Boston Museum opens dialogue over looted Benin artefacts

By Toyin Agbetu | Wed 18 July 2012

Malcolm Rogers, director of Museum of Fine Arts Boston explains why he wrote to the Oba of Benin regarding the looted Benin Kingdom bronzes and ivories.

When the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston received a major collection of West African art from New York collector Robert Lehman there was a major ripple felt across the Pan African world.

Lehman, whose great-grandfather founded the defunct investment firm Lehman Bros had in his private collection at least 34 pieces of rare bronze artefacts that were looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in what is referred to as the Punitive Expedition of 1897.

That Lehman did not contact or seek to return the artefacts to its the rightful owners is one issue of moral contention, instead he ‘gifted’ it to a museum that amongst its aims is the desire to be regarded an encyclopedic museum providing broad access to its collections in order to encourage discussions about the historical past.

The Ligali organisation was one of many interested African parties that challenged the new recipients of these sacred works and in a letter to museum director, Malcolm Rogers suggested;

“Considering the violent, unauthorised and murderous circumstances that led to the theft of this property it would be ludicrous to suggest that they legitimately belong to anyone other than the people from who they were stolen. It is thus our position that the legal ownership of this property, therefore, resides with African people. It is in this context that we seek the repatriation of these objects for the benefit of the socio-cultural enrichment of African people many who are also direct descendents of the possessions creators.”

In a response to the initial query Rogers responded;

“This important gift affords the unique possibility of sharing these extraordinary works of arts, previously in a private collection, with as many people as possible; over a million visitors of diverse backgrounds come to the MFA each year from around the globe. The gallery in which the collection is to be installed will discuss not only the history of the objects individually, but also the history and culture of the Benin Kingdom. The Museum's website will be equally thorough in its presentation of the material.

It is my hope that this gift will inaugurate a fruitful dialogue with our colleagues both locally and abroad, and will further opportunities for cultural exchange. To that end, I wrote earlier this year to His Majesty Omo N'Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba of Benin, to inform him of the gift, with the goal of cultivating a productive relationship with the court.”

Since then Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja (NCMM) has published a formal request for the repatriation of the Benin Kingdom bronzes and ivories that were gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).

Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director General of NCMM (left), Alhaji Muktar Sanni Abdulkadir, Director of Culture (right) in Abuja

Ignorance and Cultural relativism

Today media institutions like the Wall street journal disrespect the heritage and importance of these artefacts with crass captions on their website like “Don't try this at home: The oba [note use of lower case] who rocked this coral-bead collar in late 16th-century Benin likely had years of practice.”

The gross lack of dignity demonstrated towards the Benin art continues with another caption that even reasserts the racist claim that African people in the15th-century were incapable of smelting metal despite institutions like the Pitt Rivers museum revealing that the this technique alongside lost wax casting (or cire perdue) “was being practised by West African brass sculptors for several centuries before the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers in the late fifteenth century.”

As a result the Ligali organisation is calling upon the MFA to follow the advice of Dr Kwame Opoku, an expert in the field of repatriation of African artefacts who has suggested that a process based on co-operation with the NCMM be established. Toyin Agbetu has also suggested that it may be useful for MFA staff to obtain and study a copy of the Routledge publication, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (ISBN: 9780415885041) in order to obtain a holistic view on how to respectfully approach the topic of curating items that reflect great art but simultaneously contentious areas of history. A practice successfully demonstrated by the publication of Africa in the world: past and present : a museum history by curator Ben Burt of the British Museum.

Some of the priceless artefacts in question were illicitly trafficked for as little as £18 by european criminals and British museums who had little regard of their true worth before passing them into the possession of the Lehman’s through inheritance.

Commemorative Head: 1897, Stolen from Benin by Cpt Guy Burrows; 2 May 1898, trafficked by Norman Burrows, for £18 to Lt.-Gen Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers, England; kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, and trafficked upon collection dispersal.

External Links
NCMM stresses the importance of cultural heritage in national development
Pitt Rivers Museum - African Metalworking
Wall Street Journal - Rare West African Sculptures Gifted to Boston Museum

Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites

Speak Out!

Click here to speak out or read (1) comments about this article
In order for any museum to achieve the highest ethical and professional standards there must be no legitimate claims or concerns about its ability to hold or accurately and sensitively curate important cultural artifacts even if for a temporary period.

Toyin Agbetu, Ligali Orgnisation

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