Should Africa’s looted art be re­turned?


HEADS of Western Mu­se­ums are con­sid­er­ing how best to re­spond to the French pres­i­dent’s re­peated in­sis­tence to repa­tri­ate all works of art plun­dered from Africa dur­ing the colo­nial era.

Em­manuel Macron made the call again first in Novem­ber last year and then again last month and the head of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, Tris­tram Hunt, is scratch­ing his head, won­der­ing how to re­spond with­out ap­pear­ing to Africans and oth­ers as the keeper of stolen goods in the one­time citadel of im­pe­ri­al­ism — Lon­don.

In Novem­ber 2017, Macron said that he wanted to see Africa’s cul­tural trea­sures on show “in Dakar and La­gos”, not just in Paris. He said: “African her­itage can’t just be in Euro­pean pri­vate col­lec­tions and mu­se­ums.”

Re­cently, the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum opened a dis­play of royal and re­li­gious arte­facts that were looted by a Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tionary force af­ter the 1867-1868 Bat­tle of Mag­dala in the for­mer Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Hunt told The Times that a resti­tu­tion claim by the Ethiopi­ans was not be­ing “strongly pressed” and as­serted that the mu­seum is cur­rently con­duct­ing a re­view of its cat­a­logue en­tries to en­sure that the at times con­tentious his­tory of arte­facts is ref­er­enced.

“This is a step-by-step item-by-item,” he told the pa­per’s arts cor­re­spon­dent, David San­der­son. “To have a Macron-style ‘all­guilty’ ap­proach is a very re­duc­tive ap­proach be­cause you have to take into ac­count the his­tory of each item. And I would like to make the point that there is great strength in hav­ing a cos­mopoli­tan col­lec­tion, an ex­ten­sive en­cy­clo­pe­dic col­lec­tion.”

“The resti­tu­tion of arte­facts,” wrote San­der­son, “is com­pli­cated by con­cerns over whether in­sti­tu­tions in Africa are able to meet Western con­ser­va­tion stan­dards.”

The Bri­tish Mu­seum has been in the front-line of fire for sev­eral years be­cause of its pos­ses­sion of the El­gin Mar­bles and the Benin Bronzes, along with many other arte­facts that draw vis­i­tors to Lon­don from all over the world.

The Mu­seum’s di­rec­tor, Ger­man-born Hartwig Fisher, has re­jected de­mands for the re­turn of var­i­ous arte­facts, in par­tic­u­lar for the repa­tri­a­tion of the El­gin Mar­bles, ar­gu­ing that their pres­ence in Lon­don al­lows vis­i­tors to ex­plore other ob­jects made in dif­fer­ent parts of the world at a sim­i­lar time to con­sider what he called “the con­nec­tiv­ity of cul­ture”.

The most con­tro­ver­sial items looted from dif­fer­ent parts of the world and now held in the UK in­clude the Benin Bronzes, the El­gin Mar­bles dat­ing from the fifth cen­tury BC and “ac­quired” in the 19th cen­tury by Lord El­gin; Greece an­grily con­tin­ues to lobby for their re­turn. The Koh-i-noor dia- mond which is kept in the Tower of Lon­don which came into Queen Vic­to­ria’s pos­ses­sion af­ter the 19th cen­tury con­quest of the Pun­jab; In­dia, Pak­istan, Iran and Afghanistan have all claimed own­er­ship, and the Rosetta Stone in the Bri­tish Mu­seum. It was the key to hi­ero­glyph­ics. The stone was found by Napoleon’s army in the Nile Delta and ceded to Bri­tain un­der the Treaty of Alexan­dria in 1801.

In an episode of the new BBC Two tele­vi­sion series Civil­i­sa­tions, the Nige­ria-born his­to­rian David Ulu­sogu said that when Vic­to­ri­ans first saw the Benin Bronzes it turned their world up­side-down.

“They came to marvel at the art of an alien cul­ture pro­duced by sup­pos­edly sav­age peo­ple, he told view­ers.

“The very ex­is­tence of these works of art rep­re­sented a chal­lenge to the dom­i­nant ideas of the time. The pub­lic were fas­ci­nated and trou­bled by what they saw. What both­ered them was that this was the world of an African so­ci­ety and al­most every­one in the 19th cen­tury be­lieved that Africans lacked the tech­ni­cal skills to pro­duce great art and the cul­tural so­phis­ti­ca­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate it. It was, in fact, widely be­lieved that the peo­ple of the Dark Con­ti­nent had no his­tory and no cul­ture and were in­ca­pable to gen­er­at­ing this thing called civil­i­sa­tion.”

Ex­am­in­ing the West African trea­sures, he said: “They are loaded with a sense of loss be­cause they’re not in Nige­ria among the peo­ple whose an­ces­tors made them. They’re here in Lon­don in the Bri­tish Mu­seum.”

For how much longer, is the ques­tion.

• Trevor Grundy is a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist who lived and worked in cen­tral, eastern, south­ern and western Africa from 1966-1996.


The Benin Bronzes, housed in the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don, are a group of more than 1 000 metal plaques and sculp­tures that dec­o­rated the royal palace of the King­dom of Benin in now mod­ern-day Nige­ria.

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