Back to Africa Update

Talking About Benin Artefacts Is Not Enough: Return the Looted Treasures!

By Dr. Kwame Opoku

Matt Neale Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, United Kingdom.

 

‘ To fall under the spell of an object,to be touched by it,moved emotionally by a piece of art in a museum,brought to tears of joy,to admire its forms of ingenuity,to like the artwork’s colours,to take a photo of it,to let one’s self be transformed by it: all these experiences-which are also forms of access to knowledge – cannot be reserved to the inheritors of an asymmetrical history,to the benefactors of an excess of privilege and mobility.’

Felwine Sarr- and Bénédicte Savoy (1)

It has now become a ploy for gaining time to express readiness to discuss whenever an African country asks a Western Museum to return looted objects.

A most recent example is the reaction of the Bristol Museum to a plea made by Prince Edun Akenzua for the return of looted Benin artefacts in that museum. The prince made the plea in the course of a BBC TV show, Inside Out West.

Prince Edun declared:

"We are appealing to Bristol Museum to blaze the trail for the international community or private holders of the Benin cultural property to get them returned. Bristol Museum officials responded that they were prepared to work with the prince to find a solution to the Benin issue(2)

 

 

Prince Edun Akenzua, a noble and consistent campaigner for restitution.

 

Prince Edun, grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the British stole the Benin artefacts, and an uncle of the present Oba, Oba Ewuare II, is a veteran campaigner who submitted in 2000 a petition for restitution to the British Parliament that has become known as Appendix 21.(3) Many Westerners prefer to act as if there had not been any demand for the restitution of the looted Benin artefacts and often act as if they were hearing about such demands, which are natural, for the first time.

Jon Finch, head of culture at Bristol City Council that runs the museum, said that when the museum took over the commemorative head, they did not know that it had been stolen. The sculpture had been used to educate thousands of children about other cultures.

The offer to discuss and work with Prince Edun comes after the Sarr-Savoy report on restitution that recommended restitution of looted African artefacts, after Jesus College, Cambridge, had decided to return the Benin sculpture of a cockrel they had in their dining hall. Moreover, many European countries have tried to improve their rules regarding restitution and handling of looted colonial objects. Germany has issued new guidelines; Dutch museums have revised their rules on restitution of looted colonial artefacts. The Arts Council of England has placed an advertisement seeking a research group to prepare new guidelines for English museums on restitution. The international scene has been pointing to future restitutions.

In view of the above, an offer to discuss the issue with the prince is no real advance: "We'd like to have correspondence with him to see what the specific request is and how we can progress.’

To hear now that some persons, working in the museum or with authority over a museum holding one of the finest specimens of Benin artefacts, that they or their museum was unaware that the commemorative head was stolen, is more than discouraging. Have they read the information provided by their own museum on this sculpture? Have they not heard about or read the Sarr-Savoy report that shook many Western Museum officials by its recommemdation on restitution of looted Africa artefacts? Have they missed all the discussions and articles concerning Benin artefacts that have been published in the last few months?

It was said that the museum had used the artefact to teach hundreds of children about other cultures, implying that the children would be deprived of such an education if the object were to be returned.This reminds one of the equally cynical aswer from Julian Spalding,Director of Glasgow Museums, dated 10 January 1997 to Bernie Grant, Labour Member of British Parliament: ‘We believe, however, that these artefacts have an important role to play in the public sector by informing over 3 million visitors here about the culture of Benin and, it has to be said, the history of British Imperialism’.’

Bernie Grant, Labour Member of the British Parliament, from 1987 to his death in 2000. Benin Bronzes Campaign Files - The Bernie Grant Archive

Is the Bristol Museum aware that thousands of children in Benin City and Nigeria have not had the chance to learn about their own cultural objects stolen 100 years ago? What about other African children and their parents who do not have the privilege of seeing any Benin artefacts in their museums? Do they matter at all? It makes you wonder what kind of education children in Bristol may be getting when museum officials are not aware that they are dealing with stolen objects. Do Western Museum officials realize that countries such as Ghana, Togo and Cameroon, Nigeria’s neighbours, do not have Benin artefacts that most Western museums have? Do Africans not need to know about Nigerian culture as much as the British, Germans, French, and Dutch who hold large numbers of looted artefacts? Contrary to the view often expressed by Westerners that Benin artefacts are spread all over the world, the truth is that these Benin artefacts are concentrated in Western museums and institutions. Incidentally, the view that the Ethnology Museum/Humboldt Museum, Berlin has the greatest number of the looted Benin artefacts does not appear to be true. The British Museum has always had more of these artefacts than any other museum. Western museums are not willing to restitute the artefacts even if they have 700 pieces. Selfishness and sheer greed are the reigning principles in these venerable institutions. (4)

Any argument based on the allegation that a museum or its officials were not aware when they acquired a Benin artefact that it had been stolen, must be rejected outright. Ever since 1897 when the Benin artefacts were stolen in the notorious invasion of Benin City by the British army and sold in the same year, it has been common knowledge that all Benin artefacts, (as opposed to forgeries which some experts are unable to detect) in the Western world came from the nefarious invasion. Ever since then, many Westerners have taken the position that however reprehensible the mode of acquisition may have been, the holder should not have any moral qualms. Thus, many museums had until recently not bothered about the mode of acquisition of African artefacts and felt authorized to hold them.

Jon Fonch is heard in the BBC show responding to the interviewer’s statement that Nigerians have been making such requests since Independence in 1960, that there has not been any direct request to Bristol Museum. Such a response has been dealt with several times in my articles in modernghana.com. The response of Jon Fonch is as useless as it is old. If you come to the conclusion that an object in your collection is stolen property, you should not wait until the owner asks you directly. After the various Nigerian requests including Prince Edun’s plea to the British Parliament, it seems odd that a British official should argue that there has been no direct request to him.

The hint that Bristol Museum would be joining or working with the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) does not really improve matters. That group has decisively rejected any idea of restituion of Benin artefacts but has offered instead to loan looted artefacts to the Nigerian owners. (5) Are the Bristol Museum officials aware of this? The idea of a loan of a looted artefact to its owners is an insult to the intelligence of mankind and should be rejected by all Africans and others who are informed about the nature of colonial hegemony and supremacy:

Macron had shamed them, [BDG] and a loan is a face-saving way to avoid parting with possession. It is also an insulting and unacceptable way – even a permanent loan is infused with the taint of colonialism, betraying a fixed belief that good title was legitimately obtained by colonial aggression and plunder The British Museum used the excuse that it was not allowed to de-access but its trustees were not prepared to ask the government to amend this law. They are not prepared to acknowledge the wrongful acts of the British army in wars of aggression in Africa, namely by returning possession of its plunder. (6)

There is no real will on the part of Western museums to share anything, not even the looted Benin artefacts. Humbold Forum/Ethnological Museum are holding 580 Benin artefacts, why can they not restitute 100 to Benin from where they were stolen? Do Germans participate in Benin traditional culture to require so many Benin artefacts? Are they required for teaching their children about Benin culture? The British museum holds 700 pieces but is only willing to lend a few to Benin and still retain ownership. The venerable museum does not want to make the successors of Oba Ovonramwen or any Benin/Nigerian person or institution owners of the looted Benin artefacts. The owners of the loaned looted objects would still be in Bloomsbury and not in Benin City.

Nigerians will be the only ones who practise their culture with artefacts borrowed or loaned from Western museums. Could future generations even be sure they are capable of manufacturing artefacts for their own cultural activities since they would seem to have borrowed Benin artefacts from their former colonial masters and their allies?

But can we blame the Europeans and their allies alone for the present state of affairs? Generations of Africans have accepted or been forced to accept colonial propaganda and allowed colonial masters to decide the fate of our countries even after Independence and, naturally, it seems, the fate of African artefacts whilst the colonialists proclaim boldly and loudly that we are unable to produce anything worthwhile after they had stolen our gold, timber, and artefacts. In any case, they argue, Africans are unable to protect our artefacts. The proof? Obvious. Those who have stolen our artefacts with military force believe that we are incapable of protecting them. Their evil deed is evidence of their ability and their right. Thus, they benefit from their own wrongful deed. The legal principle that no right can be derived from one’s own wrongful doing does not seem to apply here. ‘Ex injuria non oritur ius. There should be a modicum of shame on the part of Europeans when they consider what they have done in Africa. An apology would be more appropriate than the insults and innuendos that always flow from Europe when the issue of restitution comes up. But have we given Europeans any reason to act otherwise when there are Africans ready to criticise and challenge any African who suggests that the present state of affairs must be changed? Slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and now, the worst form of imperialism, cultural imperialism, seems to be acceptable to some who should be leading the fight against oppression. Will there ever be an end to domination of Africa and Africans by Westerm imperialism as long as we maintain a servile and accommodating attitude to those who have stolen our treasures and eliminated uncountable brothers and sisters?

We urge the peoples of Nigeria and Africa to reject insulting offers and continue pressing our case until Western nations are finally prepared to restitute some of the estimated 3500 Benin artefacts that were brutally wrenched from the Oba’s Palace in 1897 and now decorate Western museums and homesNo valid argument has been presented why a museum, such as British Museum, cannot restitute to Benin 100 of the artefacts the British army stole in 1897. No argument has been presented to explain why Benin/Nigeria would be better served by a loan rather than full restitution of the artefacts.

Selfishness, greed, and racist arrogance seem to rule in Western Museum circles.

After 123 years in detention and exile, Benin heroines and heroes must return home, free from chains and shackles of colonialism and imperialism. The Benin Dialogue Group cannot sell to Africa and its peoples continued or renewed bondage as liberation. We are a little more sophisticated than previous generations that made it easier for imperialism to take over. We also have the benefit of hindsight of 500 years of history and know very well the intentions and methods of our past colonial masters.

’Cultural heritage constitutes an inalienable part of a people's sense of self and of community, functioning as a link between the past, the present and the future; it is essential to sensitize the public about this issue and especially the younger generation’. (7)

Athens Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects,1958.

 

 

Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in the British Museum. Seized by the British during the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897. Will she ever be liberated from the British Museum?

NOTES

1.Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy, ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics,’ November 2018, Introduction, p.4.

  1. Opoku, Further Comments on Sarr-Savoy Report on Restitution
  2. Benin prince calls for Bristol Museum to return stolen sculpture
  3. See Annex I
  4. See Annex II.

5.. Benin Dialogue Group Removes Restitution of Benin Artefacts ...

www.modernghana.com › news › benin-dialogue-group-removes-rest.

  1. Geoffrey Robertson,Who owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasuer, Biteback Publishing, London, p.178.
  2. Conclusions of the Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin Athens, 17-18 March 2008.

Conclusions of the Athens International Conference on the Return of ... www.unesco.org/culture/laws/pdf/Conclusions_Athens_en.pdf

ANNEX I

APPENDIX 21.

www.parliament.uk/

Select Committee on Culture, Media, and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

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