The British Museum in London is known for its wealth of ancient treasures from the world’s civilisations. Go there and you’ll find inspiration, feel the vertigo of history and usually feel of a human connection with someone from another time and another place who saw beauty or meaning and paid tribute to it.
However this institution is not without controversy. The most famous case is that of the Elgin Marbles. Ownership of these ancient Greek sculptures is hotly contested, with the British claiming that paperwork was carried out that justifies their holding on to them, but the Greek saying that they were obtained illegally and must be returned.
The Elgin Marbles are not the only marvels held in the British Museum. So too are many of the spellbinding Benin bronze plaques, which are almost 500 years old. In 1897, the British launched a punitive epedition to the venerable Benin City, heart of an old kingdom headed by Oba (King) Ovonramwen. Troops sacked his palace, stole the bronze plaques that detailed the history and customs of the kingdom and exiled him – turning the kingdom into part of modern-day Nigeria.
The British Museum has a formidable number of these and says itself: “There are over 900 plaques of this type in various museums in England, Europe and America. They are thought to have been made in matching pairs and fixed to pillars in the Oba’s palace in Benin City.”
In the late 1990s, firebrand UK politician Bernie Grant campaigned to get Glasgow to return the Benin bronzes in its possession. He said at the time: “These belong to a living culture and have a deep historic and social value which goes far beyond the aesthetic and monetary value which they hold in exile.”
Cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford, who also presented the BBC’s series Lost Kingdoms of Africa, points out that the British Museum has so many Benin bronzes that it has actually in the last century been selling them off. “That kind of thing makes one feel uneasy.” In fact, if you search the British Museum database for items from Benin City, there are over one thousand results. There is even a schools resource that shows the British with their loot and identifies which objects are now in the British Museum.
It’s not just the British. Think of any major Western museum with an African art collection and it will almost always hold cultural objects of dubious provenance, or that are known to have been secured through looting or theft. Paris’s renowned Quai Branly museum, for example, has a number of Nigerian Nok terracotta heads with unclear provenance, and Dutch and Belgian collections tend to be rich in colonial loot.Any one of those institutions has more than all the museums across sub-Saharan Africa combined
Says Casely-Hayford: “If you look at a collection, whether Quai Branly or whether it’s the British Museum or whether it’s the Smithsonian, any single one of those institutions has more in terms of significant objects than the whole of the collection of museums across sub-Saharan Africa combined – any single one of them. These are museums with hundreds of thousands of objects, with multiple versions of objects.”
The International Council of Museums has in the past published a red watchlist of African archaeological items likely to be looted. The list hasn’t been updated recently, but most of the items on it are reflected in foreign museum collections – from Nok terracotta heads to Esie soapstone statues.
The emphasis is very much on West African items, but the theft of cultural objects has taken place in other areas too. For example, in Kenya, carved totems (vigango) became popular, and it’s hard to work out which were genuinely sold, and which were just taken from the communities they belonged to.
Bizarrely, US actor Gene Hackman became a major collector of these vigango, and gifted many to museum collections. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, one of the recipients of these totems, decided last year to return them to Kenya.
Said the museum’s curator of anthropology Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh at the time: “There is no legal instrument or international treaty that requires us to return them. This is not about the law; it’s about ethics… these objects are communally owned and deeply sacred to the Mijikenda community of Kenya.
“We want to signal to other museums that that these are sacred objects and must not be treated as an ordinary vase or carpet.”
Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently returned a number of items to Nigeria, and another story of return is that of Dr Adrian Walker, a retired British doctor. He inherited artefacts from his grandfather that were clearly from the looting of Benin City. In fact his grandfather had even described how a fellow officer was “wandering round with chisel & hammer, knocking off brass figures”. In the end Dr Walker came to an arrangement with the Oba’s descendants to bring them home, which he did last year.
Prince Edun Akenzua, the younger brother of the Oba to whom the items were returned, has been lobbying for the return of the other stolen items to their home.
“The English returned the Stone of Scone to Scotland some years ago. So why can’t they return our things? They mean so much to us but they mean nothing to the British.”
To those arguing that this would put them in danger, the Prince responded: “It’s a bit like if someone were to steal my car in Benin City, and I found it in Lagos and could prove that it was mine. And the thief told me, ‘OK, you can have your car back if you can convince me that you’ve built an electronically controlled garage to keep the car. Until you do that, I will not return it to you.’”
Casely-Hayford says that religious items from Ethiopia are also being held: “There are certain sorts of religious artefacts, from places like Ethiopia, that are particularly valuable and cannot be displayed. One wonders why an institution like the British Museum would continue to keep those objects. I know there’s been a discussion with the Ethiopian government about the way in which they are held but they should be being bolder, they should be thinking if they can’t be displayed, out of respect then why not return them?”
Worryingly, some looting is thought to still take place in Africa, although nowadays official museums and institutions should not be naïve to the origins of new items that they acquire.
Academic Meg Lambert, who works on the Trafficking Culture project, which describes its mission as “researching the global traffic in looted cultural objects”, specialises in West African artefacts. She says that efforts to stop present-day looting of African cultural objects are still sometimes frustrated by realities on the ground. For example, a bilateral agreement between Mali and the US, which effectively prevented the import of illicit Malian archaeological objects into the States following on from widespread looting in the 1970s, was rendered ineffective by recent political unrest.
Meanwhile, she says that objects still aren’t safe in Nigeria. “While Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has been very outspoken about requesting the restitution of objects from European and US institutions, political corruption and disorganisation means that Nigeria’s museums and cultural institutions are incredibly underfunded and ill-equipped to prevent looting.”
It’s a minefield, but on the other side, should institutions such as the British Museum and Quai Branly and the Smithsonian choose to go in the right direction, is a valuable goal – restitution. If these artefacts came home and could be seen and appreciated by the descendants of the people who made them, some belated justice would be achieved.
Much damage has been done, and so it is crucial to showcase the deep and complex heritage of Africa’s peoples; when much of the colonial mission was to tell them that they had none.
Says Lambert: “Prior to the early 20th century, African cultural objects were collected by European colonists as scientific or cultural curiosities. Anthropological theories of the time followed the model of unilineal evolution, which purports that all cultures ‘progress’ at different rates but follow the same evolutionary process from primitive to civilised. Thus, European anthropologists viewed the peoples of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas as ‘primitive’ populations and believed it possible to investigate peculiarities of human evolution as they occurred in those populations. As part of scholarly or military expeditions, colonists would acquire cultural objects for national museums or university collections.
“With European fine art considered to be the height of civilisation, most African objects were seen as too rudimentary or grotesque to be considered aesthetically advanced or pleasing.”
There were some exceptions to this. “After the British invaded and sacked Benin City in 1897, the Benin bronze panels from the royal palace were considered to be so finely crafted that it was not possible for them to have been created by the Edo people. Scholars initially believed them to have been influenced by the Portuguese traders who frequented the West African coast in the 15th and 16th centuries.”
In fact they were the work of a sophisticated society with, amongst other things, highly developed artistic skills and technical expertise.
Says Lambert: “It’s crucial that object histories are transparently and honestly acknowledged. Tragically, so much of our understanding of non-Western peoples and histories are the direct result of the exploitation and subjugation of those people.”
The power dynamic between Western and African countries doesn’t help, Casely-Hayford says. “I think the Nigerian and the Ghanaian and the Ethiopian governments try to keep the channels open, but to have a conversation it needs to be two-way, and because there is such inequality of power and finances in these situations it’s very difficult for African nations to put Europe or North America under any real pressure.
“There have to be bigger incentives and I suppose that comes from the population of the wealthier countries saying ‘Look, this is not tolerable, this is an area of history that we need to address’. If you think about it, for most people of African descent, so much of their history is connected to different episodes of exploitation, whether it was slavery or colonialism or what happened after colonialism. These objects are a perfect material encapsulation of that.
“I think it would be really good if we look again at how we deal with these things and how to open up really rigorous dialogue, a dialogue which is open to everyone to be a part of, because I think it will be very cathartic for people.
“It may be through culture that we can begin to build some of bridges and repair the damage that we’ve done over centuries.”