On this day of first October, 2012, anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, I am reading an article by Tajudeen Sowole, in The Guardian titled “Ahead of 2013 show of looted Benin artefacts, US museum plots legitimacy”. (1) I could not help feeling sad and angry that after some 52 years of independence that great African country is being treated with such contempt and disrespect by Western museums in the question of restitution of looted Nigerian artefacts. What is even more depressing is to recognize that the same baseless arguments that have been demolished several times are still being presented by Western museum directors.
As we have often written, if such arguments were presented by a university student he or she would be thrown out of the class for lack of seriousness. And yet they are being presented by products of the fine universities of the West - Berlin, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, London, Oxford, Paris, and Yale. It seems contempt for Africans enables these museum directors to put forward contemptible arguments without shame. How can the director of the Boston Museum advance the number of visitors to his museum as answer to Nigeria’s request for restitution?
“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.”
Confronted with overall criticism of its acquisition of looted Benin artefacts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is seeking to create for its controversial acquisition a semblance of legitimacy. (3) This may satisfy some but the critical and careful observers will not be convinced by the method apparently chosen so far.
What the museum has done is to inform the Benin Royal Family about the acquisition of the controversial donation. (4) We do not know whether this information was sent before or after the acquisition of the looted objects. The impression created by this act could induce some to think that the Benin Royal Family has agreed to the museum acquiring those objects or somehow has acquiesced in their acquisition. Although the Royal Family acknowledges the receipt of the letter of information from the museum, there is no written response from Benin City. This leaves room for speculation and interpretation of the position of the Benin Monarchy on this particular matter. It is true though that the Royal Family has stated on several occasions that the Benin artefacts that were looted with violence in the 1897 invasion by the British must be returned. (5) But in such a concrete situation one could be entitled to think there would be a specific answer to the museum. By not answering the letter from the museum, the general demands previously made by the Royal Family will be considerably weakened.
Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA
Fallacy of quiet diplomacy
We have not seen the letter from the Boston Museum to the Benin Monarchy. It would appear however that the museum may have asked for the cooperation of the Monarchy in the proposed 2013 exhibition in Boston on Benin Art. This co-operation may perhaps include lending of other Benin artefacts as well as the physical participation of a Benin delegation in the exhibition. Some Benin scholars may even have been asked to give lectures on aspects of Benin art. The Boston museum surely has studied the procedures and practices of the other “universal museums” in organizing the exhibitions, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. and Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa,
We have no information whether the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has also been invited to participate. However, we can take for granted that the Commission was approached before contacts were established between Benin City and Boston. The NCMM would
in all probability have been asked to collaborate in the preparation of the exhibition and even requested to lend some of the Benin artefacts under its control; its presence at the opening of the exhibition and preparation of lectures on Benin art may also have been requested following the pattern of recent exhibitions of the NCMM with Western museums that refuse to return looted Nigerian artefacts. (7)
The NCMM has recently issued a series of statements demanding the return of looted Nigerian artefacts. This seems to indicate a change in its policy regarding restitution of looted artefacts in the western museums. (8) These have been general statements of policy but the demand directed at the Boston museum has been negatively answered. (9). The Boston museum refers in its response to the large number of visitors to the museum who would be able to appreciate Benin artefacts in a hall to be devoted wholly to Benin art.
The impact of the various statements by the NCMM for the restitution of the looted objects has been relativised by other declarations by the commission on its intention to pursue the previous policy of “quiet diplomacy”
and “diplomatic dialogue”
“In the mean time, the Commission is pursuing restitution and return, has adopted approaches that are firmly anchored within the framework of the foreign policy direction of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is principally dialogue rather than undue combativeness…. We indeed believe that dialogue is more productive than confrontation. This however must not be misunderstood as weakness on our part.”
This policy of quiet diplomacy which Nigeria has pursued since independence (1960) has not resulted in the restitution of noteworthy artefacts. The attempt to list the success story of quiet diplomacy is exhausted after a few items many of which have been returned as result of police/custom disruption of transport of looted artefacts and not as a result of negotiations on restitution.
“Nigeria’s effort at restitution was recently rewarded when Terra-cotta effigies of more than a thousand years old were returned from Canada on the 24th of February, 2009. Before this, the L’Office central de repression du vol des oeuvres et des objets d’art (O.C.R.V.O.O.A.) had also returned three Ife bronze heads stolen and found in France. Benin bronze artefacts sold to Galerie Walu in Zurich were also returned to Nigeria.
In September this year, the Commission shall be receiving from the Embassy of France five Nok Sculptures which were intercepted in August 2010 by the French Customs from shipments originating from Togo.”
No doubt the returns of artefacts seized by US Customs or the French police to Nigeria are important contributions to the fight against the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and must be recognized and encouraged but this is not restitution. By restitution of artefacts, we understand a situation where a museum or other institution or individual is in possession of a cultural artefact and decides to return it. An example would be if the British Museum decided to return some of the Benin bronzes it has been illegally holding for more than a century now. A return from Britain of looted objects seized from an aircraft or ship on its way to Britain would no doubt be a significant return but not restitution as we use the term in discussions on restitution of cultural artefacts to their countries of origin. In this sense, there has been no restitution from Western museums or individuals to Nigeria since independence. We would be rejoicing in restitution when the British Museum returns an artefact such as the ivory hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia or the Ethnology Museum, Berlin sends back the sculpture of Oba Akenzua I or the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, returns some of the many Benin commemorative heads it holds which cannot be visited because the African Section of the museum has been under renovation for the last 10 years.
It is noteworthy that none of the objects said to have been returned has a noteworthy or easily recognizable name or description even among scholars.
No icon of Nigerian art appears to have been returned in the last 52 years. (12)
The Director of NCMM is quoted as saying, “If dialogue fails, we have other options.”
(13) Many people believe that the Nigerian policy of dialogue has failed since independence. How long must we wait to determine the failure of a policy whose results have not been impressive?
Egypt has recovered some 5000 artefacts in recent years (14), Italy has also recovered hundreds of artefacts from American institutions (15) and Turkey has recovered several artefacts; Museum of Fine arts, Boston, has returned the upper half of the “Weary Herakles to Turkey and so has the Pergamon Museum, Berlin returned the Hattusas Sphinx.. Turkey is on its way to recover more. (16)
The NCMM has ruled out for Nigeria the Turkish approach of direct confrontation with holders of looted artefacts. (17) What is not clear is whether Nigeria now has a new policy with old practices, an old policy with new practice or a new policy with new practice with regard to restitution of looted artefacts
One consequences of the policy of quiet diplomacy, perhaps unintended but inevitable, is the lack of knowledge and information about Nigeria’s case for restitution, even within the country, and definitely abroad, in particular, in circles where issues of restitution are often discussed. The claims of Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Peru and others are fairly well-known and publicised but as regards Nigeria, many are surprised to hear there are any claims for restitution. Even about the Benin Bronzes, until very recently, many Westerners assumed that the matter had been settled long ago.
Of course, if we do not talk about an issue, for fear of appearing “confrontational” or “aggressive” in our demands, nobody will hear about the issues. Many know about Egypt’s demands because Zahi Hawass never let an occasion pass without raising the question nor was he worried about appearing “confrontational”. (18) Italy sought maximum publicity for its claims just as Turkey is now doing. A clear list of demands has been sent by Turkey to the Western museums specifically so that each is fully aware of what is expected from it.(19) Where is Nigeria’s list of claims which has been mentioned but not provided to the public?
It is difficult to understand why Nigeria should pursue quiet diplomacy when those with whom discussions and negotiations are to be held are not so quiet. Whilst European and American museum directors proclaim from rooftops their determination not to return our looted artefacts, our representatives are whispering from the living room their aspirations and hope that one day the West will return our artefacts.
The director of the British Museum and the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, now President of the Getty Foundation have spent the last few years in vigorous campaign, defending the right of Western museum to hold on to looted artefacts from Nigeria and other countries. They have used every media to strengthen their case. (20) Quiet diplomacy has remained quiet and offered no vigorous response.
What did this policy of dialogue bring Nigeria? According to the Director-General of the NCMM,
“Efforts at dialoguing have brought about recent interface with most of the major museums in Europe. The Commission instigated discussions on modalities of returning Benin objects to Nigeria. This has resulted in the meeting of the major museums in Europe and the Commission in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany in 2010 and 2011 respectively. A third meeting is scheduled for Benin City before the end of this year. The heads of these European museums have signified their intention to attend this meeting. It will be recalled that Nigeria was one of the strong voices in the Egyptian Conference of 2010 where return of the pieces of each countries priceless antiquities were demanded to be returned to their countries of origin.”
The major museums gathered together in 2002 and signed the infamous Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museum by which they clearly declared their intention not to return the looted/stolen artefacts of others that have been kept for long in museums like the British Museum, Louvre, Ethnology Museum Vienna, Boston Museum of Fine Art etc They tried to provide themselves immunity against claims from Nigeria and other countries that have looted for artefacts. As far as I know, no African country issued a riposte; Nigeria kept quiet in accordance with the policy of quiet diplomacy. (22)
Nigeria’s quiet diplomacy then has not been a tremendous success despite attempts to present this policy as the best and fruitful. Nor has Nigeria’s collaboration with Western museums in organizing successful international exhibitions resulted in a single restitution of a significant artefact. What does the country gain in cooperation with museums that are still refusing to return looted Nigeria artefacts?
It appears that capacity-building and training possibilities for museum officials are what Nigeria is supposed to receive in turn. We have stated elsewhere our view that training courses and capacity-building measures are no substitute for the return of the precious artefacts illegally held in Western museums. They do not justify collaboration without obvious reciprocal benefits. (23)
Reflecting on the collaboration between Nigerian authorities and Western museums, including his own museum, Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, which staged an exhibition on Benin art, Whose Objects? Wilhelm Östberg, then director of the museum, stated as follows;
“There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that the different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation. It seems that Nigeria is chary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition 2010, without demanding reciprocity?”
Some persons might be in a better position to explain to the Nigerian public the “many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects”
that is so important “that might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections”
. Or was the Swedish museum director talking nonsense?
In view of all that has been said above, and with particular reference to the proposed 2013 exhibition in Boston of looted Benin artefacts, what is to be done? The following propositions are submitted for the consideration of the Nigerian authorities:
BENIN ROYAL FAMILY
1. The Benin Royal Family should respond without further delay to the letter from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston informing it about the acquisition of the looted Benin bronzes.
2. The Boston museum should be informed in unmistakable language that the Royal Family does not wish to participate in any form in the proposed exhibition of 2013 unless there is a preliminary negotiation on the return of the artefacts looted in the violent aggression against Benin in 1897 by the British.
3. There can be no question of loan of Benin artefacts from the Royal Family to complement the looted objects.
4. The great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of Oba Ovoramwen have a filial duty to preserve his honour that was brutally violated by the British in the 1897 destruction of the glorious Benin Kingdom.
NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR MUSEUMS AND MONUMENTS
1. The NCMM should inform the Museum of Fine Arts,Boston, and all concerned that following its new policy on matters of restitution, the Commission would not be able to participate in the proposed 2013 exhibition on Benin art unless there is a preliminary negotiation of the restitution of the looted Benin artefacts.
2. In view of the foregoing, the Commission is not in a position to lend further Benin artefacts.
3. For the reasons given above, the Commission would not be able to provide any lectures on Benin art or participate in the opening of the exhibition.
It seems to us it is time to demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that Nigeria is serious about collecting its looted artefacts that now adorn foreign museums and that the game of offering unsustainable arguments when the issue of restitution is raised, is over.
The caveat that has been used in the participation of the Benin Royal Family
in exhibitions - that its participation does not imply the approval or acquiescence in the brutal invasion of 1897 e.g. Benin Ritual and Kings
and the Stockholm exhibition Whose Objects?
- may serve its purpose once or twice. Used too often, it becomes a standard formal contractual clause that loses its efficacy and credibility.
These minimum suggestions are based on the requirements of self-respect and dignity which should set limitations and standards in these matters.
One of a pair of leopard figures, now in the Royal Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force sent a pair to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City.
Click here to speak out
and share your perspective on this article.