The Director of the British Museum has indeed a fertile mind that never tires of inventing new defences for the retention of looted artefacts of others in the major museums.
Once it became clear that the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. (2002) and its principles were not as effective as the signatories thought, other approaches had to be considered.
One such approach is the “travelling exhibition”. This seems interesting and reasonable until one begins to consider what is being proposed. MacGregor is reported in Elginism to have told an audience at the University of Western Australia that due to globalisation, the concept of “travelling exhibitions” will become more relevant;
“When you see these objects they will mean more to you in your own experience than they would in London or the place where they were made”
“The value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible and explain the present to as many people as possible that may not be achieved by being returned to the place where it was made.”
These statements made to an appreciative audience in Perth, must be examined closely.
MacGregor has for many years defended the retention of artefacts of others on the ground that in the British Museum you can compare the objects with artefacts from other cultures. Thus you can compare Egyptian artefacts with Greek objects. London was the best place for such comparisons. Has he now abandoned the claims for London or is he maintaining the contradictions?
What MacGregor is saying here, perhaps not meaning to say so, is that artefacts are better appreciated outside London and the place where they were produced.
Would we really accept the notion that the Benin Bronzes are better appreciated outside London and outside Benin City? But what factors enable better appreciation of a Benin Commemorative Head outside Benin City and London?
Could one then go as far as to say that a better appreciation of British artefacts can be achieved in Lagos, Accra and Abidjan that is not possible in London? The absurdity of the suggestion becomes patent here and no one would suggest that artefacts be moved from the countries where they were produced to elsewhere.
The idea that “the value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible” is surely to be rejected. Many African artefacts, stools, knives and pots were made for domestic use. In other words these objects have specific functions in the society where they were made. They are now being assigned the function of explaining history to persons who belong to different continents and cultures. If the objects have a history, it can only be in the history of their own cultures. Or do we want to add the history of the robbery and plunder of the objects by Westerners? Do we want to deny to objects their functions and roles in their own original societies and be more concerned by their fate in the land of the plunderers? Of course, you cannot explain the role and function of an object if you take it outside its society and assign to it a function that was never envisaged by the makers. MacGregor disqualifies the place of production, e.g. Benin City and the place of their present detention, e.g. London. In other words, if we cannot legitimately keep these objects in London, we will not send them either to Benin City.
The notion that the value of an artefact is to explain history may be linked to attempts to take control of the narrative of Greek history by assigning to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles a different history starting from their presence in Britain. Similar attempts were also made in the case of the Benin exhibition- Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria by assigning to the Benin Bronzes the so-called added values and shifting meanings they are said to have acquired since their presence in European museum since the nefarious Punitive Expedition of the British that in 1897 looted the Benin Bronzes and sold them to other Europeans.
The basic concept of travelling exhibition is sound and is not being questioned here. What we question is offering travel exhibition as an explanation or justification for retaining artefacts of others that had been plundered during the colonialist days. Interestingly, the two successful travelling exhibitions held recently on African art - Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria and
Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa - were not shown in any African country, not even in Nigeria from where most of the Ife objects came. A large part of the Benin objects also came from that country. The question then remains as to which countries the travelling exhibitions would visit? We see all kinds of arguments being presented for excluding African countries.
Another issue will be the objects that will be considered for travelling exhibitions. We can see already that the most contested objects, the bust of Nefertiti and the Queen-Mother Idia ivory mask will be exempted from such exhibitions on the ground that they are too fragile to travel. As for the Rosetta Stone, it will be argued that it is too heavy for transportation. There may also be questions of insurance. It will be reported that Nigeria or some other African country was not ready to pay the necessary insurance premium that the British insurance company demanded. Through this process of elimination, the most important artefacts, especially those that have already been subjects of restitution will not travel and thus will remain where they are - London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and New York.
Travelling exhibitions, like all travels, have a starting point and an end point. The artefacts will start their journey from where they are at present - London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and New York - and will end the journey where they started - London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and New York. Travelling exhibitions, like all the other theories and approaches suggested by Western museum directors, all result in the looted artefacts remaining where they are at present.
MacGregor declared that “Two thirds of the people living in central London were born outside of the UK. This is a phenomenon which the world has not known before and it is replicated across the world and it gives museums a new role”. We hope that the British Museum Director has statistics to support this assertion and that it is not simply a reflection of the popular belief that anyone who does not look obviously English was born outside the UK. Many such persons were in fact born in Britain.
“It is ever more important for the citizen who is a citizen of the world, to make sense of the world and that is what museums are for everywhere.”
The Director of the British Museum must surely know that there are in reality no citizens of the world. We are citizens of the specific States and can only rely on the rights granted by our States and other States to citizens of specific States. How otherwise can we explain the fact that Africans are subject to strict visa regulations to Western States that never tire of telling us we are citizens of the world and all share the artistic treasures of humanity or as MacGregor states that
the travelling collections are used to “explore key elements of our shared history”. Whilst citizens of the Western world can go about freely, believing that they are “citizens of the world”, Africans who go about, thinking they are citizens of the world, would, at the borders of Western countries have a rude awakening when the immigration officers examine their travel documents. They would request their visa. They would soon realize that they had been labouring under a dangerous illusion, if they have no visa.
MacGregor referred to the growing diaspora in the world: “In the last 40 or 50 years, migrations from all over the world have happened in all directions by tourism and people travelling for business, we now have in most cities, populations that are by no means local and in some cases are entirely global”.
It should be added that where you have large migrant communities, this has not been due to “tourism” or “business travels.” Migrations have been largely due to unstable political conditions in countries previously subject to colonial rule and that have continued to exist in a neo-colonial socio-economic framework. We should also bear in mind that in the case of the African diasporas, slavery and other coercive and drastic measures have resulted in the Americas and in Western Europe having a huge African populations.
Western museum directors should avoid the temptation of using African and other diasporas as justification for retaining artefacts that were looted in the past.
They should not use this presence to defend imperialist acquisitions otherwise they would be punishing Africans more than twice; for enslaving them, dragging them across the Atlantic, exploiting their labour power, so far not compensated and using the results of these crimes as justifications for retaining looted artefacts. Attempts to create tensions between the African motherland and the diasporas will not work since most people are now aware that the interests of Africans on the Continent and those in the Diaspora are not antagonistic.
Whilst European and US-American museum directors proclaim loudly from roof-tops their determination and resolve not to return looted artefacts, African and Asian officials whisper softly in the living room their hopes and their
aspirations for the return of looted national treasures. O! Zahi Hawass
where are you?
It becomes clear then that all attempts to find or invent justifications for retaining looted African artefacts are bound to fail. These justifications cannot stand even the most cursory examination. It is also clear that Western museums and their governments are prepared to advance any argument however absurd and weak it may be. One thing they are not prepared to do, unless forced to, is to return any valuable artefact to its country of origin as the United Nations and UNESCO have been requesting for decades.
In view of the above and the history of restitution, it becomes difficult to understand how some people still believe that, without any strenuous efforts and determination, the British Museum and the other major museums will return looted artefacts.
Kwame Opoku, 25 March 2012.