It does not matter (although many museums pretend it does) that the first of several Hague conventions was not promulgated until 1899: the rule against pillaging and looting of cultural property has been part of customary war law for centuries. Today, these 'punishments raids' would be classified as crimes against humanity as well as war crimes, and the moral objection to museums continuing to profit from displaying their spoils is compelling - and has compelled President Macron in France to order their return. There should be real shame attached to their permanent exhibition in museums of nations – Britain, Germany, and Belgium in particular - that so barbarically acquired them.'
Geoffrey Robertson, Who owns history? (1)
Readers will recall that we have often referred to the Guidelines of the Arts Council England (ACE) on restitution in the past two years and wondered when those guidelines would be published. (2) In 2020, the ACE announced that it was seeking to award a contract to prepare such guidelines that would assist English museums in handling requests for restitution. Such a new publication had become necessary after the Sarr and Savoy Report (3) and the issuance by Germany of the Guidelines on the Handling of Collections Acquired in Colonial Contexts. (4) The dictatorial attitude of the Johnson Government insisted that British scholars interpret favourably British colonial history and that museums should not return objects but retain and explain them had inhibited publication of the new guidelines. This was the period when under the impulse of the Black Lives Matter movement, statues of colonialists and slave traders were being removed in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. (5) Governmental interference had complicated the task of those preparing the guidelines. With the removal of the Johnson government, the ACE issued a new publication on August 5, 2022, entitled Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England. (6)
The ACE guide confirms our belief that restitution is a political act with legal implications. Hence, guidelines that are not legally binding nor have solid political support cannot solve restitution issues.
The Guide makes it clear that each museum is governed by its law. There is no attempt here to impose on museums general applicable rules and that the guidelines do not affect the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection.: Some museums, including national museums in England, are bound by legislation that describes the limited circumstances in which they are able to deaccession objects from their collections. This means that some of the processes outlined in this guidance might not apply to them. (7)
One statement in the new publication surprised me: While this guidance is aimed at English museums, the principles behind it may be applicable for museums across the UK and internationally. (8) I did not see references to any non-British publications throughout the thirty-one pages of the ACE guidelines. The report does not mention German guidelines nor the recent publications of the Dutch or the Belgians in this area. The Sarr-Savoy report does not even get a mention. The initial contract for the publication had expressly referred to recent endeavours by the European States. Do those who published these new guidelines expect the French, Germans, Belgians, and Dutch to refer to this new publication when indeed, all these European States have produced better guidelines that address relevant issues of restitution and grounded their work on more profound and explicit examination of the phenomena of colonialism?
Restitution is the anatomy of colonialism and racism in the colonial empire. Avoiding a thorough study of colonialism can only result in superficial and irrelevant occupation with restitution that amounts, in many ways, to a determined resistance to the recent wave of restitutions.
The publication of new rules of procedure, as has been done by many British museums and institutions recently, often acts as a delaying factor to the restitution process. New rules give the impression that if restitution has not taken place, it is due to lack of appropriate rules and that the new provisions will hasten the process.
This is not true. Lack of political will has been the leading cause for non-restitution.
New rules also create breathing space for reluctant illegal holders as far as they add to the impression that the problem has just arisen and do not refer to the long history of demands. Indeed, the standard argument has often been that there has been no demand. Nigeria has often had to renew its requests for restitution which are repeatedly directly denied by the illegal holders in Britain. Even though the late Prince Edun Akenzua, brother of the late Oba Erediauwu and uncle of the present Oba Ewuare II, delivered a petition to the British Parliament in March 2002, known as the Case for Benin, Appendix 21. The British Museum and other museums in Britain ignored this request and insisted had been no demand by Nigeria for the Benin artifacts. Nigeria had to send another request to the British Museum in October 2021, which has not yet been answered. (9)
The ACE has no excuse for not producing guidelines that would advance the cause of African restitution. This publication comes after:
- the Sarr-Savoy report,
- German, Dutch, and Belgian studies,
- German decision to restitute 1130 Benin artifacts to Nigeria,
- Jesus College, Cambridge, and Aberdeen restitution of Benin artifacts to Nigeria,
- the adoption of a policy of ethical restitution by the Smithsonian, which has also decided to return 39 Benin artifacts to Nigeria,
- decision by Horniman Museum to return 92 Benin artifacts to Nigeria,
- the restitution of two Benin artifacts to Nigeria by the Metropolitan Museum, New York,
- promises by several American museums to consider restitution of Benin artifacts to Nigeria,
- a call by the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum for change in legislation to enable restitution,
- a declared support for restitution by the London Times,
- a call by Neil McGregor to the Western museums and Western legislators to abandon resistance to restitution,
- Return of Icons, AFFORD,
- Black Lives Matter demonstrations,
- establishment of a British All-Party Parliamentary Group on African Reparations- African Restitution in the British Parliament.
The ACE guidelines appeal to the sentiments of museum officials 'to take proactive action in a spirit of transparency, collaboration, and fairness.'
Receiving a claim for restitution or repatriation can therefore be seen as an opportunity to learn and reflect, and to connect with people and the collection in new ways. Generally, the experience need not be defensive and adversarial, but can be collaborative and enriching.
It is important to be alert to the possible sensitivities of claimants, and to the deep sense of hurt and alienation which some of them may feel. It is also worth remembering that the cost to a claimant of bringing a claim – both financially and emotionally – can often be very significant. (10)
These are noble intentions, but where are the concrete examples of the violent colonial robbery that led to thousands of African artefacts being stolen and kept in Western museums for over a hundred years? Where is the examination of African demands that clearly show the injustice of Western oppression and make immediate restitution a moral imperative of our times? Where is the argument that would convince museum officials that the resistance to restitution is a lost cause and does not reflect any sense of justice in our time?
Many provisions in the new publication seem to reflect the minds of persons who have not really understood or accepted the call for changes in our times. For example, the provisions under the heading Stage 3-Assessing the claim. One of the ethical factors that should help the museum in making an ethical assessment of the claim for restitution comes under the heading The significance of the object to the claimant
The significance of the object to the claimant It is recognised throughout the museum sector today that cultural objects of great significance to a country or community of origin, or to a past owner, can retain an important connection to that country, community or person long after their removal. How this relates to the core qualities: • transparency – being honest and sensitive about an object’s origins and how these can relate to people today • collaboration – working with countries and communities of origin, and past owners • fairness – treating the sensitivities of such parties with respect
Questions to consider: • Why and how is the object important to the claimant? • Does the claimant want to use or incorporate the object within his/her/its community’s current customs or practices? • What is the genealogical, cultural, spiritual or religious link between the claimant and the object’s original creator or past owner? (11)
Why and how is the object important to the claimant?
A claimant to a looted cultural artefact is asked by officials of the country that stole it and is still holding illegally the object, its significance to the claimant and his people. This will seem patently absurd to most people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Why should I as African, Ghanaian, and Asante have to explain to an Englishman why an Asante sword in any British museum is significant for my people? Supposing the sword is not incredibly significant to us, but we still want it? What right has a British museum official to decide on this object that was undoubtedly stolen by the British army in 1874 when they invaded, looted, and burnt Kumasi, my hometown?
Does the claimant want to use or incorporate the object within his/her/its community’s current customs or practices?
How will an African claimant know the final destination or utilization of an object that has been illegally kept in England for more than 125 years know? His people or Government may decide to return the object to its original place in a king’s palace or to a religious shrine.
And what is this reference to current customs or practices? Have your people advanced or are they still primitive as when we took the object?
What is the genealogical, cultural, spiritual or religious link between the claimant and the object’s original creator or past owner?
Would a British museum official ask a Western claimant such a question?
Supposing there is no genealogical, cultural, spiritual or religious link between the claimant and he requested object, does that refute the ownership by the claimant and his people?
These inquisitive questions remind one of the claims of Western ‘universal museums’ to a self-imposed, almost God-given obligation to collect and protect works that allegedly belong to humankind. Africans, from the point of view of the universalists cannot look properly after their artefacts. The proof? Europeans were able to steal African artefacts. Conveniently forgotten is that before colonialists descended on our continent and took away with great violence whatever they fancied, gold diamond, silver wood and cultural artefacts, we looked after our artefacts for centuries.
Suppose such questions were asked about various cultural objects in Britain, would the British officials be able to provide satisfactory answers even though they have not lost them to a foreign power who has kept them for over one hundred and twenty-five years? Could such officials explain whether Stonehenge was a burial place, a place for rituals or ancestor worship and other spiritual activities. Could failure to explain the nature of the place negate British ownership?
Some of the possible outcomes of claims suggested by the Guidelines are remarkable.
Stage 4 – Implementing the outcomes
There are a number of possible ways that a claim for restitution or repatriation can be resolved. These include outcomes whereby:
• legal ownership of the object is transferred to the claimant and the object handed to the claimant or a representative on a date to be arranged by mutual agreement
• the museum remains the legal owner, but the object is lent to the claimant (on a short-term or long-term basis)
• the museum remains the legal owner, but the claimant is given certain rights of access to the object and/or control over its future care and display
• legal ownership is transferred to the claimant, but the object remains at the museum (i.e., on loan from the claimant)
• a form of shared legal ownership is agreed
• legal ownership of the object remains with the museum without further undertaking. The claimant should be notified of this outcome and a record of the claim be made for the museum despite no action being taken. (12)
How does a British museum that is not part of the system of the Asante Kingdom become a part owner or shared owner of the Asante regalia that is illegally in the museum? How does a British institution become part owner of an Asante ceremonial sword which is only to be touched by those participating in Asante Royal ceremonies? It would be impossible to explain convincingly to the ordinary man or woman in Kumasi that an Englishman or English institution is part owner of any Asante cultural object, let alone the Asante Regalia that they regard as sacred. Told that an English institution is to be part owner of an Asante regalia, the reaction of people in Ghana would most likely be: Let them return our stolen regalia and keep their our own. If African ruling classes accept solutions that are clearly intended to help the British to keep our looted artefacts, we can say without fear of doubt that the African masses and the youth will not accept such compromises that recall colonial domination.
How does the museum that, in principle, is holding illegally onto a looted object become co-owner with the claiming owner? Through long detention of the object? Where then are the ethical principles and the fairness that were mentioned earlier? Does stealing or holding onto stolen items provide a constitutive element of ownership?
Obviously, many of these forms of ownership have been created to suit the desire of British museums to hold on to looted African artefacts and are not found in relation to inter- European discussions on restitution.
The authors of the guidelines have obviously not considered African laws and notions on ownership of property. They would have realized the impossibility of some of these proposed forms of ownership as far as artefacts are concerned.
Are the authors aware that the colonial situation was one of permanent violence, physical or structural, with the ever-present army and police to control the ‘natives’? The many calls for decolonization and actions by many activists in Britain, Germany, and USA through demonstrations and occupation of museums seem to have escaped the makers of the new guidelines. The report does not show any awareness of the need for decolonization.
Despite its title, Restitution and Repatriation: A practical Guide for Museums in England, the guidelines sound, in the absence of the colonial background, like a guide to making an ordinary civil claim. The publication refers to the possibility of States claiming restitution. Can we expect a State such as Nigeria to seek recovery with these guidelines rather than a direct approach to the Foreign Office? Incidentally, this office was responsible for initiating the Punitive Expedition of 1897 which invaded Benin and stole thousands of Benin artefacts. The Foreign Office authorized the auctioning and distribution of the treasures. Is it not appropriate that Nigeria should send its request to the Foreign Office rather than be involved in discussions with museum officials? Would British museum officials ask the Chinese such questions when they seek restitution of the artefacts stolen by the British and the French from the Summer Palace in 1860?
The semi-legal procedural approach (for lack of a more appropriate designation) favoured by many museums has never worked satisfactorily. This approach has fundamental deficiencies that should be obvious to all.
The rules of the game are laid down by the guilty party or his successors-in-law, who stole the artefacts in the first place. That party lays down the procedure and can modify the rules as and when it likes. This same party acts as a judge in his case and may add an appeals procedure or not. No one refuses to act on the ground of impartiality or conflict of interest, even though most officials are working for one party. Basic principles of justice are not observed here. The semi-legal approach acts as if restitution cases involved single objects when in fact, most cases involve several treasures stolen in violent invasions, such as in Beijing, China, in 1860, in Maqdala, Ethiopia, in 1868, in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874, and in Benin, Nigeria in 1897. The Germans realized the insufficiencies of the semi-legal procedure. They adopted a direct political negotiation approach with Nigeria on the Benin artifacts that satisfied both sides in transferring legal rights in 1300 Benin objects to Nigeria. The relations between both States have improved by the political approach, which also settled other matters of museum collaboration.
There is no viable alternative to direct political negotiations when dealing with many objects in a restitution dispute. Does anybody have the time to litigate object by object one thousand Benin artifacts all looted in 1897 at the same place? And how much time would one need to 'litigate' the thousands of Asante treasures in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert museum? Does anybody know the number of Ethiopian treasures in British museums? In addition to dictating the procedure, the semi-legal approach traditionally favoured by the Western museums and institutions usually applies a form of their substantive law as they deem fit but never the laws of the African country where the objects were created and looted. Westerners believe those African countries do not have any rules of their own.
We also notice that there is not a single word about compensation to claimants for the immense destruction caused by British colonial forces in the course of the violent extraction of artefacts. Kumasi, for example, has never been a small town and a vast number of persons and a considerable amount of property were destroyed by the British. Should they not pay any reparation? And what about compensation for deprivation of the use of these artefacts for a period of more than one hundred years?
Britain needs a comprehensive study of the question of restitution of African treasures that will not ignore colonial history. Such a study will also consider the Sarr-Savoy report and the investigations made in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. This much should have become evident to all by now. The need for decolonization applies to museums and mentalities in the former colonialist States.
A new study should finally give us the numbers of looted African artefacts in British institutions, museum by museum, and country by country. The British report should concentrate on the leading British museums and make concrete recommendations for restitution of looted African objects, including changes in legislation wherever necessary. Hitherto, all the European studies have rightly concentrated on the major museums, Musée du Quai Branly, Humboldt Forum, and Africa Museum, Tervuren. Only in the United Kingdom does one seem to wish to divert attention from the major museums, British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, and concentrate on regional and minor museums.
British Museum and the British government cannot forever refuse to abandon their traditional negative positions on restitution. Most of those writing on restitution are Westerners, and the West controls research financing in this area. Can this fact contribute to the self-assuredness of those patently wrong in holding on to stolen treasures? (13)
Will the new British government with a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Finance Minister, with a pure Akan name, Kwasi Kwarteng, be more sensitive to the plea of the Asante for the return of some of the gold the British army looted from Kumasi in 1874 when they invaded, stole, and burnt the Asante capital?
Charles III could authorise the release of some of the Asante treasures from the Royal Collection to indicate goodwill to the Asantehene who has been requesting the return of the Asante Regalia for decades. Such a gesture would also signal respect for the Republic of Ghana, which is still a member of the Commonwealth.
Whether the ruling classes in the United Kingdom welcome the recent wave of support for the restitution of looted treasures or not, this is the direction of history. The heydays of imperialism are over. African artefacts - from Cape to Cairo and from Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam - will be returned. Half-hearted, partial approaches or diversionary projects can only gain the illegal holders breathing space but not prevent restitution forever.
‘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.
Architectural features, statues and friezes, monoliths, mosaics, pottery, enamels, masks and objects of jade, ivory and chased gold in fact everything which has been taken away, from monuments to handicrafts were more than decorations or ornamentation. They bore witness to a history, the history of a culture and of a nation whose spirit they perpetuated and renewed.
The peoples who were victims of this plunder, sometimes for hundreds of years, have not only been despoiled of irreplaceable masterpieces but also robbed of a memory which would doubtless have helped them to greater self-knowledge and would certainly have enabled others to understand them better.
The men and women of these countries have the right to recover these cultural assets which are part of their being.’
Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, Director-General of UNESCO (14)
1.Geoffrey Robertson, Who owns history? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, Biteback Publishing, 2019, p.162.
2. K. Opoku, Even English Institutions Are Discussing Restitution: Effects Of Sarr-Savoy Report? https://www.modernghana.com/news/980840/even-english-institutions-are-discussing-restituti.html
3. Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf
4. K. Opoku, Brief comments on German guidelines on handling objects acquired in colonial contexts https://www.museumsbund.de/brief-comments-on-german-guidelines-on-handling-objects-acquired-in-colonial-contexts/
5. K. Opoku, British Museum Supports Aims And Objectives Of Black Lives Matter? The Height Of Hypocrisy!
K. Opoku, Will Portugal be the Last Former Colonialist State to Restitute Looted African Artefacts?
6. Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England | Arts Council England6. Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England
7. Ibid. p.3.
8. Ibid. p.2.
9. APPENDIX 21
The Case of Benin Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua
Nigeria sends formal letter to British Museum ... - YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx61445FJS8
K. Opoku, Talking About Benin Artefacts Is Not Enough: Return the Looted Treasures!
10. Restitution, op. cit. p. 2.
11. Idem. pp. 14-15.
12. Idem. p. 18.
13. Molemo Moiloa Reclaiming Restitution Report | Open Restitution Africa
14. A Plea for the return of an irreplaceable cultural heritage to those who created it: an appeal by Mr. Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, Director-General of UNESCO,1974-1987.
Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II. Will he soon recover the golden Asante artefacts stolen by the British in 1874,1896, and 1900 from Kumasi that are now in the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Wallace Collection, all in London, United Kingdom? His predecessor, late Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, with the support of the Ghana Government made a request in 1974 which Osei Tutu has several times repeated. Asante gold belongs to Manhyia and not Bloomsbury.
Ivory Salt-cellar, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Asante amulet case looted by British troops during the 3rd Anglo-Asante War, now in National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/collection-search-results/amulet/649485
Asante necklace, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Ori Olokun, an Ife head, Yoruba, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Gold plated harp, ‘sankuo,’ Asante, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Brass kuduo, Kumasi, Asante, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Bowl, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London United Kingdom. Looted in 1897 invasion.
Bowl, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Yoruba drum, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Figure of kneeling female, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Ethiopian processional cross brought from Maqdala by, Richard Rivington Holmes, from the British Museum, archaeologist to Lord Napier's Abyssinian Expedition to Maqdala.
Man with drum, Bamum, Cameroon, now in British Museum, United Kingdom.
Equestrian figure, Lower Niger, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom
Mask, Guro, Côte d’Ivoire, now in British Museum, London United Kingdom.
Mother and child, Abomey, Republic of Benin, now in British Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Memory board, Luba, Democratic Republic of Congo, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Krobonkye royal leather cap, Asante, Ghana, now in Royal Collection, London, United Kingdom Captured in 1874 British invasion of Kumasi.
Dance mask, Baule, Cote d’Ivoire, now in National Museum of Scotland, Edingburgh, United Kingdom.
Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg. of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.
K. Opoku, When will Britain return looted golden Ghanaian artefacts? A history of British
looting of more than one hundred objects.
Gold pectoral “soul” disc, Asante, Ghana, now in Victoria and Albert Museum London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant, Asante, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.