Will Boston Museum Of Fine Arts Return Looted Benin Bronzes?
“The public interest must surely be in upholding the rule of law, rather than promoting an international free-for-all through the unrestricted circulation of tainted works of art. Do we really wish to educate our children to have no respect for history, legality and ethical values by providing museums with the opportunity freely to exhibit stolen property? ”
Extract from a letter by several members of the British House of Lords. (1)
Readers may recall that when the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, recently acquired by donation a number of looted Benin artefacts, there was a large public outcry against this acquisition of blood antiquities by a leading and respected American museum. (2) The Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments demanded the immediate return of the looted objects. (3) Other writers also urged the return of these precious artefacts that the British had looted in a violent invasion of the flourishing Benin Kingdom in 1897. (4) Ligali, a Pan-Africanist activist group, wrote to the Boston museum requesting the return of the objects to their rightful owners. In his response to Ligali, the director of the Boston museum mentioned that his institution had informed the Oba of Benin of the acquisition. (5) An impression was thus created that the Benin Royal Family had acquiesced in the acquisition, and in any case, had not protested against it.
Members of the notorious British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin, posing proudly with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects.
The Benin Royal Palace was surprised to hear that the museum was claiming the acquisition met all legal standards and that no claim had been made against it. The Oba has always made it very clear that the looted Benin artefacts belong to the people of Benin and the Oba. The statement by the Boston museum did not reflect the truth. The Oba of Benin is against any form of donation, auction or exhibition of stolen Benin spiritual, traditional, cultural and decorative art works in Europe and in America. The stolen Benin artefacts should be returned to the original owners. Attempts should not be made to throw doubts on the position of the Oba of Benin as regards the looted Benin objects. The Oba and the people of Benin demand their return. (6)
Similarly, the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments(NCMM), the organ charged with preservation of Nigeria’s culture and cultural objects, has also made its position clear in a statement issued by Yusuf Abdallah Usman,Director General of NCMM:
“For the avoidance of doubt we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artefacts from Nigeria under whatever guise.
We wish to call on the management of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, to as a matter of self-respect, return the 32 works Nigeria, the rightful owners forthwith”. (7)
What will the venerable Museum of Fine Arts, Boston do? Will it act as most people have urged it to do? Would it follow the advice of a Western blogger who stated in an article titled “The MFA’s new acquisition of Benin artifacts proving to be a tricky bitch already“ :
“If the MFA was at all interested in joining the rest of us here in the 21stcentury, it might begin by repatriating the objects to Nigeria and hammering out a deal for exchanges between our countries. Then it might consider taking the initiative and acknowledging fishy or limited provenance in the history of all its objects, not just the ones on trial, and make a whole-hearted effort to discover their true origins. Then it might acknowledge that many of the objects in their collection may still hold significance for living cultures and be less stingy when those cultures come forward and ask for repatriations. Then it might do a much better job of educating its public about art crime, the modern commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and the past and present war time looting that scatters artifacts and attempts to destroy cultures and ideologies. But instead, it will continue to drag its feet and deny a formerly occupied country the right it has to its stolen heritage.
Don’t be that guy, MFA. Be brave”. (8)
Relief plaque depicting a battle scene. Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America.
But will the museum management have the courage and strength of character to make a new beginning in its history of restitution unless some pressure is put on it as the Italians did and secured the return of their looted objects? (9) The Nigerians must consider what measures they could take to achieve the objective of return of the artefacts. Nigeria must learn from the experience of States such as Egypt, Italy and Turkey that have been successful in securing the return of their looted artefacts (10). These States have followed their demands with concrete measures that obliged holding museums to consider seriously their demands for restitution. The domination of the West over Nigeria as well as the persistence of neo-colonial ideology seem to weaken Nigeria’s attempts at restitution. Radical changes in the culture establishment and the prevailing mentality seem urgent if Nigeria is to become really independent in its cultural policies. Queen-Mother Idia, Oba Akenzua I, Oba Ewuakpe and the other icons that have been in forced Western detention for decades are highly unlikely to return if the current age-old quite diplomacy policy, suffering and smiling line, prevails.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, cannot deny to Nigerians what it has admitted, albeit reluctantly, to Italians, the right of owners to claim their looted cultural objects. The museum must finally admit that the Age of Restitution has arrived and attempts to put obstacles in way of claimants or to offer bogus arguments would, in the long run, not stop the movement of humanity towards more justice and equity. The museum could also follow the example of the Dallas Museum of Art which recently returned voluntarily to Turkey the Orpheus Mosaic that it acquired in 1999 after evidence was provided that the object had been looted from Turkey. (11)
An innocent African might be forgiven for thinking that a museum in a city that played a very prominent role in the American Revolution, a museum in a
country that always speaks loudly about human rights, would easily understand the need of Africans for their looted cultural artefacts. But Western museums are said to be offspring of the European Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment philosophers talked of human beings they did not include us Africans. It seems some museums have inherited the European philosophers’ racist attitude that Africans are not really part of humanity and that the Europeans and Americans have a right, indeed a duty, to determine the location and utilization of our human, natural and cultural resources. How otherwise can we explain that Westerners whose religions and morality condemn roundly the stealing of other people’s property can still in our days defend the indefensible keeping of looted artefacts? They do so without any shame and advance completely baseless arguments.
The people of Boston and indeed the whole Western world now know that Boston is keeping looted Nigerian artefacts in its Museum of Fine Arts and that the owners have been demanding their return without success. Will the venerable museum pay any attention to the recent unanimous resolution of the United Nations, A/Res/67/80 which was sponsored by a large number of Member States including the United States? (12) Will Bostonians and indeed US Americans be proud of such an institution that acts in violation of United Nations resolutions and UNESCO principles? Would they not demand from the museum management an explanation and possible correction of such a shameful situation?
Do the museum officials and their trustees believe in freedom to develop and practice freely one’s religion and culture? Are they not worried as a rich city, to be seen as robbing the poor of their cultural property? Those unwilling or unable to condemn the evil imperialist aggression and looting of the past are not very likely to condemn looting of the present. These are some of the issues that need to be discussed. If the museum retains the looted Benin artefacts, it will be acting against the will of the Benin people, the Oba and against the request of the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments, the organ charged with the preservation and conservation of Nigerian cultural objects.
Portuguese soldier, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America
Should the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, decide not to return the looted Benin artefacts and go on to organize its Benin exhibition without the people of Benin, without the Nigerians and against the will of Oba Erediauwa, the gread-grandson of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the British looted the artefacts, this will constitute a great insult to Nigerians and by implication, to all Africans. The damage done would be considerable. Future co-operation with the museum would be difficult for all African governments and museums. The African Council of Museums (AFRICOM) will no doubt have to take a stand on this matter as Nigeria is a member of the council. The Boston museum must ask itself what the purpose of the Benin exhibition will be. The African people will note how much or little respect American and Western institutions have for our freedoms of religion and culture. We would also know how to assess loud statements and claims about human rights.
R.H. Bacon, the Punitive Expedition’s Intelligence Officer wrote on the burning of the Benin Royal Palace:
“There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also
these seemed to a fate. Here was this head center
of iniqiuty, spared by us from its suitable end of
burning for the sake of holding the new seat of
justice where barbarism had held away, given into
our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into
every corner and …….. fire only could purge it, and
here on our lassa day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it.” (13):
K. Opoku, 1 January, 2013.
1. Extract from a letter by several members of the British House of Lords (1)
2. K. Opoku, “Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens: Looted Benin Artefacts
Donated to American Museum”,
3. Statement of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, reproduced in K.Opoku, ”Nigeria Reacts to Donation of Looted Benin Artefacts to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston”,
4. Tajudeen Sowole, “After Sotheby’s controversial sales, great-grandson of another beneficiary discloses over thirty of 1897 looted Benin art pieces,”
5. Ligali, “Boston Museum opens dialogue over looted Benin artefacts. “
6. Akenzua, Edun (2000). . Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March2000
7. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Statement of the Director General, titled, “Controversial Donation of Looted Benin Art”, reproduced in K. Opoku, Nigeria Reacts to Donation of Looted Benin Artefacts to Museum of Fine Arts,Boston”,
9 “MFA agrees to return disputed art to Italy”, www.boston.com
10. Chasing the Aphrodite,
11. Dallas Museum of Art returns to Turkey artefacts, ir acquired in 1999, Orpheus Mosaic, after evidence was provided that object was apparently looted from Turkey.
Museum returns stolen artefacts
12. See the latest General Assembly resolution, A/RES/67/80, titled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin, which was adopted unanimously on 12 December, 2012. The resolution had been co-sponsored by 98 Member States including Canada, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain, and the United States of America.
13. R. H. Bacon, Benin: City of Blood (pp. 107-108) cited by the great Ekpo Eyo, “Benin; The Sack that was”,
Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J A Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum
Source: Kwame Opoku, Dr.
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