels:

“Guido Gryseels, the Director of the Tervuren Museum, shared his views on thereturn of cultural heritage artefacts. According to Gryseels, museums have to improve the accessibility of their collections, both for scholars and the general public, by digitizing their collections so that they can be viewed on line and by creating databases and virtual museums. Discussions relating to the physical locations where collections are displayed will then assume less importance. However, a blanket return of all cultural heritage is deemed out of the question. No objects can be returned to their country of origin before these countries have acquired political stability and basic infrastructure. From this point of view the return of artefacts would seem impossible at the moment. Gryseels states that only “duplicates” can be returned in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, museums that have in their possession African cultural objects can develop partnerships with museums in Africa in order to strengthen their management. They can also collaborate in the organization of exhibitions, training and research programmes”. (22) This statement demonstrates with exceptional clarity the hypocritical, arrogant, paternalistic, racist and self-serving nature of the arguments of many Western museums and States that refuse to return looted African cultural artefacts. An examination of such statements reveals that arguments based on lack of security in African museums and corruption in African cultural institutions are mere pretext for a determination to hold on to stolen objects. Ironically, at the beginning of colonialism African art which later became an important constitutive factor of modernism in art, was designated as primitive art, in no way comparable to European art. At the same time, Europeans used all means, including violence in Benin, Asante, Ethiopia, Congo, and elsewhere to collect these objects.

Who gave the beneficiaries and inheritors of the cruel and despotic King Leopold II, who robbed the Congo of its resources and massacred millions of Congolese, the right to speak in an insulting manner and to determine when looted objects may be returned? (23) Gryseels who heads the Royal Museum for Central Africa has no legality or legitimacy to lecture Africans on how to manage their museums. His museum, founded by the cruel and murderous King Leopold, has amongst its 400,000 objects, pieces looted or acquired in dubious circumstances. Schildkrout and Keim have correctly stated that:

“Leopold also sponsored a Brussels-Tevuren Exposition on the Congo in 1897 to publicise his work. The objects collected for the Exposition were eventually housed in the magnificent Royal Museum of the Congo (later called the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale and now called the Musée Africain) which Leopold constructed at Tervuren”. (24)

How dare Gryseels require from African museums to improve “the accessibility of their collections, both for scholars and the general public”? Is he running the African museums? Do the Western scholars not have enough of the looted objects in Europe and America? Most people would agree that the best places to see African art objects are London, Paris, Brussels, Tervuren, Berlin, New York and Amsterdam and not Accra, Lagos Abuja, Doula, Kinshasa. What access do Western scholars still need? Is the idea that they can then deal with the remaining objects in African museums as they want? It is known that certain objects have been taken from museums for study or repairs but never came back. Either Gryseels does not know African conditions or he is deliberately setting up standards which he must know cannot be fulfilled. Many Western museums cannot fulfil these standards. How can he set as condition for restitution the accessibility to collections “by digitizing their collections so that they can be viewed on line and by creating databases and virtual museums”? Could anybody tell us how we can dance with digitalized masks? African cultures were not developed through computers and virtual museums but by active use of the objects which are now lying in Western museums for aesthetic contemplation. Nobody plays the 8000 African drums and other instruments assembled in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren.

Gryseels is generous enough to offer Africans duplicates of our cultural objects which the Europeans have stolen, so we can pursue our cultural practices with “duplicates” even though we produced the original artefacts. Does he think our people are so uninformed as not to know the original from the duplicate? Is he aware that many of these objects are not supposed to be seen by the uninitiated and definitely by Europeans so that their presence in forced exile in Europe requires special purification ceremonies if they are to resume their roles in the African culture? Is he aware that some of the looted objects have religious and spiritual importance that cannot be recovered by replicas made in the Western world by artists who do not share our beliefs and culture? Replicas, however well made, cannot replace our stolen originals. Western museums could alternatively, return the originals and keep the duplicates? What speaks against that, apart from arrogance and disrespect for the cultures that produced these objects? After all, they need these objects only to teach their people about African culture; Africans need them to practice their religions and culture.

It is interesting that European museum directors have now become concerned about “political stability and basic infrastructure”. Since when are these conditions within the domain of museum directors? Have they become politicians and statesmen who can now try to impose their vision on African States? When the cultural objects were being stolen nobody thought about how the illegal and illegitimate actions of Leopold II and other colonialists contributed to political instability, destruction and disorganization.

Gyryseels makes it clear that his museum has no intention of returning any cultural object to African States: “However, a blanket return of all cultural heritage is deemed out of the question. From this point of view the return of artefacts would seem impossible at the moment. Gryseels states that only “duplicates” can be returned in the foreseeable future”.

Gryseels, like some Western museum directors, creates a deliberate misrepresentation that we are asking for all cultural heritage. This misrepresentation is deliberately made in order to avoid a serious consideration of demands made for restitution of specific objects. What many Africans have suggested is that some of the looted African objects should be returned, especially those with religious or political significance. Most Africans find it intolerable that we have few of our own cultural artefacts when thousands are lying in Western depots, most of them forgotten. There have been cases of some of the looted objects in depots in the original packages in which they were sent. The several appeals made by the Royal Family of Benin and the Nigerian Government for the renturn of some of the Benin bronzes have been to no avail. The British Museum was ready to sell Benin bronzes even to the Nigerian Government. (25)

The argument against return of looted cultural objects because of corruption in the country of origin may at first sight, seem plausible until one begins to examine its wider implications.

What level of corruption and in which areas of life would corruption justify refusal to return stolen cultural property to its owners, if this is at all legal and legitimate? Must corruption be detected in the cultural area or any aspect of life in that country? How long does the noted corruption act as effective barrier to restitution ? Does this refusal apply at all times or until corruption ceases? Who has the right to establish the cessation of corruption? The cultural objects in Africa were made by Africans and not given to us as some form of rewards for good behaviour by the gods. How then can someone sit somewhere, far away, especially in the looting States, and decide that because of our corruption the cultural objects cannot be returned? Are corrupt persons to be without culture or are they not entitled, as part of their human rights, to own cultural objects? Does the presence of corrupt persons in a society authorise deprivation of the whole society of its cultural objects?

Is the argument based on corruption only valid for African countries? Will anybody accept, for a second, a British argument that because of an alleged corruption in Greece they are not returning the Parthenon Marbles? Some tried to present an argument based on the presence of military rule in Greece but the patent dishonesty of the argument led quickly to its abandonment. Will the current expenses scandals which have shaken the British Parliament, resulting in the dismissal of the Speaker of the House, the first time in some 300 years, be sufficient ground for non-restitution to Britain based on corruption?

Who authorized those who looted cultural objects to sit now in judgement over their owners and refuse to return them? Can it really be accepted that those who loot determine when they will return the objects depending on their assessment of the conduct of the owners?

Are we making the wolf the shepherd? The Europeans who looted African cultural artefacts now sit in judgment over Africans. Should it not be the other way round? Those who have been accomplices in looting now generalize the wrong doing to affect whole nations, indeed a whole Continent. Similarly, the same States that have assisted in looting African resources and keep billions of illegally obtained money in their banks, refusing to repatriate the amounts, sometimes argue that they cannot repatriate large sums to corrupt countries. When these sums were sent to the West no one seems to have been worried by illegality or corruption.

Corruption should be faced directly. Those supporting arguments based on corruption have not gone to suggest that other countries should not deal in petroleum with Nigeria, for example, because of corrupt officials and institutions. No Western State has boycotted any African State because of corruption. Trade goes on as usual. Attention is thus diverted from the real problems of corruption to defend wrongful detention of cultural artefacts that were looted long before corruption ever became an issue. The British Army that looted the Benin bronzes did not advance corruption as a ground for the invasion.

None of us would like to defend corruption and corrupt officials but better arguments would have to be presented and above all, those countries that are accomplices in corruption should exercise some reserve and balance in their hypocritical criticisms. They should also avoid wholesale insults and demonization of whole States and a continent. There are no doubt some corrupt officials in many countries but is it right to insult a whole country of some 180 millions, such as Nigeria, as being corrupt in order to deprive the population of their cultural artefacts?

We should certainly pay attention to the various allegations and proofs of corruption, coming from Africans and friends of Africa. But are the friends of Africa the masters of Africa, its resources including cultural heritage? We must by all means recognize the inestimable work by some Western scholars on African culture but what right do they have over the disposition of looted/stolen African treasures? The treasures belong to the African peoples and not to the Western scholars whom Africans allowed to live among them and study their culture. Cultural objects of a people do not cease to belong to them even though they allow others to study their culture.

The scandalous situation where those illegally and illegitimately detaining the cultural objects of others can insult them with untenable arguments and accusations or proofs of corruption in which they are, directly or indirectly, involved must cease. Post facto arguments that are obviously self-serving when presented by Western museums are insults to those claiming the return of their cultural heritage. African scholars and Governments should energetically and decisively reject these arguments and insults from the West. That would clear the way for dealing with the serious question of restitution.

Corruption, where it exists must be dealt with but by the African Governments and peoples themselves without former colonial States, in many ways participants in the corruption, interfering and using this factor to justify, post facto, robbery in the colonial and post Independence period.

If corruption were a serious justification, why did the colonialists not return cultural objects when the governments were not corrupt? Or have the African countries, from Egypt to South Africa, from Senegal to Kenya, always been governed by corrupt elements?

Continue reading the rest of this article here.

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