April 6, 2009

How long must we wait for the return of Benin artefacts?

Posted at 12:48 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

In response to this article, Kwame Opoku writes again on the plight of the Benin bronzes, strewn across the museums of Europe & the USA. A breakdown of the numbers suggests that the largest proportion of these artefacts are located in the British Museum.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article
5th April 2009

Feature Article : “The Author’s/Authors’ views do not necessarily reflect those of ModernGhana.

In an interview reproduced below from the PUNCH, the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joe. Eboreima gives his views of the question of the restitution of stolen/looted Nigerian artefacts, especially, the Benin Bronzes which the British looted in their infamous invasion of Benin in 1897. The National Commission is the supreme authority on matters relating to monuments and museums in Nigeria and therefore an important body on the question of the restitution of Nigerian artefacts, thousands of which are lying, unused and neglected in European and American museums which have no space for their excessive number of objects..

The exhibition mentioned in the interview is Benin Kings and Rituals – Court Arts from Nigeria ,organized in May 2007 by the Museum for Ethnology, Vienna, the Museum for Ethnology, Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, with the cooperation of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Royal Family of Benin.

The exhibition which started in Vienna went to Paris, Berlin and Chicago but did not go to Nigeria or to any other African country. In the catalogue of the exhibition, the Oba of Benin repeated the request for the return of some of the looted artefacts but in the same catalogue, the directors of the museums which co-operated in organizing the exhibition made it abundantly clear they had no intention of returning any of the stolen artefacts. Moreover, in the International Symposium organized in connection with the exhibition, a further request by the leader of the Benin Royal Delegation was met by a rather arrogant denial by the director of the Ethnology Museum, Vienna. The writer of these lines told the director of the museum what he thought of the very weak arguments the Europeans and Americans present in defence of their continued detention of the stolen/looted African artefacts. The exhibition in Chicago was preceded by protests from Nigerians in Chicago. In addition to revealing the great number of the stolen artefacts in Europe and the USA, the exhibition generated a lot of debate which was reported at many internet sites including Afrikanet http://www.afrikanet.info , Museum Security http://www.museum-security.org and Modern Ghana http://www.modernghana.com.

Since the end of the exhibition in Chicago, the Royal Family of Benin has reiterated its request in September 2008 for the return of some of the looted artefacts but to date, there has not even been a letter of acknowledgement from the museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago. http://www.modernghana.com. Readers may wish to consider whether this is the way to treat people with whom one has cooperated in organizing a successful exhibition. Does an African Royal Family deserve anything less than the usual standard of politeness?

The interview mentions the number of the stolen Benin artefacts revealed by the recent exhibition as 1500. It should be borne in mind however that the number of artefacts looted in 1897 is about 3000 or more. The British who stole the artefacts in the first place have never revealed the exact numbers and the British Museum refuses to give any indications. Listed here below are some of the places where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers, as far as we can tell. This is not an attempt to be complete but to give the general reader an idea about how widespread these stolen art objects are. For a complete list, consult Philip J.C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology, 1973, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 78-81. Useful information can be found in Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed) Benin: Kings and Ritual – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2007.

List of Museums and Number of Benin Bronzes in their Possession

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 700.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Philadelphia – University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 100.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

When we add the above figures, we get 3173. However, the important point is not the total figure but to secure the acceptance of the principle of restitution and to start the process.

We learn from the interview that the National Commission “was working through embassies to get artefacts stolen from the county repatriated.” We have very little information on this aspect of the restitution debate. We would however encourage the embassies and the consulates to make their efforts and successes known to the public. This is a matter of public concern and should not be shrouded in secrecy. It can also be said, without fear of contradiction, that quiet diplomacy has so far not been of much help to Nigeria and it is time that light was thrown on Nigeria’s effort in this respect. The Nigerian public has a right to know which objects in which European/American cities have been subject of discussion/negotiations and with what results.

We understand that Nigeria may be in discussions with Ethiopia and other African countries on these matters. The experience of Egypt will be very relevant for the success of Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities is enviable. At least 5000 artefacts have been returned to Egypt in the last five years. Zahi Hawass has clearly not restricted himself to quiet diplomacy. An open and energetic approach is likely to yield results. In any case, some 50 years of quiet diplomacy have not brought Nigeria any visible success or returns.

The recent pronouncements of the Director of the British Museum who tries to justify the retention of the Benin Bronzes on the basis of the argument that the objects were made from metals imported from Europe, is a clear indication that the British Museum is not even envisaging the possibility of repatriation. Added to this false argument, is the view of the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago who argues that colonialism and imperialism have nothing to do with the presence of stolen/looted objects in the British Museum, London, Louvre, Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, the so-called “universal museums”.

There should be no illusion about the question of restitution of African artefacts now lying in the former colonialist and imperialist capitals. These objects of great artistic and financial values are also regarded as war trophies and those who seize cultural objects of others by force of arms are not very likely to return them without some great pressure.

Kwame Opoku. 5 April, 2009.

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