Opinion › Feature Article     ›   22 Dec 2019

Mark Walker’s Second Attempt To Return Looted Benin Artefacts: Innovative Approach By Pitt Rivers Museum?

Dr. Walker returns Benin artefacts to Oba of Benin in 2014

'One of the most noble incarnations of a people's genius is its cultural heritage, built up over the centuries by the work of its architects, sculptors, painters, engravers, goldsmiths and all the creators of forms, who have contrived to give tangible expression to the many-sided beauty and uniqueness of that genius.

The vicissitudes of history have nevertheless robbed many peoples of a priceless portion of this inheritance in which their enduring identity finds its embodiment.

The men and women of these countries have the right to recover these cultural assets which are part of their being'.

M. M'Bow former Director-General, UNESCO, Paris A Plea for the Return of an Irreplaceable Cultural Heritage

We read in the British Guardian of 17 December,2019 an item entitled Soldier's grandson to return items he looted from Benin City which stated that Dr. Mark Walker, a grandson of one of the looters of 1897 invaders of Benin City, was going to return two paddles looted by his grandfather to Benin City. Dr. Walker has loaned the objects to Pitt Rivers Museum for display before they are sent to Benin City.

This information is in itself a reason for joy for those seeking the restitution of looted African artefacts back to Africa. Walker's decision comes after the decision of Jesus College, Cambridge to return Okukor, the Benin cockerel sculpture to Benin City and after the French had announced they would return in 2020 the 26 items looted by the French in 1892 from Dahomey to Benin Republic as promised by President Macron, following the recommendation of the Sarr-Savoy report. The news also comes after Manchester Museum had decided to return ceremonial items to Aboriginal peoples that were looted by British army hundred years ago.

Readers will no doubt recall that Mark Walker returned on 20 July 2014 looted Benin artefacts and was greeted with great joy by an enthusiastic crowd in Benin City for his noble gesture that was unique in the history of restitution of Benin artefacts.

Man With Conscience Returned His Grandfather's Looted Benin Bronzes https://www.modernghana.com/.../man-with-conscience-returned..

There are statements in the Guardian report that deserve comments in order to avoid misunderstandings and misleading impressions that may be created.

The report states that 'there are thousands scattered around the world with many remaining in Britain. To be accurate, the Benin artefacts are not scattered in the world but are mainly in Western Europe and America. There are practically none to be found in Africa except in Nigeria which has been claiming their return for a very long time with no success. The British Museum has between 300-900 Benin objects, the Ethnology Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin has 508-580, World Museum, Vienna has 200. So, the Benin objects are not scattered in the world but are concentrated in Western museums that refuse to return them. Moreover, the number looted by the British soldiers in 1897 was about 3500 to 4000 so there not thousands as stated in the report.

A professor of archaeology at Pitt Rivers Museum, a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, is quoted as saying the museum is pioneering a new model of restitution: “What we're learning is that restitution can take many forms,” he said. “This seems to be something completely new that we're doing, in that we are able to support the wishes of a private individual to restitute their own objects.”

This is certainly something new but is it an advance on existing restitution modes? Dr. Walker previously restituted Benin artefacts directly to the Oba in Benin City but now the artefacts are to be displayed by the Pitt-Rivers Museum for an unspecified period before they are returned, hopefully, to Benin City. The intervention of the museum in Dr. Walker's plans thus causes an unspecified delay in restituting the object. If this practice becomes normal, many restitutions would be delayed. Is this progress?

The exact role of the Pitt-Rivers Museum is not specified in detail. Is the museum financing the costs of transportation of the paddles? Is the museum trying to create the impression that it is supporting the restitution struggle when in fact, as a member of the Benin Dialogue Group it participated in the decision to remove restitution from the agenda of the group that is only willing to loan Benin artefacts to Nigeria. Thus, a museum that refuses to restitute any of its 327 or more looted Benin artefacts, is trying to appear as a facilitator of restitution. Why can the museum not return any of the undoubtedly looted artefacts? Is the necessity to show the Benin paddles to the British public that had opportunities to see several Benin artefacts more important that the desire of the Edo people to receive their artefacts that have been kept in Britain since that fateful and notorious invasion of 1897?

We have seen museums interposing themselves before restitution is made and this has never been in the interest of restitution but rather dictated by the voracious institution trying to make use of artefacts that escaped its clutches. Now that there are foundations offering to help efforts to restitute African artefacts, individuals wishing to return artefacts to their rightful owners might find it simpler to approach the rich foundations. Walker returning his great-grandfather's loot earned the admiration and gratitude of the Edo people and all African peoples for his courageous and honourable gesture.

The Guardian starts its own campaign, 'The Guardian has asked its readers to help it find other Benin bronzes and other items taken during the 1897 expedition. They can submit their tips by filling out an encrypted form .'

What is the Guardian trying to achieve? Working on the assumption by unspecified academics that there are thousands of Benin artefacts in private homes, the paper asks individuals to inform it of Benin artefacts they see in private homes and institutions: 'But academics estimate there are thousands scattered around the world, with many remaining in Britain after soldiers returned with them and either kept or sold them.

In a previous report(Guardian,28 November,2019, Help us locate Benin bronze statues in the UK )we read from the Guardian:' Objects in national collections including the British Museum and the V&A cannot be returned to their countries of origin because they are protected by the Heritage Act. However, little is known about how many Benin Bronzes are held in smaller institutions outside of the capital that are not covered by the legislation.

Academics believe that hundreds of items taken during the expedition are held in city museums, art galleries, universities and in private collections all over the UK.

We'd like to start locating these objects, and mapping their journeys to Britain – and we need your help.

Share your stories

Do you know of an organisation which holds Benin bronzes? If so, we'd like you to tell us where you've seen the artefact, what it is and what you know about its history.

To contribute, fill out the encrypted form below – only the Guardian will see your responses. You can also get in touch via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Leave contact details if you can as one of our journalists may be in touch to discuss further.'

This procedure by the Guardian is strange.

First of all, there are not thousands of Benin artefacts lying around in British homes and institutions. Those who have spent considerable time on the Benin artefacts, including the Benin Royals, go on the assumption that in 1897 the British army looted 3500 to 4000 objects. There are thus not thousand objects lying in private homes and institution, especially, if we consider that a sizeable amount of the loot is in British Museum,London,700-900, Museum of Ethnology, Dresden, 200, Ethnology Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin, 502-580, Ethnology Museum, Leiden,200, World Museum, Vienna, 200, and in the United States, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 163,and in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania 100. Incidentally, most Western museums refuse to tell the public the exact number of looted Benin artefacts they are holding.

The Guardian and the archaeology professor from the Pitt Rivers museum seem to be turning the light on private homes and institutions and diverting attention from the big museums. Saying the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are prevented by law from returning looted objects is only half the story. Laws are made by human beings. A bland statement that the museums are prevented by law from returning looted artefacts may not be a contribution. It is a crying shame that throughout the Western world many looted/stolen treasures are deemed to be protected by laws and no thought is given to changing an untenable situation. There has been enough time for those institutions to propose to the British legislator changes in the corresponding laws to permit restitution of looted African artefacts. This exception has been made for objects belonging to victims of Nazi despoliations. Why can that not be done also for Africans? The hint of racism here cannot be discounted. The French are proposing changes to this legal situation. What about Britain, Germany, Holland and the rest of Western States?

I hold no brief for private homes and institutions but all those who have dealt with restitutions, including the recent Sarr-Savoy report, start from the assumption that we should first deal with public institutions and museums before we turn attention to private individuals and institutions. They have most of the looted artefacts.

More important, the nature of restitution, as opposed to mere return, demands dealing with public institutions first. After all, most of the looting occurred through State officials, State army, or people engaged by the State, in the course of attacking or conquering the foreign State. This was the case in Benin in 1897. This despoliation was to humiliate the defeated State that submitted later to foreign domination. Restitution is an acknowledgement that the seizure was not right, and it is time to make amends and to seek to build better relations between the conqueror and the defeated. The restitution of the looted objects would symbolize the desire for new and better relations between the States. Hence, the Sarr-Savoy report used as subtitle, Toward New Relational Ethics, thus underlying that restitution is a relation between two States and not a simple matter of chattel transfer. Thus, even if many looted objects in private possession were transferred to the State reclaiming them, this would not be sufficient. There still has to be an acknowledgement from the former conquering State. In the case of African States and Europe, this gesture is absolutely vital in view of the complex relations between Europeans and Africans.

Resistance to restitution and the subterfuges employed only indicate the unwillingness or inability of some Europeans to recognize that those relations are more profound than simple transfer or return of objects. Questions of honour, dignity and respect are here of primary importance. Those ignorant of colonial domination and its effects on Africans and Europeans do not appreciate this aspect. Mercantile calculations and use of artefacts to attract tourists do not help the understanding of the issues involved.

I also find it strange and, in a way, totalitarian for a leading British newspaper to seek to turn visitors of museums and cultural institutions into spies and detectives. Instead of enjoying their visits to museums and private homes, they will be searching for information on looted Benin artefacts. This method is reminiscent of dictatorial regimes and undermines individual freedoms and ultimately, the rule of law. We will soon have in Britain a whole group of individuals used to spying on private houses. Should we be surprised if later on a government asks individuals to seek information on non-British subjects that are being lodged at private homes without the required residence permits? Would the Guardian also launch similar projects for Asante, Baule, Dogon, Fang, Fanti, Ife, Igbo-Ukwe, Luba, Lobi, Nok, Owo, Senufo, Songye, Tsoede, and Yelwa treasures that have also been looted? There is no limit to the number of African art treasures that have been stolen/looted and are in European museums, private institutions and homes. Much as we are for restitution of most of these objects, we do not approve of the use of methods that are questionable or illegal.

Will the museums, abandoning all manoeuvres, strategies, sophistries and subtleties, finally return some of the hundreds of looted/stolen African artefacts they have been hoarding for hundred years? The 21st century would not have had to deal with this problem if the museums had given up their arrogant and supercilious attitude towards the African owners when dealing with looted/stolen objects of other peoples defeated by force of arms in the colonial and imperialist age. Trustees and museum employees must acknowledge that they are dealing with looted/stolen treasures of other peoples who have been requesting their return.

Attempts to avoid dealing directly with the issue of restitution of looted African artefacts will only lead to complicated situations that undermine moral values and, in the end, only cause delays in what is inevitable: admission that in our modern world Europe can no longer hijack the cultural artefacts of the African peoples whilst continuing to claim to be champion of cultural freedom and democracy.

“There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also these seemed to a fate. Here was this head centre of iniquity, spared by us from its suitable end of burning for the sake of holding the new seat of justice where barbarism had held away, given into our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into every corner and relic; fire only could purge it, and here on our last day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it.” R. Bacon, Benin the City of Blood, (1897) p.31

Kwame Opoku.

Disclaimer: "The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect ModernGhana official position. ModernGhana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements in the contributions or columns here."

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