When Will Everybody Finally Accept That The British Museum Is A British Institution? Comments On A Lecture By Neil Macgregor.
When I listened to the recent lecture by Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum on the 250th anniversary of the museum, I was, at least at the beginning, very relieved. (1) I thought, finally we have the director of the museum, an avid apostle of the “universal museum”, who was recently made a saint by the British press (2), admitting openly in the museum, (or is it now a temple?) that his institution is British and actually the first important institution to have in its title, the word “British”. This came in a time British workers were also asserting their nationalism. The history of the British Museum as traced by the director clearly indicated that the museum was established by a British Parliamentary Act for the British people. I heard in the lecture phrases such as “centrally and quintessentially British”, “first public institution to be called British”, “oldest British organization” and all this was said to be “true today”.
There is nothing wrong with all this. We have at present many institutions in the world specifically designated as “national.”
But why all the effort to establish that the British Museum is a museum for mankind and not only for the British nation? The reason is quite simple. There is a supposition that if other peoples can be convinced that the British Museum is for all mankind and not only for the British people then there will be no reason or justification for the other nations to claim the restitution of their many stolen/looted objects that are in the museum. Unfortunately, very few people even in London accept this reasoning. In any case, the rest of the world does not accept this argument. The Greeks are asking for the return of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, the Egyptians are requesting the restitution of the Rosetta stone and the people of Benin are requesting the return of some of the Benin bronzes stolen/looted by British soldiers in the so-called Punitive Expedition of 1897. The Ethiopians are also requesting the return of their treasures stolen at Magdala in 1868 during the British invasion.
It seems that MacGregor thinks that it is in the interest of humanity when he tells the story of Kenya using Kenyan objects but not when the Kenyans seek to tell their own stories by requesting the restitution of their looted objects. The idea of telling the history of others from the British Museum, using stolen/looted objects appears to be a continuation of imperialist policies. London appears to be the centre, in control of objects of people and their imagination. The others are not considered mature enough to keep their own objects and need London to assist in telling their stories. Surely, each people should tell their own stories with their own cultural objects the way they like and nobody should do that in their place.
One should not exaggerate the possibilities of telling the history of a people or even a cultural object by having the object at one's disposal. How much can one learn from seeing the Benin bronzes in the British Museum or hearing a narrative about the object? A lot depends on the knowledge and attitude of the narrator. Would a narrator from the British Museum who follows MacGregor's line explain that the Benin objects which are presented as having changed British attitudes towards African art were not an immediate success as one might think on hearing MacGregor's attempted defence? At the beginning many thought these works could not have been made by Africans. The interest of the British Museum in acquiring more of the bronzes was due mainly to a perceived national loss of these objects to the Germans in Berlin who, under the leadership of Felix von Luschan, were busy buying as much as they could from the open market where the looted objects were sold. According to Coombes, “The ethnographic curators were able to capitalise on the heightened public awareness of the Benin bronzes as symbols of British manhood, Edo barbarity and artistic anomaly, in order to claim retention by the British Museum, for example, as a matter of national urgency”.
(4) Does the average museum-goer bring with her or him sufficient information and knowledge about Africa and African art to be able, unaided by good story tellers, to make their own story by looking at the objects such as the Benin bronzes? We doubt a lot. Given the continued prejudice against Africa and African culture that prevails generally in Western society, the presence of looted African objects in these museums cannot tell the full story of Africa and its relations with Europe. Some objects may demonstrate African craftsmanship and aesthetic but that is only part of a complicated story, full of oppression, cruelty and violence which the museum visitor may not necessarily grasp, if unaided.
Could the presence of objects from South Africa, for example, help tell the full story of South Africa? Could the major phenomenon of Apartheid, aided and abetted by the British, other Europeans and the Americans, be told by way of any of the objects in the British Museum? Could the British Museum tell this story better than museums in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Robben Island.
MacGregor's failure to mention Romuald Hazoumé, Republic of Benin, by name when he spoke about his work, La Bouche du Roi which the British Museum has bought, shows that telling the story of others has its perils. MacGregor described him as a “West African artist”. We are grateful he did not describe him as a “sub-saharan artist”. Would the lecturer have described a major British artist, like Damien Hirst, as a “Western European artist” without mentioning his name, if the museum had bought For the Love of God? Is this the continuation of the European prejudice that African artworks have no authors and are anonymous?
MacGregor does not appear to be embarrassed that Kenyans, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ethiopians and others have to come to his museum in London in order to seek materials for their history which the British have stolen or looted.
He gives the example of cooperation with Kenyans who had to come to the British Museum to prepare an exhibition on the relations between Kenya and its neighbours that had been interrupted by British colonial rule. The objects needed for such an exhibition could only be found in the British Museum.
Incidentally, the British kept most of the government records and archives of the colonies even after independence thus leaving a big gap in the histories of those countries. How would the British feel if they had to go to Accra, Lagos, Nairobi or Addis Ababa in order to gather material and objects for their history?
MacGregor discussed questions of classification of artworks by contemporary artists such as Ali Omar Ermes, Libyan artist living in Britain and concluded that his work was neither African nor European and that such categories are no longer viable. According to MacGregor, such artworks can no longer be said to belong to a specific culture. A very interesting view indeed. Ermes own views indicate that whilst rejecting narrow categories, he is firmly in the Islamic tradition. He would have no difficulty in classifying his work and would not place it in a category which seeks to throw artworks together in indefinable groups.
(5) There are many African artists living outside their own countries or those of their parents and often one may not be sure how to classify their works. But this must also be true of many American, French, Russian, Italian and British artists. Has anybody suggested that because of difficulties in classifying a few artists one should abandon altogether such classifications? I do not see any evidence that any museums, including MacGregor's own, have abandoned such classification. Moreover, in his lecture, MacGregor does not abandon that classification and speaks of European masters. But what has the problem of classification to do with restitution?
The main objects which are being reclaimed by other countries from the British Museum do not pose any problem of classification. Nobody, not even the British Museum, doubts that the Parthenon Marbles are Greek, that the Rosetta stone is Egyptian, that Benin bronzes are from Benin and that the Ethiopian crosses, manuscripts and talbots are Ethiopian. So where is the problem? Even if we had classification difficulties with the claimed objects, would that in anyway affect the right of the claimants or the defence of the British Museum? Is this one of the diversionary arguments which the retentionists have in their bag and often throw out to avoid coming to grips with the issue of restitution of specific objects? We claim cultural objects not because they have been classified as belonging to our culture but because they have been looted from our countries and their histories are well-known to all.
(7)With reference to the Benin bronzes, MacGregor mentioned that the metal used to produce those artefacts came from Europe as a result of trade between Europe and Benin. He declared that the bronzes allow the telling of the story of an epoch, long forgotten, where the Europeans provided the raw materials and the African produced final products, supreme art works. The Benin bronzes then become a symbol of trade between Europe and Africa. According to the Director of the British Museum, it is only when the museum can show that the bronzes permit a different reading of the history between Benin and Europe is their retention by the museum justified. This is a very interesting twist but not very solid interpretation of the brutal loot and retention of the Benin bronzes by the British. The director conveniently leaves out the fact that the Edo people used these bronzes to mark important dates in their history and that the brutal removal of these objects left a vacuum in the records of Benin history. The archives of a people are stolen and given a new interpretation by those who stole them. Is the original context and function of these bronzes in the palace of the Benin King, the Oba, no longer relevant in determining where these objects should be? No serious archaeologist or historian will agree with this interpretation which is being offered more that hundred years after the loot of Benin in 1897. Such post facto justifications can never erase the original crimes of massacre of hundreds of innocent children, women and men, looting of thousands of artworks and the burning of Benin City. Someone seems to have learnt about the functions of the Benin bronzes in Benin culture and is trying to apply that in the context of restitution.
(8) MacGregor's test is nothing short of a paradigmatic revolution. Until now museums have argued that they acquired legally the objects in their possession. The test introduced by MacGregor is not based on the legality or otherwise of the acquisition but on the raw materials used in producing the artefact. Here is an attempt to detach questions relating to restitution of objects from their modes of acquisition. The director of the British Museum has thus openly and publicly abandoned legality and the rule of law. The fact that the raw materials said to have been imported from Europe were acquired in exchange for other African materials and products does not, apparently, seem to be relevant.
Like most of the arguments presented by directors of the so-called “universal museums”, the latest argument by MacGregor is also not very well thought out and one would normally not bother much. But this presentation comes from the director of one of the largest museums in the world and therefore deserves some consideration.
If we were to apply MacGregor's test to the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, we would come to the conclusion that the museum must return all the Benin artefacts:
1) Not all the so-called Benin bronzes are actually made of brass, bronze or any other metals. Many are made of ivory, wood and other materials. For example, the famous hip-mask of Queen-mother Idia in the British Museum is made of ivory. Thus a whole range of items now in the museum that are not made of brass, can be classified as not passing the test because of the material used.
2) Since the trade with Europe in metals is situated by MacGregor at around 16th-17th century, all Benin artefacts made before 16th century can also be said to be outside the purview of this test since they could not have been made from European metals exchanged in the period set by MacGregor.
3) It is to be noted that Benin's first trade with Europeans was with the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the French before British attempts to control trade in and around Benin led to confrontations with Oba Ovonramwen. Thus even if raw materials came from Europe; they were brought, initially at any rate, by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Why should the final products end in the British Museum and not in Lisbon or Amsterdam? Have the other Europeans appointed the British to collect on their behalf? Could the Edo or Nigerians also claim on behalf of other Africans in similar situations?
4) The determination of the age of an artefact and materials used in a particular Benin object cannot be determined by naked eyes but must be made by experts. Is MacGregor aware that there is a whole lot of controversy about dating Benin bronzes and that this is a subject that the non-expert approaches with trepidation? Did MacGregor consult his experts before advancing such an adventurous test? They would in probability have advised him to refrain from setting any test or standard based on the metal composition of a particular Benin artefact. (9)
5).Can we tell that a given bronze contains material from a
particular continent or country? The materials used in producing a
specific Benin artefact may have come from the African continent. Philip Dark states in The Art of Benin that “Supplies of brass undoubtedly varied in quantity over the centuries. The metal was traded across the Sahara, but the advent of the Portuguese on the coast and, subsequently other Europeans increased the supply of metal to the brassworker.”(10) So how does MacGregor know that the particular artefact he referred to was made of brass from Europe?
6). The skills necessary for producing the Benin artefacts were available before contact with Europe and the availability of materials from Europe. (11)
7). Many of the Benin bronzes do not depict or feature Europeans or contact with Europe. Where Europeans are depicted, they are mostly Portuguese and not British.
8). MacGregor, who states that one cannot assign the work of the Libyan artist, Ali Omar Ermes to any particular culture, does not seem to envisage any difficulties in determining whether the brass used in a particular Benin object came from Europe to Benin in the 16th - 17th centuries.
The above comments on MacGregor's test indicate clearly that the Director of the British Museum has embarked on a journey which is too perilous for his museum and he would be better advised to stop proceeding any further on this path.
If we accept MacGregor's position and apply his test we would obtain some very remarkable results. Africans would be able to reclaim all the final products that are made from African raw materials. Think of gold, diamond, copper, aluminium, uranium, cobalt, wood and other raw materials from Africa. Are there many important products in the West that do not contain some African materials?
Moreover, the test could end in emptying the British Museum since most of the objects there, Assyrian, Etruscan, Egyptian, Sudanese, Asante, Yoruba, Chinese, Indian etc could not be said to have been made from materials from Britain. The Rosetta stone, the Parthenon Marbles and other artefacts of questionable acquisition will soon be on their way out. Has the director seriously thought of the logical consequences of the statements he delivered with verve?
MacGregor ends his anniversary lecture, just as he ended his article, “The whole world in our hands” (12) with the following quotation from the late Edward Said, from a new 2003 preface to his famous book, Orientalism. I quote the full paragraph, with omissions by MacGregor emphasized:
“The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like “America”, “The West” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. We still have at our disposal the rational interpretative skills that are the legacy of humanistic education, not as a sentimental piety enjoining us to return to traditional values or the classics but as the active practice of worldly secular rational discourse. The secular world is the world of history as made by human beings. Human agency is subject to investigation and analysis, which it is the mission of understanding to apprehend, criticize, influence and judge. Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow. But for that kind of wider perception we need time and patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.” (13)
Mark O'Neill has commented that: “If directors of universal museums are going to invoke the authority of Edward Said and take up his injunction to explore 'the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other and live together', they need to find a language which respects the sensibilities and values of cultures whose equivalent of the crown jewels or the Magna Carta have been 'borrowed.” (14)
This comment appears very mild when one considers the full extent of the distortion MacGregor is making here of the thoughts and beliefs of Said. It is like presenting Marx as a supporter of capitalism by taking some quotations from the Communist Manifesto without taking into account the general philosophy of Marx and his basic position as regards economic development and political struggles.
Edward Said was known for his general opposition to Western imperialism and its epistemological hegemony. His works, such as, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (15) testify to his courageous determination to expose the ideological mechanisms by which the West tries to maintain its domination of the rest of the world, particularly, the Middle East. MacGregor, through a careful use of quotations from Said's preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism written after the Western invasion of Irak, presents him as a writer whose rejection of narrow nationalism and stereotypes, would lead him to support a scheme which, under the guise of working together, ends in maintaining the status quo of the West. Said would surely have opposed any arrangement which culminates in the West or the British Museum telling the history of others with stolen/cultural objects. After all Said, was known as a professor of Comparative Literature, a discipline which involves the study and comparison of the different literatures of various societies. Comparison would be impossible if all literature were written by one nation or people. The idea of the British Museum or MacGregor telling the history of others would have been rejected outright by Said.
It is interesting to look at what MacGregor left out from his quotation of Said's 2003 Preface. But it is even more interesting to look at what else Said wrote in that preface: “As I write these lines, the illegal and unsanctioned imperial invasion and occupation of Iraq by Britain and the United States proceeds, with a prospect of physical ravagement, political unrest and more invasions that is truly awful to contemplate. This is all part of what is supposed to be a clash of civilizations, unending, implacable, irremediable. Nevertheless, I think not.” (16) Further on, Said declares, “Reflection, debate, rational argument, moral principle based on a secular notion that human beings must create their own history, have been replaced by abstract ideas that celebrate American or Western exceptionalism, denigrate the relevance of context, and regard other cultures with derisive contempt.” (17)
The man who wrote these lines above cannot be made to appear to support any argument or arrangement which aims at protecting the possession of stolen/looted cultural objects by Western imperialists. Respect for the departed must surely also include respect for their general beliefs and positions.
The various untenable explanations and contradictions regarding the continued detention of the cultural artefacts of others would cease to be necessary if the following points would be accepted or at least considered:
- Colonialist and imperialist incursions and domination in Africa and elsewhere are not considered by those peoples who suffered as unmitigated blessing.
- Present generation Americans and Europeans, including the British, are not responsible personally for the deeds and misdeeds of their forebears but have an obligation to ensure that damages done to others are not increased or repeated.
- Where the devastating effects of colonialism are continuing or where undue advantages still persist, they have a duty to take corrective measures.
- Where objects have been stolen or looted in the colonial period, there should be no attempt to justify the unjustifiable and one should enter into negotiations with the rightful owners or return those objects, at least a considerable number of them.
- Those sitting in London, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, New York and elsewhere with plans and ideas on a “universal museum” should finally accept that the world has changed since 1945 and that the world is no longer ruled from these centres. Should there be any need for a “universal museum”, “world museum” or “museum for humanity”, the international community will democratically set up such an institution and will not leave the task to one country or museum, however important, to take care of mankind's concerns. We have representative institutions such as United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM which would be the proper forum for discussing such ideas. Telling stories from individual museums may be interesting but should be considered as partial stories the value of which depends largely on the knowledge and views of the story teller.
MacGregor and the British Museum can tell as many stories as they want but so long as they do not show any sympathy or understanding that other peoples, such as the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Ethiopians and the Nigerians want to tell their own stories in their own way with their own objects now in the British Museum, so long will they be seen by others as acting in their own selfish interest and not in the interest of humanity. After reading James Cuno's recent article and listening to the lecture of Neil MacGregor, one cannot help but agree with Tom Flynn that “the encyclopedic museum runs aground”. (18) Or is this a prelude to a requiem?
3. K. Opoku, “Is Nationalism as such a Dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Cultural Property?” www.modernghana.com
4. Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994, p.62
5 Ali Omar Ermes, “Contemporary Islamic Arts: A positive contribution to London”, www.aliomarermes
6. 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. Part of the loot of 1868 when the British Army invaded Magdala and looted the treasures of the Emperor Tewodros and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church According to the British Museum, “Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition as an archaeologist. He acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library.” www.britishmuseum On the Ethiopian treasures that are in the British Museum, see Afromet www.afromet Ethiopian treasures are found at the following places in the United Kingdom: The British Library The British Museum Duke of Wellington's Regimental Museum Halifax Dundee University Museum Edinburgh University Library The John Rylands Uni Library Lancaster Museum & Priory National Archives of Scotland The Sch�yen Collection The Victoria & Albert Museum Windsor Castle More stolen African treasures can be found at the homepage of the African Reparations Movement www.arm.arc.co.uk
7. The British Museum's own homepage (www.britishmuseum) has this to say about Sasraku: “In themid-century the king of the Akwamu, Nana Ansa Sasraku, came to dominate a vast stretch of land from Denkyira to the Accra plains. To consolidate his power, Sasraku knew that effective communication was needed with the main trading partners - the Europeans. Sasraku realised that he needed a trusted English-speaking mediator and so arranged for his son to be educated in England. The British sea captain to whom Prince William Ansa Sesraku was entrusted took him instead to Barbados and sold him into slavery. Luckily for the prince, his father's control of West African trade was important enough for the young man to be retrieved and taken to London as promised.” The European trade in African slaves began in the sixteenth century in order to service sugar plantations in Brazil and later the Caribbean. By the mid-eighteenth century sugar was the most valuable import into England. The plantations required large numbers of strong manual workers who could withstand a hot, humid climate. Slaves had long been high-status possessions in Africa and Europe and the presence of exotically dressed black attendants in many portraits demonstrates the continuation of this attitude. But on the plantations they were treated with systematic cruelty.”
8. “But Benin did not produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums. At the time Europeans were keeping their records in longhand and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze, carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important event took place which they wished to record. Some, of them of course, were ornamental to adorn altars and places of worship. But many of them were actually points of reference, the library or archives.” Letter from the Benin Royal Family to the Museums, in Kwame Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes” www.museum-security
9. See Joseph Nevadomsky, “Art and Science in Benin bronzes”, African Arts, Spring, 2004 http://findarticles.com “African Artworks in Bronze, Stone and Ceramics”, www.authenticafricanbronzesandceramics.com Ralf Kotalla, “Determination of genuineness using the thermoluninescence
method (TL) on cast cores of African bronze objects,” www.kotalla.de Peter Junge, “Age Determination of Commemorative Heads: The Example of the Berlin Collection”, pp. 185-197, Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed.), Benin Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoek, 2007.
10. Phillip J.C. Dark, The Art of Benin, p.20, Chicago Natural History Museum, 1962.
11. Armand Duchâteau states in his Benin: Royal Art, Prestel, 1994, Munich, pp. 35-36 as follows: “The skills needed for metal casting were well known in the Old World, and the area where brasscasting was practised stretched in Africa from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Lake Chad on Nigeria's northeastern border. In Mauritania copper had been processed since 500 B.C., and unfinished brass had reached West Africa from the Mediterranean countries via trans-Saharan routes by the eleventh century. At Igbo Ukwu, in eastern Nigeria, brass objects have been found dating to the ninth and tenth centuries. Brass has a long tradition in West Africa, being used from Mali to the east coast of Guinea and from Liberia to the Lower Congo; more than one thousand years ago it began to be used in limited areas as court art. The required metals of tin, zinc, and above all, copper were rare; this led to a dependence on trans-Saharan trade.” Duchâteau states further that “Without question, brass existed in Benin before the arrival of the Portuguese. The metals used in the production of Ife brass objects apparently came from Azlik (Ades region), a royal source of copper. It can be assumed that the raw materials for Benin brass objects also came from the same region. The copper mentioned in an account of Ibn Battuta (1353) was mined in Takedda, in southern Middle Sahara, and exported to Gobir and Bornu; copper may also have reached Benin in this way, since Edo contacts with these regions have been verified.” Duchâteau adds that “In contrast, European objects of copper were unsuitable for casting and consequently not used as raw material for brass and bronze. Although the lead used in the metal alloys of the manilas and of the many cast Benin objects was probably from the same source, the conclusion cannot be drawn that all Manillas were melted down for casting. Some undoubtedly were, while others were probably used for trading within West Africa”.
16. Orientalism, p. xiii
17. Ibid. p. xx .
18). Tom Flynn, “Busking on Benin: The Encylopedic museum runs aground” tom-flynnblogspot, James Cuno, “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong?”, press.princeton.edu, Kwame Opoku, “Cuno Reiterates his Views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”, www.museum-security.org
Warrior flanked by two shield bearers, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London.
Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Metope from the Parthenon Marbles depicting a Centaur and a Lapith fighting. Athens, Greece, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.