17.05.2017 Feature Article

Will Western Museums Tell The True Histories Of Their Acquisitions? -International Museum Day 2017

Poster for the International Museum Day 2017.Poster for the International Museum Day 2017.
17.05.2017 LISTEN

“Truth must be repeated constantly, because error is being repeatedly preached round about all the time, and not just by a few, but by the masses. In the periodicals and encyclopaedias, in schools and universities, everywhere error prevails, being confident and comfortable in the feeling that it has the majority on its side.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (1)

When I read that the theme of the International Museum Day (IMD) 2017 will be’ Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums ’, I was overjoyed. I read from the home page of International Council of Museums, (ICOM) the following:

The theme chosen for 2017 is "Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums".

History is a vital tool for defining a given people's identity, and each of us defines ourselves through important and fundamental historic events. Contested histories are unfortunately not isolated traumatic events. These histories, which are often little known or misunderstood, resonate universally, as they concern and affect us all.

Museum collections offer reflections of memories and representations of history. This day will therefore provide an opportunity to show how museums display and depict traumatic memories to encourage visitors to think beyond their own individual experiences.

By focusing on the role of museums as hubs for promoting peaceful relationships between people, this theme highlights how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation. ‘(2)

I thought the museums will finally be coming out with the truth about the acquisition histories of the artefacts in their exhibition hall and depots. They would have a lot of work to do considering the number of bloody artefacts most of them hold and the precious time wasted in the past. But what has been the attitude and actions of Western museums so far as regards looted/stolen artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances?

Among the impressive African objects in the Pavillon des Sessions, Paris, is this sculpture of Gou, God of war, made by Akati Ekplekendo and previously located at the palace of the King of Abomey. The French looted the statue in 1892 after the defeat of Dahomey.


Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg. of pure gold, looted by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.

Western museums are linked through their artefacts to some of the worst episodes in the history of colonialism and imperialism. We have no intention of listing here all the violent attacks on peoples in Africa, Asia or the Americas for refusing to submit to colonial rule. The invasions of Kumasi (1874), Magdala (1868) and Benin(1897) are familiar to our readers. (3) They will also recall German attacks in Namibia and East Africa. (4) These cruel invasions brought more artefacts to Western museums as alredy admitted by some museum directors although some would seek to convince us that the so-called universal museums have nothing to do with imperialism. David Wilson,predecessor of Neil MacGregor as Director of the British Museum has admitted the acquisition of artefacts as result of imperialist invasions:’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 interventions in Asante in 1874,1896 and 1900’.(5)

We leave out similar imperialist attacks in Asia such as the invasion of Beijing (1860) that brought thousands of Chineese artefacts to the Western world.(6)

We leave also aside the question of the human tremains that are still kept in Western museums and institutions in countries such as Germany. Though it has been generally accepted, even by the so-called universal museums, that human remains should be repatriated to their countries of origin, several African remains are still to be found in Europe. Namibian and other African remains have not found their way back home. How much long must decendants of the deceased wait to give them a proper burial in accordance with tradition? Will this subject still remain unspeakable after the International Museum Day 2917?

Will the Mus é e du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac and other French museums,including Musée Guimet and the Louvre, tell the true histories of their acquisitions? Musée du quai Branly that presents its self as a place where cultures dialogue, là ou les cultures dialoguent must admit that some cultures have been forced there, brought there against their wills or through dubious ways. The museum inherited looted artefacts from two previous museums that had been acquired under dubious circumsatneces - Musée de l’homme and Musée des arts africains et océaniens. Michel Leiris, a member of the notorious Dakar-Djibouti Expedition (1931-1933) that brought 3500 artefacts to France, has described in l’Afrique fantôme the brutal methods used by the mission to acquire artefacts.(7)

Have the the museums shown themselves, as far as concerns the contested ownership of artefacts under their control, to be seeking reconciliation or some reasonable compromise?

The French generally refuse to consider restitution unless put under great pressure by a country such as Egypt with the dynamic Zahi Hawass as General Secretary of the Antiquities Authorities . (8) The University of London did return several artefacts to Egypt, however, the British Museum has stubbornly refused to return the Rosetta Stone.

Western museums have spent the major part of the last decades in trying to justify unjustifiable colonialist lootings. They have ignored United Nations and UNESCO resolutions urging the return of cultural property to the countries of origin. (9) They have not always followed scrupulously ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums as concerns restitution. Whereas Paragraph 6.3 of the Code of Ethics forsees the return of illegally acquired artefacts to their country of origin, Western museums seem prepared only to contemplate temporary exhibitions They have even pretended that Africans have never requested the return of looted and stolen artefacts. After a Nigerian minister of culture had gone to Germany and delivered a speech he described as Berlin Plea for the Return of the Benin Artefacts, the German museums, Etnologisches Museum, Berlin and the German authorities denied there had ever been a demand for restitution (10). Similary, the Neues Museum in Berlin and the President of the Preussische Kulturbesitz that holds the bust of Nefertiti have denied that the Egyptians have ever officially demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti which Ludwig Borchartd is alleged to have surreptiously whisked of to Berlin in 1930. (11)

When Nigerians and other Africans have requested the return of their looted artefacts,Western museums and authorities have met such demands with scorn and cynicism. A good example of this behaviour is Neil MacGregor’s reply to Prof.Tunde Babawale when he requested for FESTAC the loan of the ivory hip-mask of the Queen Mother Idia that has been in the British Museum since the notorious violent invasion of Benin City by the British imperialists in 1897. In his response, MacGregor does not even bother to answer the request for the Queen-Mother hip-mask,which was the object of Babawale’s letter. Instead the Director of the British Museum goes on to write about the co-operation between his museum and Nigeria. How disrespectful and arrogant can one be? MacGregor seems to be saying,let us discuss more important matters. (12) Other Western museums and authorities have not behaved better. They have mostly simply ignored requests for restitution.

Similarly,whenever the Greeks have asked for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, they have been met with baseless arguments and cynicism. For several decades the British Museum argued that the Parthenon Marbles could not be returned to Athens for lack of adequate musem facilties in Athens. The Greeks built a first class museum, the New Acropolis Museum, only to hear Neil MacGregor proclaim at the London School of Economics that the location of the Parthenon Marbles was never an issue. What matters now, according to the former director of the British Museum, was how Britain and Greece make it possible for Africans and Chinese to see the Marbles “The real question is about how the Greek and British governments can work together so that the sculptures can be seen in China and Africa”. (13)

How cynical can one be? We leave aside the various insults to the Greeks such as that the Greeks were imitating Lord Elgin in removing the Marbles to the new museum.


New Acropolis Museum, Athens
We leave aside also the disgraceful conduct of Magregor’s, predecessor,David Wilson, towards Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister for Culture,when she went to London to request the return of the Parthenon Marbles. When reference was made to the desire of the Greek Minister to view the Parthenon Marbles,the then director of the British Museum said said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars 'to case the joint' in advance. (14)


Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture of Greece. (1981-89,1993-94).

When Zahi Hawass asked for the restitution of the Roseta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti he was derided by many Westerners. Hawass managed to secure many artefacts from the French but the British refused to return any. The Germans displayed a lot of cynicism. They insisted that a request from the Director-General of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority was not enough;it should come from a Minister. Hawass become a Minister and put in a request. The Germans replied that such a request must come from the Egyptian President or his Cabinet. (15)

Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany

But how have the museums presented the histories of individual acquisitions? The museums and their supporters usually provide truncated and tendencious history of acquisitions through a choice of vocabulary that gives a favourable, and less aggressive version of the real history. How often do we read in connection with the 1897 British invasion of Benin that involved looting of artefacts and the burning of Benin City histories that tend to distort many aspects of the invasion: nature and objectives of the preliminary Britsh incursion, objectives and tactics of the Punitive Expedition, and how the Benin artefacts were brought to Europe. (16)

Some have described the preliminary mission of the British to Benin that ended in disaster as a ‘trade delegation’, ‘a peaceful unarmed delegation,’ a mission to discuss trade with Oba of Benin,’ an unarmed mission of 9 officials and 250 carriers with guns at the bottom of their boxes’. Many questions arise. Why did a small mission of 9 officers have 250 carriers with guns in their boxes? Were they intended at some point to spring a surprise attack on the Oba? Why did the mission go to Benin when the Oba had stated he could not receive them since he was involved in traditional rituals during which he was not allowed to see any foreigner? Was it possible that the plans of the British were so advanced that they did not want to wait? Some have suggested that Captain Galloway who led the preemptive army was a young inexperienced official? What is the relevance of his youth and inexperience in a plan discussed long ago with the British colinial office in London? Was he incapable of understanding that the Oba was not prepared to receive visitors at the proposed time? How much experience does one need to understand this royal answer?

Regarding the burning of Benin City,some have stated that this was due to an accidental fire. Ekpo Eyo has demonstrated that this interpretation was absolutely false. As the burning of Magdala, Beijing and Kumasi had shown, it was standard practice of the British Army to burn cities undergoing punishment. (17)

We read often that when the Benin artefacts came to Europe,they changed European attitudes towards African art. Often it is not even added that the artefacts were looted. Most of the absurd and baseless theories proposed by Western museums in the last decades have all aimed at avoiding restitution and consequently the true histories of the thousands of looted/stolen artefacts or artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums , the changing of names of some national or ethnological museums into ‘World Museums’, proposals of travelling exhibitions of looted artefacts, dubious notions of shared heritage all have the same objective: to avoid returning any of the looted artefacts to their owners. Can we expect Western museums,given the background above, to play the role of reconciling contesting demands of ownership? Can they assist in reconciliation of opposing contestants?


Commemorative Head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Weltmuseum, formerly Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria

There is so far very little evidence that Western museums and other institutions are serious about restitution.They usually treat demands for restitution with contempt and arrogance. (18). Their African counterparts have also not always shown the determination and seriousness that such matters require. They usually give up easily or make half-hearted demands because it is their function to do so. They have not always shown the commitment and determination that would be needed. They have not always informed their peoples and governments about difficulties they may have encountered in their negotiations,if any,with Western museums and governments.Let us remember that at the same time many Western institutions claim that their African counterparts have never requested the return of artefacts. (19)

Throne of King Ghezo, Abomey, Dahomey, République du Benin, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.

Western governments and museums could help us all is reconciling our conflicting claims and histories regarding artefacs in their museums but certain matters would have to change.

Western museums must abandon, as regards restitution, the attitudes and arguments inherited from the generation of Phillip de Montebello, Neil MacGregor and James Cuno. (20) Their attitudes reflect the basic racism that underlie most of the actions of the colonial past. Westerners cannot expect the rest of the world to accept their view points and actions that are based on nothing more than racism and prejudices inherited from the so-called European Enlightenment and born out of assumptions of Caucasian superiority.Western museums have assumed automatically that they must defend colonial atrocities that broguht artefacts to their countries. None of those claiming returns holds contemporary Westerners responsible for the atrocities of their predecessors and the defence posture assumed by many westerners can only be attributed to their guilty complex. They should rid themselves of this complex and try to use normal standards of fairness and justice in dealing with present claims for restitution.

The end of colonialism sounded the death knell of such ideas.The rejection of colonialism and racism deprives the arguments of past Western generations of any validity they may have appeared to have. How can Westerners of 21st Century continue to cling onto illegal and illegitimate acquisitions of the past with those discredited ideas? They cannot condemn racism amd colonialism and still hang onto acquisitions based on those two evils,rejecting all appeals from the United Nations and UNESCO.


Nok Terracotta Acquired Illegally by France. Seated person, 500 BC - 500 AD. Quai Branly, depot of Louvre, inv. No. 70. 1998. 11. One of the three looted items from Nigeria now in Paris. The sculpture has been allowed to stay in Paris by a post factum consent of Nigeria even though the ICOM Red List For Africa forbids exportation of such artefacts.

Deprived of their legitimacy, looted acquisitions of the past can obviously not remain in the old colonial countries without some adjustment and agreement with the victims of colonial and imperialist aggression. Devious plans such as loans cannot solve the basic historic injustice without concrete return and some symbolic expressions of regret. (21)



Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, looted in 1897 and now in transferred to captivity in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

True and genuine reconciliation cannot be achieved simply through the narration of the true histories of the looted artefacts; attempts must be made at redressing the present and glaring imbalance between Western States and African States with reference to iconic African artefacts. There is no reason why Western States and their museums should have more and better African artefacts than African States and their museums. There is no reason why the Ethnological Museum, Berlin or the British Museum, London should have more Benin artefacts than the Oba of Benin or the Nigerian National Museum.

We do not know what exactly were the motivations for the choice of this year’s theme of International Museum Day. Did the proposers just want the museums and their visitors to discusscontested histories’ and say the unspeakable in museums’ and then move on to business as usual after everyone has had their say? Does the ‘unspeakable’ become again ‘unspeakable’? Did they envisage proposals for the solution of the contestations of ownership or did they intend to leave the problems as permanent features of Western museums? Do they envisage the museums to remain permanent arenas of contested claims? ‘Acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation’ No one can pretend that the question of return of looted African artefacts only arose yesterday. The historic documents in the Annex include documentation of the efforts by a Labour Member of the British Parliament, Bernie Grant to secure the restitution of the Benin Bronzes in 1996. (22)

So, what concrete steps have the Europeans taken to show their willingness and determination to seek reconciliation with the African peoples who have suffered so much from European aggression? How many centuries more must we wait for demonstration of a genuine desire to seek reconciliation, not based on our accepting whatever Westerners propose? Recent writings and acts by Westerners do not convince us. ‘Shared heritage’ and ‘shared history’, as understood and presented by Westerners do not include sharing any material objects but exchange of views. That is also a form of sharing.

The world has many other urgent problems to solve and the museums would render the world a tremendous service if the restitution issues did not continue to remain a feature of the relationship between the West and the rest of the world.

African Governments and museums must assume their responsibilities in the matter of recovery of looted African artefacts. They cannot put all the blame on Western Governments and museums if they themselves have not displayed sufficient effort and determination to recover their national treasures and archives that should have been returned at Independence. If the many decades since Independence have not brought any success they must reconsider the problem over and reorganize themselves to achieve the proclaimed objectives. They should not let others present criminal violent acts against African peoples and cultures as a service to mankind. If on the other hand, they are happy with the thousands of looted African artefacts remaining in Western museums and institutions, they should inform their peoples and the world accordingly.

We have stated that the restitution issues resulting from colonial and imperialist adventures did not have to be acrimonious and appear unsolvable if Western museums and institutions showed a minimum of respect and fairness towards claimants. As we write now, a request from the previous Oba of Benin, -carried by a Benin noble to Dr. James Cuno, then Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Field Museum, Chicago, has still not even been acknowledged. The letter was sent following a statement by Cuno at the opening of the Benin exhibition, Benin-Kings and Ritual: Court Arts from Nigeria, in Chicago that if a formal request from the Oba of Beni were sent it would be considered. (23) In the meanwhile, we are not even sure of the whereabouts of the 400 Benin Bronzes that used to be in the Field Museum. (24) Could this large number of Benin Bronzes have disappeared from the Field Museum without anybody being aware of their whereabouts? Have they perhaps been exchanged with another American institution for a consideration they would rather not discuss? A visit to the homepage of the museum did not help at all in answering these questions. Obviously, the retentionist plea based on the availability of internet versions of artefacts would not apply to the Benin Bronzes in the Field Museum. On the other hand, the World Museum , Vienna, that has closed for 17 years its African Section where the Benin artefacts are, at least, provides some internet images at its website. It is true though that virtual images are no substitute for the return of the looted physical artefacts. We do not know how one can perform a ritual sword dance with virtual images from the internet where available in an African community. Besides, most museums are not yet able to provide virtual images of the looted artefacts.

There should be no mistake. Africans and other peoples are not going to forget the atrocities committed against their peoples and continents to satisfy the greed of some Europeans. (25). By keeping silent on the acquisition histories of their artefacts, some may hope to obliterate memories of past evils but the very nature of the looted artefacts is their strong indelible links to their countries of origin and their undeniable connections to those countries and peoples, far away from the so-called universal museums. A former director of the British Museum once suggested that we need another history. (26) We suggest our true history should be enough.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this, he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits. Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England”. — Victor Hugo. (27)

Kwame Tua Opoku,16 May 2017.

Salt cellar, Benin, Nigeria, looted in the 1897 Punitive Expedition, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

1 "Und denn, man muß das Wahre immer wiederholen, weil auch der Irrtum um uns her immer wieder gepredigt wird, und zwar nicht von einzelnen, sondern von der Masse. In Zeitungen und Enzyklopädien, auf Schulen und Universitäten, überall ist der Irrtum oben auf, und es ist ihm wohl und behaglich, im Gefühl der Majorität, die auf seiner Seite ist." Goethe am 16. Dezember 1828 Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzen Jahren seines Lebens,

Seite 311, Reclams Universal Bibliothek, Nr.2002, Stuttgart,2006.

2. International Museum Day- ICOM › What we do › Activities

3. K.Opoku, ‘ When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts? History of Looting of More than 100 Objects’... ...

4. Kwame Opoku: Return Of Stolen Skulls By Germany To Namibia ...

Have Germans Finally Acknowledged Their Extermination Wars ...

5. David M. Wilson 9-(Ed.), The Collections of the British Museum,The British Museum Press,1989, London.p.97. Note that Wilson calls the bloody British military invasions,’interventions’ thus minimizing the true violent military attack on Asante for refusing to submit meekly to British imperialist domination.

6. K. Opoku,’ Chinese Research Artefacts Looted in An in Anglo-French Attack on Summer Palace in 186: Do the Great Museums not keep Records?’ China research artefacts looted in the West - France ...

7. To our delight and relief, this very important book,published in French in 1953 will be published in English this year. In previous articles, I had pointed out that this major work had not yet been published in English even though translations exist in German ,Portuguese and other languages.See K.Opoku, From Benin to Quai Branly - Dr. Kwame Opoku -

8. The Logic of Non-Restitution of Cultural Objects from the Musee du Quai Branly ... › Home › African Art

Egyptian Season of Artefacts Returns: Hopeful Sign to be followed by Others? ...

9.Resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly about Return and Restitution of Cultural Property .

K. Opoku, ’Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?’

10 Berlin Plea For The Return Of Nigeria's Cultural Objects - Modern Ghana

11. . Did Egyptians Never Ask For The Restitution Of Nefertiti?

12. Annex-D.Historical Documents-Correspondex between Neil Macgregor and Babatunde Babawale

13. K. Opoku: The Amazing Director of the British Museum:Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy?

14. Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008, pp. 97-99.

15. Kwame Opoku: Nefertity In Absurdity: How Often Must Egyptians Ask ...

16. Nigel Barley writes in, The Art of Benin, (British Museum Press, 2010, p. 15) “An unarmed diplomatic mission went to urge the oba to comply and was attacked by chiefs acting without royal authority”. It is remarkable that the writer mentions that they were unarmed. Is a diplomatic mission supposed to be armed? There is no mention that the Oba had told this “diplomatic mission” that he could not receive them at the time proposed for the visit and that they should postpone the visit. Is this how diplomacy is conducted by entering the territory of a monarch who says he cannot receive the mission?

Paula Girshick Ben-Amos writes in, The Art of Benin, (British Museum Press, 1995, p. 58)” The British viewed Benin as the main obstacle to their expansion into the agricultural interior and when in 1897, an envoy to Oba Ovonramwen was ambushed and killed, the British sent out a Punitive Expedition against the kingdom”. Here the military force of some 250 is reduced to an envoy.

Neil MacGregor, in “The whole world in our hands “makes this statement in dealing with the British invasion of Benin:

A British delegation, travelling to Benin at a sacred season of the year when such visits were forbidden, was killed, though not on the orders of the Oba himself. In retaliation, the British mounted a punitive expedition against Benin.; In defence of the British Museum, by Neil MacGregor ... - The Guardian › Arts › Heritage

Frank Willet states in a contribution “Benin” in Afrika: Kunst und Kultur (ed.) (Hans-Joachim Koloss, Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1999 p. 43) that Captain Phillips had in November 1896 asked the Foreign Ministry in London for permission to dethrone the Oba and was denied permission. Nevertheless, in January 1897 Phillips and his troops went to Benin with peaceful intentions, and that the guns they had with them had been packed away and were not ready for usage Ekpo Eyo describes the Pre-emptive Strike Force and its back ground as follows: CONSUL PHILLIP ILL – FATED EXPEDITION.

“The event that was to lead to the overthrow of the Oba began when an acting consul – General was appointed for the area in 1896. He was a young naval Officer, called Captain Phillips. With this appointment events moved rather quickly. Soon after his arrival, consul Phillips began to advise the “Benin River Chiefs” not to comply with Oba Overanwen’s demand for additional tribute to the Oba of Benin for partially opening up the hinterland markets. Phillips followed up his advice to the Benin River chiefs with a letter dated November 1846 to Oba Overanwen proposing a visit to Benin city. The stated purpose of the visit was “to try and persuade the king to let white men come up to the City When ever they wanted to” (Boisrangon p. 58) Such a letter could have done nothing less than increase the fear of the Bini. The king was “to allow whitemen to come up to the City whenever they wanted to”. The visit was planned for early January 1897. In reply, the Oba requested that the visit be delayed for two months, to enable him to get through the IGUE ritual during which time his body is scared and not allowed to come in contact with foreign elements. Igue ritual is the highest ritual among the Edo and is performed not only for the well- being of the king but of his entire subjects and the land. But Phillips showed no sympathy. He replied the king that he was in a hurry and could not wait because he has so much work to do elsewhere in the Protectorate. Defiantly, the expedition set out as it proposed in January, 1897 and when it arrived at UGHOTON, three royal Emmissaries met it with a request that it should tarry for two days so that they could “send up and let the King know in time for him to make his preparation for receiving us” (Boisrangon, p.84). Again Phillips regretted that he could not wait because he has so much work to do and that he would start early the next morning. And, on the next morning, he set out for Benin City. By the afternoon of that day, January 4, 1897 the inevitable happened: Seven out of nine white members of the Expedition includingPhillips himself were ambused and killed. The only white survivors were Boisragon and Locke. The story of this ill-fated Expedition is set out in Boisragon’s book: The Benin Massacre

See K. Opoku ‘Compromise on the Destitution of Benin Bronzes?– Comments on an Article by Prof. John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts’’

. K.Opoku, Germans Debate Legitimacy And Legality Of Looted Artefacts In Ethnology Museum, Berlin...

17.Ekpo Eyo,’Benin: the sack that was’, Dawodu Net
18. K.Opoku, Respect and Disrespect in restitution of cultural artefacts

19. K.Opoku, Germans Debate Legitimacy And Legality Of Looted Artefacts In Ethnology Museum, Berlin...

20..We have discussed some of the ideas of the leading proponents of the universal museums in several articles:Phillip de Montebello

Does the Demand for Restitution of Stolen African ...

Do Directors of “Universal Museums” ever learn from ...

Kwame Opoku´s response to Philippe de Montebello -

Neil MacGregor
Is the de-accession policy of the British Museum a farce? | Community ...

History through a hundred looted objects

Kwame Opoku – Neil Macgregor is playing the usual Game... Comments on a lecture by Neil Macgregor, British ... ..

K. Opoku: Arrogance, Duplicity And Defiance With No End ...

James Cuno
Affirmation and declaration as strong weapons: Review of Cuno's ...
Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over ...

Do present day Egyptians eat the same food as Tuthankhamun? Review of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity?

Review of James Cuno’s Museums Matter › Opinion › Featured Articles

Does Dr Cuno really believe what he writes? | Pambazuka News

James Cuno: "There is not a credible museum in this country that has ...

21. K. Opoku, ‘ European Museums To 'Loan' Looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria? ’

22 .Annex I.B. Letter of Bernie Grant to Director of Glasgow Museum.

23. Benin Exhibition in Chicago: Cuno Agrees to Consider Request for Restitution of Benin Bronzes benin exhibition in chicago: cuno agrees to consider request for ... ..

K. Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Some of the Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museum Return Some of the Benin Bronzes?”

24. K. Opoku, Where are the 400 Benin bronzes in the Field Museum? | Pambazuka News

25. Annex II.
26. Neil MacGregor, "The whole world in our hands”,

27. Kwame Opoku on Returned Chinese Sculptures – SHÈKÈRÈ ...


Bernie Grant, Labour Member of the British Parliament, from 1987 to his death in 2000. Benin Bronzes Campaign Files | The Bernie Grant Archive


A. The Case of Benin Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua to the British Parliament

Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua to the British Parliament I am Edun Akenzua Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa-Iko, brother of His Majesty, Omo, n’Oba n’Edo, Oba (King) Erediauwa of Benin, great grandson of His Majesty Omo n’Oba n’Edo, Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the cultural property was removed in 1897. I am also the Chairman of the Benin Centenary Committee established in 1996 to commemorate 100 years of Britain’s invasion of Benin, the action which led to the removal of the cultural property.

History “On 26 March 1892 the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul, Benin District of the Oil River Protectorate, Captain H L Gallway, manoeuvred Obal Ovonramwen and his chiefs into agreeing to terms of a treaty with the British Government. That treaty, in all its implications, marked the beginning of the end of the independence of Benin not only on account of its theoretical claims, which bordered on the fictitious, but also in providing the British with the pretext, if not the legal basis, for subsequently holding the Oba accountable for his future actions.”

The text quoted above was taken from the paper presented at the Benin Centenary Lectures by Professor P A Igbafe of the Department of History, University of Benin on 17 February 1997.

Four years later in 1896 the British Acting Consul in the Niger-Delta, Captain James R Philip wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, requesting approval for his proposal to invade Benin and depose its King. As a post-script to the letter, Captain Philip wrote: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.”

These two extracts sum up succinctly the intention of the British or at least, of Captain Philip, to take over Benin and its natural and cultural wealth for the British.

British troops invaded Benin on 10 February1897. After a fierce battle, they captured the city, on February 18. Three days later, on 21 February precisely, they torched the city and burnt down practically every house. Pitching their tent on the Palace grounds, the soldiers gathered all the bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests that escaped the fire. Thus, some 3,000 pieces of cultural artwork were taken away from Benin. The bulk of it was taken from the burnt down Palace.

Number of items removed It is not possible for us to say exactly how many items were removed. They were not catalogued at inception. We are informed that the soldiers who looted the palace did the cataloguing. It is from their accounts and those of some European and American sources that we have come to know that the British carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property. They are now scattered in museums and galleries all over the world, especially in London, Scotland, Europe and the United States. A good number of them are in private hands.

What the works mean to the people of Benin The works have been referred to as primitive art, or simply, artefacts of African origin. But Benin did not produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums. At the time Europeans were keeping their records in long-hand 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 reference points, the library or the archive. To illustrate this, one may cite an event which took place during the coronation of Oba Erediauwa in 1979. There was an argument as to where to place an item of the coronation paraphernalia. Fortunately a bronze-cast of a past Oba wearing the same regalia had escaped the eyes of the soldiers and so it is still with us. Reference was made to it and the matter was resolved. Taking away those items is taking away our records, or our Soul.

Relief sought In view of the fore-going, the following reliefs are sought on behalf of the Oba and people of Benin who have been impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property.

(i) The official record of the property removed from the Palace of Benin in 1897 be made available to the owner, the Oba of Benin.

(ii) All the cultural property belonging to the Oba of Benin illegally taken away by the British in 1897 should be returned to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.

(iii) As an alternative, to (ii) above, the British should pay monetary compensation, based on the current market value, to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.

(iv) Britain being the principal looters of the Benin Palace, should take full responsibility for retrieving the cultural property or the monetary compensation from all those to whom the British sold them.
B. Letter of the late Bernie Grant, member of Parliament, to director of Glasgow museum and the reply thereto.

Mr Julian Spalding Director Art Gallery and Museum Kelvingrove Glasgow G3 6AG

10 December 1996
Dear Mr Spalding,
African Religious and Cultural Objects Thank you very much indeed for your recent correspondence about the above matter.

I write on behalf of the Oba of Benin, Oma n'Oba, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, and on behalf of the Africa Reparations Movement (UK) of which I am the Chair. The subject of this letter is the Benin Bronzes, Ivories and other cultural and religious objects contained in the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, about which I understand you have recently spoken to Mr Edward Wood of the House of Commons Library.

As you are aware, most of the Benin religious and cultural objects currently in British museums and other institutions were looted in February 1897 from Benin City. The context of this was the battle for trade in the carve up of Africa, into "spheres of influence", by the European powers, and the launching of a military expedition by the British in 1897, to depose the King of Benin who insisted on preserving the independence and sovereignty of his kingdom.

The Benin religious and cultural objects belong to a living culture and have deep historic and social value, which go far beyond the aesthetic and monetary value which they hold in exile. I was recently informed by Prince Akenzua, the Oba's brother, who was in the UK on a quest to speak to MP's regarding the return of the Bronzes etc., that those officiating at the Oba's coronation ceremonies had forgotten the rituals. They had had to consult some of the Bronzes that are still in Benin, in order for them to wear the correct vestments and have the appropriate officials present.

Prince Akenzua explained that the previous coronation had been well over 50 years previously and because the ceremony is not written down, the officials had forgotten and their only recourse to the proper rituals were the Bronzes which were made for that specific purpose. He went on to say that many of their ceremonies have not been performed satisfactorily because most of the Bronzes are missing. This situation is very distressing for the Benin people of today. Moreover, the objects have come to symbolise the intense sense of injustice widely felt in Africa, and indeed amongst many people of African origin in Britain, about the mis-appropriation of African art, cultural and religious objects, arising from the period of European colonisation.

There has for many years now, been a demand for these religious and cultural objects to be returned to Benin, and as the centenary of their looting approaches in February 1997, the strength of feeling around this has intensified. Formal requests for their return have been made in the past by the Nigerian Government, and by the Obas of Benin themselves, but have been met with refusal. A request for the mere loan of an ivory mask for the purposes of a major World African Arts Festival was denied in 1977, and this affair led to the cooling of relations between Britain and Nigeria at that time.

As Chair of the Africa Reparations Movement (UK), (ARM UK), at the recent meeting with Prince Akenzua, I discussed the plans for the centenary commemoration next year. The demand for the return of the Benin religious and cultural objects is clearly central to this occasion, and the Prince has formally authorised me to investigate the possibility of returning at least some of the objects at this time. However, as you will no doubt be aware, the legal position as regards returning artefacts lodged in English museums and institutions is complex, although a challenge to the current legislation features firmly on the agenda of ARM (UK). I understand though that the position in Scottish Law is different, and it is within the powers of individual local authorities to make decisions on the restitution of items from collections which they hold. I also understand that there are precedents for restitution where a formal request has been made.

The Royal Family of Benin has therefore authorised me to make such a formal request, and has asked me to draw an analogy with the recent return to Scotland of the Stone of Destiny. Just as the Stone is of such great significance to the people of Scotland, so the Benin treasures are significant to the people of Benin. Theirs was a rich, sophisticated, and advanced civilisation, which was in many ways far more developed than contemporary European societies. The denial and destruction of the history of the Benin people were acts of appalling racism, which need urgently to be rectified. These are indeed some of the most distasteful and abiding injustices arising out of the period of European colonisation of Africa.

Whilst I am aware that the collection held in the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum is a relatively minor one, its symbolic value is immense. The Oba himself would be more than pleased to visit Glasgow to receive the religious and cultural objects, and to express his appreciation if restitution can be arranged.

I would be grateful if you could look into this matter and let me have your views as soon as possible.

I remain,
Yours sincerely,
Art Gallery and Museum Kelvingrove, Glasgow G3 BAG Tel: 0141-287 2600 Fax: 0141-287 2608 Director of Glasgow Museums: Julian Spalding

Mr Bernie Grant MP House of Commons London SW1A OAA

10 January 1997
Dear Mr Grant
We have now had a chance to consider your request for the return of the Benin bronzes, ivories and other cultural and religious objects contained in our collection. We have considered the whole complex position and have reached the following conclusion. Though it is possible for our museum service to restitute items from its collection and we have done this recently in the case of some Aboriginal human remains, we cannot advise the City Council that this should happen in this case.

Our reasons are entirely professional. Museums have a collective responsibility, both nationally and internationally to preserve the past so that people can enjoy it and learn from it. In the case of the Benin collection in Glasgow though it is small and not of the highest quality, it does play an important role in introducing our visitors to the culture, and religious beliefs of Benin, whose artistic achievements rank with the finest not just in Africa but in the whole world. Virtually all our 22 Benin items are on permanent view to the public in Kelvingrove and in St Mungo's Museum of Religious Life and their withdrawal from these displays would limit, in our opinion, our visitors' understanding of the world.

We have taken into account, too, the fact that the museums in Nigeria, including the one in Benin itself, do now have one of the world's finest representations of this great culture and our collections would not add significantly to this, even if the request for restitution had come from them. However, in this case, we are not considering a transfer from one public museum to another, but a request on behalf of the Oba of Benin, for future religious use. We believe, however, that these artefacts have an important role to play in the public sector by informing over 3 million visitors here about the culture of Benin and, it has to be said, the history of British Imperialism.

Kind regards.
Julian Spalding Director
cc Councillor F McAveety, Glasgow City Council

C. Letter to Director, Glasgow Art Gallery And Museum - from Emmanuel N. Arinze - Chairman, West African Museums Programme

WAMP West African Museums Programme Programme des Musées de l'Afrique de l'Ouset B.P. 357. Dakar. Sénégal. Tel: (221) 22 50 57 Fax: (221) 22 12 33

P.O. Box 71041 Victoria Island Lagos, Nigeria Tel: 01-2622917, 09-2341722, 09-5234757 Fax: 01-2694642, 09-2341722

Dear Mr. Spalding
Return of Benin Objects to The Oba of Benin
I have just heard of the effort being made by Mr. Bernie Grant, MP to convince your Museum to return some Benin artefacts to the Oba of Benin as a gesture of historic reconciliation and positive response to the age long yearnings and aspirations of an aggrieved People. This gesture would not have come at a more appropriate time in the history of Benin and indeed Nigeria, as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the great Benin Expedition of 1897.

The return of any single Benin artefact is of great significance as the object returns to the altar of our ancestors where they religiously, culturally and historically belong. Each object on the ancestral altar has a meaning and performs a function that is paramount and necessary to the life of the Edo. In a different context, environment and situation, the same object becomes sterile, empty and just a work of art.

Having worked in Museums foreclose to twenty-five years, I do understand and appreciate that humanity should have access to the creative works of different peoples and different cultures. However this universal idea should not deprive people of their natural right to hold and to keep that which they have made and which is part of their very existence and humanity.

The sacred and unique religious ceremonies that are performed in the Palace of the Oba of Benin and which affect the life of every Edo citizen draw a huge crowd to the Palace grounds and it is significant that these ceremonies centre around the artefacts one finds on the ancestral altars.

In this regard, and in my capacity as the Chairman of the West African Museums Programme and President of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, I join my voice with those of eminent citizens like Rt. Hon. Bernie Grant, MP in appealing to you, your Museum and your Council to be gracious enough and agree to return the Benin artefacts in your Museum collection to the Oba of Benin who today is the personification of the Edo nation in all its ramifications.

This singular act of your Museum will encourage many others in our great profession to take the path of honour and join in the historic quest for restitution.

I wish you well. Best wishes ,
Emmanuel N, Arinze Chairman 22-01-97
D. Letter from Prof.T.Babawale,CBAAC,to Neil MacGregor,Director Brtish Museum.

OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR C/CBAAC183/114 16th February, 2007

Director of British Museum Russell Square, London EC1

Dear Sir,

IN 1977, Nigeria hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC’77). The festival covered dance, exhibition, colloquium, durbar and a boat regatta. From all conceivable parameters FESTAC’77 was an unqualified story. It brought Africans from all over the world in a celebration of the rich cultural heritage of the African race. More importantly, it brought to the fore the invaluable contributions of Africans to the funds of universal knowledge.

The success of FESTAC’77 made it imperative that the gains of the festival should be sustained. The Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBACC) was established to perpetuate the gains of FESTAC’77. Thirty years after the hosting of the momentous festival, CBAAC has considered it necessary to commemorate the epochmaking event. Thus a number of events have been lined up for the commemoration (Please see document attached). Proudly Nigerian Project has been commissioned by CBAAC to act on its behalf in sourcing for sponsorship and coordination of events.

The essence of this letter is to request that the British Museum, safely return/hand over the original 16th century ivory mask which was last worn by King Ovonramwen Nogbasi of the ancient Benin Empire in 1897 before he was exiled by Britain. The ivory mask is the official emblem for FESTAC and a unification symbol for Nigerians and Black and African peoples worldwide. The mask is also of great significance to us as Africans. Attempts were made to recover the mask for the 1977 FESTAC event but to no avail. Nigeria and Britain have enjoyed a mutually warm and cordial relationship over the years. We are therefore optimistic that the British Museum would not object to this humble but historically significant request.

We await your reply in writing and look forward to your positive response. Thank you for your anticipated cooperation and assistance.

Yours sincerely,
Prof. Tunde Babawale, Director/Chief Executive.

Prof. Tunde Babawale, Director/Chief Executive. CBAAC National Theatre Inganmu Lagos, Nigeria

Dear Professor Babawale,
Thank you for the letter dated 23 February 2007, (which was delivered to the British Museum on 19th March 2007) concerning the Benin ivory mask, and the history of CBAAC’s interest in it since FESTAC’77.

Let me assure you that the British Museum appreciates the significance of the Benin material in the collections for Nigeria, Africa and the world, and wishes to make it better understood and more accessible in Africa and worldwide. To this end, we are currently engaged in a new dialogue with the National Commission on Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. We have been invited by NCMM to offer our assistance and advice on the development of the Lagos Museum through a programme of museum development, training, professional exchanges, and capacity building for which we are seeking international backing. We are currently also involved with NCMM in a project together with the University of Frankfurt, Germany, on the material culture of Ife.

It is through programmes such as these, undertaken in partnership with our colleagues in Nigeria and at their instigation that we will best be able to further relations between British and Nigerian museums and, most importantly, promote public understanding of Nigeria’s culture and history worldwide.

Yours sincerely,
Neil MacGregor.


The Cross of Emperor Tewodros II looted at Maqdala, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom,

Extracts from Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature - Rick Gekoski

‘The British Museum, that great repository of the art and architecture of the rest of the world, has a significant holding of objects, many of them on display for generations, which testify to a quality of art and culture in sub-Saharan Africa which men of the stature of David Livingstone and Conrad had either failed to notice, or to appreciate…

Here is a nice bit of synchronicity: at much the same time that Conrad was beginning to write Heart of Darkness, an unauthorised British expeditionary force entered the kingdom of Benin, ostensibly to enforce an 1892 ‘treaty of friendship’ (known as the Gallwey Treaty) that King Omo n’Oba Ovonramwen had rightly refused to sign. He recognised that, beneath the usual rhetoric, it would have made his lands into a British ‘Protectorate’, as such were often, and ironically, labelled. Rightly alarmed, the king banned British visitors to his kingdom, rightly fearing their intentions, for the unreciprocated offer of ‘friendship’ had become, in British eyes, an excuse for an invasion of Benin…

Late in 1896 an invading force led by Lieutenant James Phillips, which consisted of six British officers and some 250 African soldiers, set out to capture the city of Benin, depose its king and lay hold of its many assets. On learning that the force was on its way, the king was inclined to let them into the city to declare their intentions, but was overruled by the commander of his army, whose pre-emptive strike against the would-be invaders killed most of the soldiers and all but two of the British officers. It was a terrible slaughter – the so-called force was totally unprepared for the attack – and feelings in London were incendiary. Benin must be taught a lesson…

What the British reprisal soon did, aside from killing a great many Beninese, was not merely to destroy the remnants of a great and ancient culture but to strip its artistic assets – (in order to ‘defray the cost of the war’) – including over 900 of those magnificent bronzes that were for centuries produced there, and which are now the property of museums throughout the world, particularly in Germany and at the University of Pennsylvania, with a few left for the British Museum…

The palace, the major building within the city, was an enormous structure of some 2 million square feet. Very little of this remains. The British force of 1897 destroyed most of the city walls, though some remnants can still be seen today. The Benin bronzes taken after the 1897 raid were (finally) acknowledged as ‘booty’ in an in-house British Museum report of 1972, which nevertheless insisted there was nothing illegal about their acquisition. It was just a little unseemly, perhaps? …

If you wish to study the civilisation and art of Benin, there is little sense going there. Go to a museum, a Western museum, instead. Go, perhaps, to the University of Pennsylvania, where Richard Hodges, the Director of the Penn Museum, notes proudly that some 20,000 important African objects may be found, including what is undoubtedly one of the finest collections of Benin art in the world…

The transmission of cultural objects as the spoils of war is an essential part of the diaspora of objects of art, and is regarded as inalienable. But it is hard to justify the looting of the Benin bronzes even in this mitigated if conventional sense. Britain was not at war with the kingdom of Benin, and its first, unauthorised, attempt to sack the city was punished with a justified pre-emptive strike. British reprisals were fierce, and totally out of scale with the moral imperatives, and it is hard to see why Nigeria should not regard the restitution of the bronzes as their moral and legal right…

The Oba, on the other hand, had enhanced and protected their treasures. Nor was the destruction of the kingdom of Benin an isolated incident. Those most respected of Conrad’s colonialists, the British, were also responsible, at much the same time as the sacking of Benin City, for destroying Kumasi, the capital of the Ashante empire, which was located in what is now called Ghana.

For some hundreds of years a prosperous centre of trade and agriculture hacked out of the indigenous forest, the Ashante thrived due to the huge reserves of gold, and a relatively enlightened importation of slave labour. At its height, Kumasi had a population of some 2 million people, and was a thriving urban culture with a grand palace for the king, and a plethora of art works and jewellery fashioned from gold. The Ashante were literate, and the palace, according to one traveller, had a great many books, as well as sophisticated systems of law and trading. Britain had been in armed conflict with the Ashante four times in the nineteenth century, drawn by the vast wealth, natural resources and trading power of the kingdom. Repulsed respectively in 1823 and 1863, a protracted assault on Kumasi in 1873-4 lead to a Treaty of Peace on terms favourable to the British, and to the sacking by some 2,500 soldiers of large parts of the city, and the destruction of the Royal Palace.

Gekoski, Rick. Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature (S.234-244). Profile Books. Kindle-Version.