'The looting of Benin City and Maqdala were British war crimes then and now: it should be a matter of national shame that the spoils are still displayed in the British Museum, or in the museum of any other Western country which procured them by purchase from the British Foreign Office.' Geoffrey Robertson, Who Owns History, (1)
On Restitution Day, 10 November, we received information about a statement delivered by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, George Osborne, at the Annual Trustees Dinner on 2 November 2022. (2) Osborne, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared:
'We hear the voices calling for restitution. But creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling it must not become the careless act of a single generation.'
Like many supporters of the universal museum, Osborne sets up his non-existent question, creating the impression that this is what his opponents are demanding, and answers it himself. None of those calling for restitution has asked for the dismantling of the museum in Bloomsbury within a generation.
Demanders of restitution ask the British Museum and other museums to return their artifacts looted with colonial violence during the British Empire. Osborne admits that restitution of some of the thirteen million looted artifacts would take a long time. Osborne admits the power of the recent wave of restitution:
'So how can we expect to escape the maelstrom of the moment? We don't. But don't expect us to be passive in the face of it.'
Osborne thus acknowledges the power of the recent restitutions or promises of restitution by the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Jesus College, Cambridge, University of Aberdeen, Archaeological and Anthropology Museum, Cambridge, Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford and Horniman Museum, London. While acknowledging the power and impact of such recent restitutions, Osborne offers defiance and resistance.
One method of resistance would be the change of the way the museum dealt with those countries from which the artifacts came: 'We will further change the way this museum engages with the communities of the world, whose treasures we hold in trust for all humankind.'
A further change wil°
be the entering of some form of partnership with countries whose treasures are in the British Museum:
'We the trustees and staff here understand that for some communities the status quo is not good enough I am confident that there are long-term partnerships to be struck. Some of our greatest objects could for the first time be seen again in the communities they originally came from.'
The British Museum announces its willingness to loan objects to countries willing to accept a loan rather than transfer of ownership. Greece has stated it will not recognize the ownership of the British Museum of the Parthenon Marbles. Some other countries may accept the loan of their artifacts by the very State that stole them. Despite growing pressure to return, the Parthenon Marbles would stay in London. According to the Artnews ,’Osborne said British law supported this position, citing the British Museum Act of 1963, which restricts the deaccessioning of museum holdings.’
Similarly, Arts Professional wrote:' Osborne added he believed international courts were on the museum's side. "The law prevents it," he later said, referring to the British Museum Act of 1963, which prohibits acts of restitution..."
According to Art Newspaper, 'Osborne added he believed international courts were on the museum's side, 'the law prevents it, he later said, referring to the British Museum Act of 1963, which prohibits acts of restitution.'
This declaration about the British law and International law, supporting the position of the British Museum, would be a display of ignorance or complete disregard of the long dispute between Greece and Britain concerning the Parthenon Marbles. The only reference I found in the press release relevant to the law was this:
' Dismantling it must not become a careless act of a single generation. Not just because the law prevents it. That's an excuse to hide behind for those who don't have the courage to make to make their case.'
What I found most disturbing in the speech of the chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum was the reliance on a presumably God-given right and duty of the museum to hold and keep looted treasures of other peoples. The British Museum becomes a higher museum 'that engages with the communities of the world whose treasures we hold in trust for all humankind.' The museum that holds looted artifacts of others pretends to keep the stolen objects 'in trust for all humankind.' When we request the return of our stolen treasures, the museum that holds our looted treasures declares that we cannot get them because it keeps them 'in trust for all humankind.' This pretence of guardianship obscures the origins of the artifacts in the museum. Only the guardians are named, but we do not know who appointed them and how the objects reached Bloomsbury. The museum aspires to be the 'Museum of our common humanity.' Similar pretensions were claimed for the 'universal museum,’ but the universal museum is so discredited that Osborne and co do not even refer to the notorious concept. We all want to keep our artifacts and do not wish to entrust them to an imperialist State and museum, above all, not to a former colonialist power.
There is no expression of regret in Osborne's speech about the violent methods used to acquire artifacts from the former colonies. There is no sign that the British Museum has understood the moral component of the current wave of restitution. The British Museum is not impressed by the 'ethical returns policy of the Smithsonian and the moral element in the restitutions' of the Horniman Museum or the German returns to Nigeria.
Osbourne describes the present world as a place where 'the nationalism of great powers is on rise again.' The listeners of the chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum may have known which great power he had in mind, but the reference appears paradoxical to the rest of the world that has known Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and German colonialism and imperialism.
The former colonial powers have never let off the power and control they had and still have over the African States. Besides, which State has in recent years so vehemently insisted on its nationalism as Great Britain? Did Brexit, withdrawal from the European Union, not demonstrate a desire and determination to leave a union of States of which Britain had been a member for forty years? Did we not hear Britain wanted to regain her complete sovereignty and not be subject to European Union institutions and courts?
One imperialist calling another an aggressive nationalist does not help much.
There are no benevolent nationalists and benevolent imperialists. Both imperialism and nationalism seek to impose their wills on people who reject their hegemony. British, Belgian, French, and German colonialism employed great violence against the African peoples.
Osborne and some members of the British elite act and speak in restitution matters as if they were unaware of the many UN/UNESCO resolutions that call on former colonial powers to return cultural property to their countries
of origin. ICOM'S Code of Ethics appears unheard of by these learned persons. They never mention the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which should finally settle the question of peoples' rights to their cultural heritage.
When Western States refuse to obey United Nations resolutions, they should not be surprised that other States may also do the same.
We noticed that those who claim to practice democracy have complete contempt for the views of the vast majority of their people.
The majority of the British population has, in various opinion polls overwhelmingly expressed their support for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, and yet Osborne and co act as if there were no such support for restitution to Athens.
We note that Osborne did not refer to the opinion of Neil McGregor, long time director of the British Museum, who, in his recent book, À monde nouveau, nouveaux musées, pleads for a change in the position of the Western museums in restitution matters. The Chair of the Board of Trustees did not mention the London Times which clearly offered solid arguments for returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
We note in passing that Hartwig Fischer, the current Director of the British Museum has been silent, whereas the Deputy -Director, Jonathan Williams, and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, George Osborne, have been busy defending the British Museum. How are we to understand this? Has Fischer been silenced by other forces in the museum, or are directors of the British Museum no longer expected to defend their museum? The aggressive nationalism mentioned by Osborne could also be active in this context.
As far as restitution is concerned, Osborn's speech follows the British Museum style of pseudo-objectivity and balance. We know there is a storm we cannot avoid, but do not expect us to be inactive. We will change how we do business with the countries from which the artifacts came but do not hope for full restitution. We will loan objects if the other side agrees to our terms. Great effort is made to present a balanced view, not extreme as those agitating for restitution. We are responsible; our opponents are not.
If the British Museum and the British elite have decided to keep their ill-gotten gains obtained from crimes against humanity, this is a matter between themselves and their God or gods. But do they have to insult our intelligence by presenting us with arguments that have no basis in law or morality?
Do they think they can get away for a long time with such weak arguments as we have analysed? The French, Belgians, Dutch, and Germans, who bought many looted items from the British, have realized and accepted the principle of restitution of ill-gotten artifacts.
The British Museum presents itself as a 'museum for humanity' but will keep the artifacts of other peoples despite demands for restitution. Working for humanity puts the British Museum above criticism. We do not know who appointed this museum to be a museum for humankind. Osborne plays with the notion of the museum for humanity, but there is no attempt to define this museum and how it came to hold thirteen million objects of others. The museum expects us to accept without dispute the designation it has chosen. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, would be the first to object to any attempt to create an open museum of humanity if they do not have total control of that institution. The West would want to retain many of the looted artifacts of others it now controls.
Reading the speech by George Osborne, we wondered whether the speaker believed in what he was saying about the role of the British Museum. Does he expect the world to accept the pretensions of the British Museum being a for humankind, a superior museum that kept and protected artifacts for the rest of the world? Does Osborne think his audience and the world are entirely bereft of knowledge concerning the acquisitions in the British Museum and the violence and the destruction involved in the acquisition of the Benin artifacts, Maqdala treasures or the Asante gold? Osborne should know that the British Museum has lost all legal and moral grounds to pretend to a special or benevolent role on behalf of the people of Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana. Many countries have no reason to honour a museum that has imprisoned their artifacts for hundred years and still refuses to return them.
The chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum and his supporters could learn from the many museums in the United Kingdom that are returning Benin artifacts to Nigeria daily. The Horniman decided after broad consultation
with London's Nigerian diaspora and local schoolchildren to return the artefacts. The overwhelming consensus was that the objects had been looted. And as such, should be returned because they were acquired by force and under duress, said Nick Merriman, Chief Executive of Horniman Museum.
The Horniman Museum returned to Nigeria on Monday, 28 November, six Benin artifacts that were received by Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the Director of Nigeria's National Commission on Museums and Monuments. The remaining sixty-six objects would remain in Horniman on loan for the next twelve months. (3) We share entirely this statement attributed to Prof. Tijani:
"I think the British Museum is watching, I believe they are now taking it deeply to see that they do something, because every museum across the world is saying it is not right for them to hang on to these objects." (4)
We hope that the British Museum is watching what Horniman is arranging with the Nigerians and will soon follow with a spectacular arrangement transferring the legal rights in the museum's nine hundred artifacts to Nigeria at the same time as Nigeria agrees to loan several Benin artifacts to the British Museum.
We never accepted the Bloomsbury museum's arguments as an excuse for not restituting the Benin artifacts. Not even the legal opinion the museum advanced was compelling. The museum had managed to substitute its policy for a legal interpretation of the British Museum Act 1963. Words permitting deaccession are interpreted to mean prohibiting deaccession. Why has the British Museum not asked for the revision of the 1963 Act to enable the museum to act according to modern-day requirements? We find convincing
the opinion of a scholar who has studied this question: 'The Holocaust Act of 2009's passage is evidence that Parliament holds the capacity to relax the statutory requirements that bind the Museum's Trustees to their fiduciary duty. The possibility exists that someday, with the assistance of Parliament, the Trustees could repatriate controversial cultural property, such as the Parthenon Marbles or the Rosetta Stone.' (6)
Now is the time for the Bloomsbury museum to do what most museums have done or are willing to do: return the Benin artifacts violently looted in 1897.
When we consider the returns or promised restitutions by Horniman Museum, Pitt and Rivers Museum, Cambridge Archaeological and Anthropological Museum, Jesus College, Cambridge, and the University of Aberdeen, as well as those from the Smithsonian Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and other American museum and the massive restitution of 1300 Benin treasures by Germany, it becomes clear that the museum in Bloomsbury has put itself in splendid isolation.
We live in an unprecedented historical period in which there is goodwill regarding the restitution of artifacts. A few years ago, nobody in the West was willing to hear anything about the return of African artifacts. It would be a pity if officials of those museums that have played important roles in this matter closed their eyes and ears and stayed away from the debates of our times.
If Horniman Museum, Smithsonian Museum, Jesus College, Cambridge and other institutions feel compelled on moral grounds to return Benin artifacts and also, because it is the right thing to do, on what grounds can the British Museum keep Benin artifacts? Once Benin artifacts are to be returned because of the violent, brutal way they were seized , and Benin City burnt by the invading British army, can there be any other reason for not restituting the Ethiopian and
Asante artifacts that were also captured in similar brutal military (7)
‘The Asante’s skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874,1896 and 1900.’ (8)
Osborne and part of the British elite may continue to hold onto discredited
theories and practices in museum matters and offer resistance, directly or indirectly, to moves towards restitution. But they cannot forever oppose the tide of history in favour of restoring looted colonial artifacts and correcting colonial injustice. They may postpone necessary restitution for a while but only for a brief time. Their offers of loans to owners of stolen artefacts that have been rejected by countries such as Ethiopia can only serve them for a brief time.
In the world today, even a giant museum must be ‘ethical’.
"Gold gleams throughout the Ashanti story: one wonders in retrospect whether the punitive expedition would have been quite so dedicated if the major product of Ashanti had been anything else but the potent lure."
Russell Chamberlin. (9)
1.Geoffrey Robertson, Who Owns History? Biteback Publishing, 2019, p.169 .
2.Speech by George Osborne Annual Trustees Dinner, British Museum
No return of looted artefacts https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/good-read/no-return-looted-artefacts
3. London Museum returns looted Benin City artefacts to Nigeria
Benin Dialogue Group Removes Restitution Of Benin Artefacts From Its Agenda
Once in the British Museum always in the British Museum: Is the De-accession Policy of the British Museum a Farce? https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/28034323/dr-kwame-opoku-analysis-of-british-museum-de-accession-ligali
When will Britain Return Looted Ghanaian Artefacts? A History of British Looting of more than 100 Objects,
Alexander Herman, British Museum must recognise its own powers.
Forbes, British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes
6. Hannah R. Godwin, Legal Complications of Repatriation at the British Museum, 30 Wash. Int’l L.J. 144 (2020). Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wilj/vol30/iss1/8
7. K. Opoku, When Will Western Nations Return Ethiopia's Stolen Treasures?
K. Opoku, Loan Of Looted Ethiopian Treasures To Ethiopia: Must Europeans Always Win?
K. Opoku, When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts? A History Of British Looting Of More Than 100 Objects.
K. Opoku, Looted Asante (Ghana) Gold in Wallace Collection, London: Return Stolen Items to Manhyia Palace, Kumasi,
8. The Collections of the British Museum (2003), The British Museum Press, p. 97
9. Russell Chamberlin, Loot! The Heritage of Plunder, Thames and Hudson,1983,p.79.
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, Athens, Greece, taken to British Museum, London, previously on loan to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. See K. Opoku , Arrogance, Duplicity and Defiance with No End: British Museum Loans Parthenon Marble to Russia, https://www.africavenir.org/fr/newsdetails/archive/2014/december/article/kwame-opoku-arrogance-duplicity-and-defiance-with-no-end-british-museum-loans-parthenon
Pair of leopard figures, now in Her Majesty Collection, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Admiral Rawson Collection., London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force to Benin in 1897 sent the pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City.
Saltcellar ,Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Ethiopian church silver censer, Ethiopia ,now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Shield made for Emperor Tewodros II, featuring a lions mane pendant, Maqdala, Ethiopia, ,now in British Museum ,London, United Kingdom.
Crown of Tewodros II, Magdala, Ethiopia ,now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom. Looted during the invasion of Magdala in 1868 by a British Punitive Expedition army. The crown is labelled at the Victoria and Albert as the “Crown of the Archbishop Abune Selam.” With typical colonialist and imperialist arrogance, this 18-karat gold crown was described as “barbaric” but still kept by the British.
Triptych religious/ritual equipment, Maqdala, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Processional Cross, Maqdala, Ethiopia ,now in British Museum London, United Kingdom.
Amulet, bell, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Gold leaf and carved wood umbrella finial (kyinie poma) in the form of five birds (sankofa). Asante, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Bead, Asante gold, Kumase, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant, soul disc, Asante, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant ,soul disc, Asante, Kumase, now in British Museum ,London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant, soul disc, Asante, Kumase, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Vessel, Asante, Kumase, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Miniature, six-stringed harp,( sika senkuo),Asante, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant, soul disc, Kumase, Ghana ,now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Disc pendant, soul disc, Kumase, Ghana ,now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Knife, Knife-sheath, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Pendant, Soul disc, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Sword, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.