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).