World Museum, Vienna, Re-Opens: Renovated Premises For Cultural Objects Of Others But No Solution For Restitution.
‘We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past. As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.’
World Museum, Vienna, formerly Ethnology Museum, opened on 25 October 2017 with a lot of fanfare, musical performances and dances amongst a large public. The whole museum had closed since 2013 but its African section where the Benin Bronzes were kept, was closed to the public in 2000 and opened in 2007 briefly for the exhibition entitled Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Thus effectively, visitors who came to visit the African section were unable to see the famous African pieces in the Ethnology Museum for 17 years.
The museum re-opened in renovated premises which should please the public which is used to modern museum architecture in other places. I was particularly pleased that the main majestic iron entrance was kept, renovated in impressive green. Innovations include also a spacious coffee bar and a larger book/gift shop. What we saw in the interior added to the feeling that there had been a strong determination on the part of the authorities to present a thoroughly modernized museum. The architects have undoubtedly realized a museum that should meet world standards in a museum that calls itself World Museum. (1)
The 14 exhibition halls - are very spacious and do require some time if one intends to see them all:
Benin and Ethiopia, Culture war, Mosaic of Brazil, Colonialism, View on China,
Japan comes to Europe, Collecting Craze, South Seas, Indonesia, World in Motion, Into a New World, Orient, Mesoamerica, A Village in the Mountains
I was bothered a little by some halls that were dimly lighted as ethnology museums were wont to do, perhaps in order to focus on the objects displayed and create a certain amount of exoticism and mystery. We personally, believe dim lights that almost amount to darkness, should be avoided especially as most of the objects came from non-Western countries where such objects are displayed in light. It appeared to me that in some places there were far too many objects displayed in a way that reminded one of the old cramped ethnology museums even though here there is plenty of space.
Court Dwarfs, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Overall, the new premises of the World Museum, Vienna, and the disposition of the halls, as well as the displays, may be considered as successful.
One must also congratulate the museum for inviting individuals from countries where the artefacts came from to express their views on them.
This is a partial admission that African history and culture are best articulated by the Africans themselves. How would our Austrian friends feel if most of the icons of Austrian art and culture had been looted/stolen and kept in Nigeria and other African countries for a century and then called to assist in the presentation of the artefacts? Would they not feel that Austrian culture is best presented by Austrians? Unsurprisingly, many speakers from Africa are critical of the looting and transfer of African artefacts from the Continent to Europe; some are grateful that their artefacts are being displayed in Western museums.
The museum itself has adopted a somewhat critical attitude towards the colonial heritage:
‘Most of the world’s population was dominated by foreign powers in the years between 1500 and 1920. This foreign rule was defined by conflicts and exploitation. Against this backdrop, ethnographic museums flourished in the 19th and 20th century and shaped stereotypical beliefs of lost or colonialized Cultures.
Today we face our colonial past not only to raise awareness but also to learn from it. After all, how we deal with our collections and the people related to them in the present will shape the image of ethnographic collections in the future.’ (2)
The sentence ‘Most of the world’s population was dominated by foreign powers in the years between 1500 and 1920’ does not reflect the fact that it was the non-European peoples that were dominated by Europe. True appreciation of the world situation is not helped by such a vague and misleading description.
Before the decades closure of the World Museum, the most discussed issue was the question of restitution of looted/stolen objects from non-European sources. The burning issue after the opening of the museum is still the question of restitution. This question is not likely to go away until Western museums finally begin to return a considerable number of artefacts to Africa, Asia and the Americas.
As we have consistently stated in our articles, the renovation of museum premises or the construction of entirely new museum buildings does not have any effect on the legal status of the artefacts nor on the legitimacy of their possession by Western museums. (3) The Musée du quai Branly, Paris, an entirely new museum that opened in 2006 inherited looted/stolen artefacts from Musée de l’Homme and Musée des arts africains et océaniens that have been described in Afrique Fantôme by Michel Leiris. Nobody has suggested that the transfer of artefacts to the new museum in any way affected their legal status or removes in any way their status as colonial plunder. Similarly, the transfer of looted/stolen artefacts from the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany to the new Humboldt Forum has in no way removed the stigmata of looted object. On the contrary, the new institution is faced with more vehement criticisms as the city palace in Berlin, nears completion. (4)
Commemorative Heads, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum, Vienna.
World Museum, Vienna, has in the past acted in concert with other Western museums to deny in principle restitution to request from African countries. These museums were all parties to the discredited Declaration on the Value and Importance of the Universal Museums (2000). A good example of the World Museum’s policy is illustrated by the museum’s attitude and actions regarding the restitution of the looted Benin artefacts of which there are 167 in the Vienna museum. At an international symposium organized within the framework of the Benin exhibition, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, 2007, the Benin delegation stated that if each of the Western museums holding Benin artefacts returned one artefact, the Benin Monarch would be satisfied. To this very modest request, Christian Feest, then Director of the Völkerkundemuseum promptly denied that any artefact could be returned. This writer told the Director that the reasons he had advanced were not valid. Earlier on, the Benin Monarch had made a similar plea in the catalogue of the exhibition. (5)
In 2013, at a meeting in Nigeria, the World Museum and other Western museums adopted a so-called Benin Plan of Action for Restitution, which inter alia, indicated that they might in future return some of the looted artefacts for exhibition. (6)
Recently in 2017, there have been announcements in newspapers about a proposal to organize an exhibition in Benin City, Nigeria, with some of the looted artefacts now held in Western museums but with ownership remaining with western museums that are illegally holding onto the looted artefacts. We have expressed our views on this insulting project. (7) The following institutions attended the meeting of the so-called dialogue group in March 2017 at the University of Cambridge:
British Museum, London,
Horniman Museum, London,
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge,
Pitt-Rivers Museum, University of Oxford,
Humboldt Forum, Berlin,
Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlung Sachsen, Leipzig and Dresden,
Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden,
What the recent proposals make clear is that the World Museum, Vienna, and the other Western museums are not prepared to return any of the looted items to the Oba of Benin and his people who have for a century been seeking the return of the artefacts looted by the British in 1897 and sold to other Western museums.
We have made various suggestions regarding the restitution of the Benin Bronzes in Western museums. Our main position has been that some of the 3500 artefacts that were looted with violence by the British Army in the invasion of Benin City in 1897 must be returned. We have also suggested that there could also be symbolic restitution in some cases. There are political, social and psychological reasons for restitution of artefacts that have been wrenched from the Kingdom of Benin. From all that Western museums have proposed so far, we can only conclude that they do not want to understand what the invasion, the violent looting of artefacts and the burning of Benin City in 1897 mean for the Edo people, Nigerians and Africans. The resentments of the African peoples towards colonialism and continued Western domination are imperceptible to Western museum establishments. One cannot otherwise explain the unwillingness of Western museums to return some objects to Benin, especially as they complain regularly that they do not have enough space to display most of the objects under their control.
World Museum, Vienna, has given itself a critical and anti-colonial position in its hall on colonialism. But how useful is this new attitude? After some 57 years of Independence of the African countries, one may well be anti-colonialist as the formal colonial system as such does not exist anymore. Besides, the criticism of the colonial system has been effectively made by Africans and Asians and their leaders who led the fight against colonial domination. What is now required is not a prolongation of these discussions but efforts to repair what can be repaired. One may well be sceptical about those who criticise the colonial regime but are not willing to return even one of the artefacts brought to the West through the colonial system.
Imagine, if on the day of the re-opening of the museum, its Director or other official could have made the following statement:
‘During the decade closure of the African section of the museum, we have been in close contact and negotiations with the Oba of Benin and the Nigerian authorities and have reached the following conclusions: Considering the circumstances and conditions of the acquisition of the Benin artefacts, the World Museum returns to the Oba of Benin and his people today,100 of the 167 that are here in the museum. The parties will continue to discuss the future status of the remaining Benin artefacts.’
Instead we get in the museum book, welt museum wien, the following statement ‘Moreover, there are ongoing discussions surrounding claims and questions with regard to the restitution of objects to the royal family’. (8) No information is provided about what claims are being made, who the parties are, and their arguments.
We also note that Montezuma’s Crown is still in the World Museum, Vienna.
Montezuma’s Crown, Mexico, now in World Museum, Vienna, Austria.
The last time we dealt with this issue in 2011, we were optimistic that Austria was seriously considering returning the Montezuma’s Crown. After all, the ruling party, SPÖ, President Klestil, the Green Party and lot of leading cultural personalities were in favour of returning the disputed artefact which means a lot to the Mexicans and their culture but does not have any importance for Austrian culture. (9)
From the renovated World Museum, one has the impression that we are far away from any idea of return. The Feather Crown is the centre piece of the current exhibition and the first object described in the museum guide. The new publication on this issue, Quetzal Feather Headdress by Gerard van Bussel, published under the imprint of the KHM-Museumsverband, that controls the World Museum, in time for the re-opening of the museum, seems more intent in convincing us that what has been called, Montezuma’s Crown, now titled, Quetzal Feather Headdress may never have been worn by the famous Aztec king: ‘The current evidence is not sufficient for a clarification of this question, and every attempt at discovering the ultimate meaning remains speculative’. (10) Even assuming that Moctezuma was not the wearer of this impressive headdress, since Mexicans consider this an essential object of their culture, and no one denies it is Mexican, and the object has no importance for Austrian culture should Austria not be willing to return the artefact to the only country in the world that seemed to care about Austria’s existence as an independent State and protested when Nazi Germany annexed Austria on 12 March 1938?
Presenting a more critical approach to colonialism and Western domination, conditions that made possible the amassing of an extraordinary amount of materials in the World Museum as in other Western museums, that the museum cannot possibly display, one would be entitled to expect a more sympathetic approach to demands for restitution of the Benin artefacts and the Moctezuma’s crown.
One aspect of the re-opening that pleased me was to see that finally the World Museum has produced not only a museum book, simply called, welt museum wien but also a small guide entitled, In a Nutshell. (11) If the publication of the two books fills a loophole, I was not particularly happy with what I read there. We read in the museum book the following about the Benin artefacts:
‘Against the backdrop of the so-called punitive expedition of 1897, the British brought the royal treasure of Oba Ovonramwen to London, from where it was distributed across the world, thus compensating for the costs of the expedition… Nevertheless, we still do not know precisely how, for what purpose, and in which context certain objects were used. Moreover, there are ongoing discussions surrounding claims and questions with regard to the restitution of objects to the royal family.’ (12)
This description is extraordinary. How is the average museum visitor or reader to know that punitive expedition is a full-scale military invasion intended to punish a population and a king that resist British imperialist hegemony? How does the reader know that innocent women and children were killed, artefacts were looted from the Oba’s palace, Benin City was burnt, Benin nobles and chiefs were executed, and the Oba sent into exile?
Where does one get this idea that the looted treasures ‘were distributed across the world? The looted Benin treasures were not ‘distributed’. Many were kept by the British and the rest sold at auction by the notorious auctioneer, W.D. Webster, in London to other Europeans from Austria, Germany and Netherlands. Benin artefacts are not all over the world but mainly in Western museums such as World Museum, Vienna, British Museum, London and Ethnology Museum, Berlin. (13) The statement about not knowing for what the purposes the Benin artefacts were made is strange. It creates the impression that Benin people are an obscure group about which little is known and perhaps, may even have disappeared. A few paragraphs before this statement, the same author writes: ‘As with other objects, the relief plaques from the Benin Kingdom can be understood as historical stories; they aid in remembering certain events or individuals.’ Do we know, or do we not know the purposes of the Benin objects? One of the leading experts on Benin, Barbara Plankensteiner, was until a few months ago, Deputy-Director at the World Museum, Vienna. She has produced inter alia, two books on Benin: Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, (2007), Benin , (2010). Maybe it would be useful to consult such books. (14) The Benin Royals have been telling the world over decades that these artefacts are records of their history and culture. (15)
Equally disappointing is the chapter found in In a Nutshell where the authors write about ‘Benin and Ethiopia - Art, Power, Resilience’:
‘Both collections came to Europe in consequence of the opposition to colonial threats in the late nineteenth century’. Collections ‘came to Europe’? Artefacts secured through violence are presented as if the objects on their own free will travelled. The violent element completely disappears in such descriptions. Again, writing about a shirt bearing the image of Oba Ovonramven, made for the centenary commemoration of the 1897 invasion of Benin City by the British army, we read: ‘The cloth was produced for the occasion of the centenary commemoration of the events in 1897. Great Britain sent troops in retaliation of the raid of a British mission, which in turn set out to convince the Benin king to comply with a treaty signed in 1892. This ultimately led to the end of the Benin Kingdom.’ (16)
Missing from this description is the fact that the so-called trade mission, consisting of 9 British officers and some 250 soldiers disguised as carriers, with ammunition in the boxes they carried, had requested to visit Oba Ovomramven but the king responded that they should postpone their visit; during the period of the intended visit, the king would be involved in a festival during which period no foreigners may contact the monarch. Despite the king’s refusal to receive them at the requested time and despite advice from several sources to postpone the visit, the British Pre-Emptive army went ahead and all but two were killed. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the aim of the Pre-Emptive army was to overthrow Oba Ovonramwen and put in his place a more pliable Oba but were surprised themselves. Since when does one visit a monarch who suggests that the visit should be postponed to a later date? (17)
We must also mention that much of what is written under ‘Preliminary Remarks - On this book in particular and Ethnographic Museums in general,’ cannot be accepted without comment. Christian Schicklgruber declares: ‘If things carry an impression of the world from which they originate within themselves, they become mute when they are removed from their environment and transported to a museum depot. In such a case, they withdraw back to their ‘thingness’ for the time being – objects are only formed material after all. They remain silent until a voice is lent to them. They first begin to speak again, and at least to shed a light on their original world, in an exhibition or in a book’ (18)
Thus, spoke a European museum director. But who put these artefacts in the museum depot in the first place? It was done by directors of museums such as the World Museum, who, on their own account, confess they cannot exhibit more than 1.5 per cent of the 200,00 artefacts they have, including 167 looted Benin artefacts. To continue in the line of the museum director, we agree that artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, will not speak, will withdraw into themselves, after they have been brutally wrenched from the Palace of the Oba of Benin by the British Army in 1897, sold to Europeans and kept in museum depots for more than 100 years. And why should they want to open their hearts to their European captors? Can European museum curators lend these African artefacts their voices? What voices, African or European? Will Europeans hear their voices after they have failed or refused for hundred years to hear the voices of Africans who are not in their depots, urging them to return these artefacts to their ancestral homes? ‘Hundreds of thousands of things are waiting in the depot of the Museum to be put on display or described in a book, so they can tell their story’.How many more hundreds of years must these artefacts wait to be released?
These artefacts in depots are given voice by the curators: ‘Rather unusually for a museum book, they appear personally as individuals in the chapter Curator’s Choice. Here they talk about their favourite objects, to which they have a special, often very personally coloured relationship. Yet also the identification by name, for each of the short stories as well as for the unique object descriptions, in all chapters points to their subjective approach to the world when it comes to lending a (or their) voice to the objects.’ (19)
Did anybody ever doubt that the choice of objects or texts was subjective and personal to the curator? The identification of European curators with non-European artefacts after years of their detention could appear as another misappropriation of the artefacts by Europeans. Some may even see in this, profanation or trivialization or lack of sensitivity and respect. We read the following texts from the curators themselves:
Mask of the Piaroa
‘The mask of the Piaroa is such an object. It is a sacred artefact in which spiritual beings manifest in an identity-establishing and life-sustaining ritual of a community. It is not used except in the ritual and those uninitiated are otherwise not allowed to lay eyes on it. It must be kept secret. Nevertheless, the mask is also part of the souvenir market and offered for sale in handicraft shops’ (20)
Antelope Mask Noumtiri
‘Noumitri was danced at a variety of different occasions: to honour ancestors or the protective antelope before the first rainfalls, yet also to accompany the bodies of the dead and to supervise at burials’. (21)
Lion Figure with Wings.
‘As a protective spirit it guards sacred places.’ (22)
Sculptures to Repel Danger
The literal translation of the Tibetan term for such apotropaic sculptures is’Heaven’s Gate Earth’s Gate’. This name also explains the function, namely, to avert damaging influences from heaven and earth. In Tibetan cultural regions they are set up above the entrance to temples and houses. (23)
These citations clearly reveal that the objects involved were of religious nature or related to serious beliefs of a group of people and one could argue that not much respect is shown here towards the beliefs of others when non-believers present them the way they are done here. It would have been better to leave the identity and photos of the curators out. They may incur the displeasures of others.
The reasons advanced for abandoning traditional categorization such as ‘region’, ‘religion’ or ‘culture’ in ethnological museums, is that they do not work anymore, we are told: ‘These time-honoured orientations or categorisations, which for a long time appeared secure, can no longer be offered. Rather, short stories are narrated and scenes created with objects in the sense of metaphors, and in these stories the ‘Other’ emerges. They are then fitted into the broader framework of a common humanity and beyond the boundaries to the ‘Other’. We cannot do more than open such windows; only one detail framed by this window can appear. A sequence of such details leads to a picture of the diversity of cultural expressions’. (24)
There may well be good reasons to criticise the presentation of objects according to ‘region’, ‘religion’ or ‘culture’. But we are not sure that the reasons offered above are sufficient. Having been to museums where the traditional categories are still in honour, we require further evidence of their insufficiency and the proof of the advantages of the new presentation. Moreover, the presentation in the World Museum does not quite abandon geographical division. For instance, Benin artefacts and Ethiopian artefacts are found in the same hall where the fate of the Benin Oba Owonramwen and the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik are compared under the theme of ‘Art, Power, Resilience.’ Both monarchs were in Africa. Could they have been compared to monarchs in Asia or Europe that were also threatened by colonialism and imperialism? The bibliography in the publication, welt museum, wien follows a geographical division, where bibliography relating to the African continent is subsumed under Sub-Saharan Africa which includes countries far away from the Sahara such as the Congo. North African countries such as Tunisia and Egypt come under the category North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia and Siberia. A Hegelian excision of North Africa from Africa is implicitly adopted here. Though there is mention of ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa, there is no mention of ‘supra-Saharan’ Africa.
Incidentally, the comparison between Benin and Ethiopia is found in the smaller publication, In a Nutshell, but not in the museum book. Whereas the smaller publication follows the themes in the exhibition, the larger publication has different divisions.
We find it also difficult to accept the following:
‘We have not only distanced ourselves from the encyclopaedic presentability of regions, religions, cultures or exoticising imagery but also from the unambiguity of the attribution of meaning to an object. If the question of meaning is raised, it quickly becomes evident that there is not only one single possibility for description in a museum context…
The meaning of an object in the original culture is diverse, and first emerges in active dealings with it’. (25)
Is the fact that an object may have different or several meanings in a culture a good reason for not giving the object the meaning that is generally accepted by the authoritative practitioners of that culture? Does it mean that everybody’s interpretation of an object is as good as anybody’s? The interpretation of an object by the Benin Oba or other high Benin official must surely be given more weight than that of the average visitor to the museum. Why do we have specialists if their interpretation of the meaning of an object does not have any particular value?
Equally contestable is the following statement:
Therefore an individually considered thing bears just as little unambiguous meaning as an individually encountered word. A specific meaning in a text first discloses itself based on the relationships to other words in the sentence. Thus each thing first begins to tell one of many possible stories in dialogue with others, thus unfolding a specific meaning.’ (26)
Taken seriously, such views would mean that we cannot understand the functions or meanings of objects in an exhibition unless and until they are brought into relationships with other objects that the curator has chosen. Surely a musical instrument, such as a bell or drum, is played in most societies to produce music or make announcements. The curator can tell us on which occasions such an instrument is played. Must the instrument be put in relationship with other instrument before we can tell its basic function?
If we free artefacts from their geographic or regional affiliations and from their primary functions, one can use them to produce any story one likes. The museum would have a lot of artefacts that it can use to support any theme. If Benin artefacts are used to illustrate colonialism and domination, the artefacts should not lose their primary function of recording Benin history and culture. We must note that these artefacts were made some centuries before European and British colonialism. However important the theme of colonialism and domination may be, the primary function of the artefacts should not be forgotten or subordinated to other themes. Nor should their importance in their societies be subordinated to the interest or need of outsiders to learn about Benin culture and society.
We find it difficult to accept this statement: ‘The contact between the Benin Kingdom in today’s Nigeria and Europe dates back to the late fifteenth century. These three objects serve as testimony of the period before the British colonial administration in West Africa; their presence in Europe also turns them into testimonies of European history.’ (27)
While refusing to return the objects to Benin, we are now told that these objects are also testimonies of European history. With this logic, one could practically keep thousands of African artefacts that are lying idle in the depots of European museums as we have read from the curators.
Feather bust of a god, Ki’ihulu manu, Hawaii.
I was amazed to see on page 144 of the museum book a familiar and much beloved face of a Benin commemorative head of an Oba presented in a truncated form, albeit digitally, showing only one half of the head. My immediate reaction was a feeling of deep offence and shock. Irreverence, mutilation, decapitation, destruction, desecration, humiliation and vandalism were the words that sprang to my mind. Did the authorities of the World Museum, Vienna, really approve of this presentation? Have they not learnt about the respect and reverence that are paid to the Oba, whose person was supposed to be sacred and that any attack on his person is an unpardonable sacrilege? It may be well be true that Westerners are in an age of fun where nothing sacred is holy but most of us, Africans are not in that age and our gods and their representatives or their representation are not objects of fun or amusement. True too that many western museums feel they must entertain their visitors and what objects are more appropriate for this purpose than African objects. The text accompanying this halved head of an Oba reads as follows:
‘According to oral tradition commemorative heads were established under Oba Oguola in the thirteenth century. The Oba was the highest political and religious authority in combination with complex functions and ceremonies. Based on the preserved commemorative heads, researchers were able to develop a stylistic chronology of Benin art, which made it possible to attribute this head to an early and rare group of seven heads of similar style that might have been made by the same artist. The group is special because its heads feature two rosettes on each side of the beaded cap’. (28)
What is the pedagogy underlying this display of a non-existent halved head of a Benin oba ? The reader is referred to ‘two rosettes on each side of the head’ but only one side is shown? Would the museum have permitted such a mutilation if the object were a European work such as Mono Lisa? The insensitivity shown here is amazing. We expect the museum authorities to remove this non-existent head and replace it with a Benin commemorative head as produced by the Benin artist. How can one so lightly handle the integrity of an iconic object?
On leaving the World Museum in the Neuer Burg, we cross fifty metres of the Ringstrasse, on the opposite side, and we are at the Kunsthistorische Museum, where are displayed works of European masters, and we are rudely reminded that the illusion of having been in a world museum cannot last long. Here are the European art works of centuries of many European countries. World museum without European works? What kind of world is that? It is true though that we are now in a world where words do not seem to mean what they appear to signify. There are also in the Kunsthistorische Museum, the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian works. Is Egypt no longer part of Africa? Are we back to Hegel?
A few more steps away from the Kunsthistorische Museum, some fifty meters
away, is the Museums Quartier where Leopold Museum der Moderne Kunst, Kunsthalle and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien are located. Many works of modern art are to be found here. There are also in Vienna other venerable art museums such as Albertina and Belvedere. Do they not form part of world culture?
The World Museum, Vienna, is administratively and financially under the authority of the Kunsthistorische Museum and cannot act without the approval of the later. The least that could be expected of a world museum, is that it is not subordinate to another nearby museum with different objectives. Every self- respecting museum must have its own independent budget that it can dispose of without having to consult another museum that has different objectives.
It is perhaps significant that publications of the World Museum, Vienna are under the imprint of the Kunsthistorische Museum. Forewords are signed by the Director General of the Kuntshistorische followed by the name of the Director of the World Museum. The relation between superior and subordinate could not be more clearly demonstrated. One gets the impression that the World Museum is short of financial resources and hence the absence of a facility such as audio guide which most museums now have.
One is forced to conclude that the name ‘world museum’ does not cover the world but only partly those parts of the world, non-European parts, that Europe colonized and dominated until recently. Those brought up in both African and European cultures will find it extremely difficult to think of a world culture without Europe.
There has never been within, living memory, a world without Europe and attempts to present cultural objects that have been looted/stolen under specific historical circumstances, without mentioning who was dominated and who was dominating, distorts the true relations between Europe and the rest of the non-European world. True enlightenment and mutual understanding are best achieved by laying bare the known historical facts, however unpleasant. Any system, structure or theory that sets out to explain the world, even partially that leaves out the continent that has been most responsible in shaping the modern world, for better or for worse, Europe, cannot give a complete picture however sincere and efficient its exponents may be.
The World Museum, Vienna, has all the potential to become one of the great museums in the world, as it was under its former name of Völkerkundemuseum. But the museum management must sincerely try to resolve the basic contradictions arising from the fact of assuming a critical and anti-colonialist posture while at the same time refusing to return any of the looted artefacts of the colonial period. Some have expressed the hope that the World Museum will become the Bezirksmuseum of Vienna. We hope that it does not take the District Museum as a model but looks at other museums that try to appeal to progressive elements and tendencies in the world. Selfishness and greed cannot be the aim of a world museum in the true sense of the world. One would also hope that in its appeals for financial support from the public, the museum would avoid images that may offend other sensitivities. (29)
Should the States of our world ever decide to establish a truly World Museum, the most vehement opponents would be the States that have already established their own world museums. If they are at present not willing to return even one looted artefact to a deprived people, they will surely not be willing to surrender any artefact to a truly World Museum where all cultures would make their cultural contribution. The artefacts of many peoples are at present hi-jacked by powerful States.
“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr. (30)
Kwame Tua Opoku.
1. K. Opoku – Ethnology Museum, Vienna Changes Name ...
Ethnology Museum, Vienna Changes Name to World Museum ...
2. Claudia Augustat and Reinhard Blumauer (eds.), In a Nutshell, KHM-Museumsverband, 2017
3. K. Opoku, From Benin to Quai Branly - Afrikanet.info
4. K. Opoku, Pressure On Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and Humboldt ... https://news.culturecrime.org/entry/Opoku2017Pressur.html
5. Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007. p.13.
6. K. Opoku, Benin plan of action for restitution: will this ensure the return of Benin ...
7. K. Opoku, European Museums to 'loan' looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria ... https://www.pambazuka.org/.../european-museums-‘loan’-looted-benin-bronzes-niger.
8. Christian Schicklgruber (ed.), Welt Museum Wien, KHM-Museumsverband, 2017, p. 144.
9. K. Opoku, Now is the Time for Austria to act on the Restitution ...
10. Gerard van Bussel, p. 33
11. C. Schicklgruber (ed.) Welt Museum Wien, Claudia Augustat and Reinhard Blumauer (eds.) In a Nutshell.
12. Schickl gruber, op. cit.p.143.
13. Charlotta Dohlvik (May 2006). Museums and Their Voices: A Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes (PDF). International Museum Studies.
14. B. Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007. Benin , 5 Continents, 2010.
15. Appendix 21 - United Kingdom Parliament
https://publications.parliament.uk › ... › Culture, Media and Spor
WHAT THE WORKS MEAN TO THE PEOPLE OF BENIN
‘The works have been referred to as primitive art, or simply, artifacts 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’.
16. Augustat and Blaumauer, op. cit. 27.
17. Ekpo Eyo, BENIN: THE SACK THAT WAS - DAWODU NET
See also the British Museum publication
Under the heading British Punitive Expedition 1897, we read as follows:
‘This episode has to be seen in the context of the spread of British control over
the whole of what is now Nigeria at the start of the colonial period –the kingdom
of Benin was just one of the targets. The initial problem arose out of the decision
by a British consul Phillips to visit the Oba with a small armed group, against the
advice of the British Governor, other Nigerian chiefs, and repeated
warnings, threats and pleas by the Oba himself. Phillips persisted and he and his
group were killed. A punitive expedition was then sent, which arrested and
deposed the Oba and put an end to five centuries of the kingdom's, with the
British Army looting and destroying the capital city'-p.5
The Wealth of Africa-The kingdom of Benin p. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum 08/2010
Kingdom Of Benin_Teachers’Notes
18. Schicklgruber, op.cit . p.13.
19. Schicklgruber, op.cit. p.14.
20.Schicklgruber, op. cit. p. 261
21. Schicklgruber, op. cit. p. 262
22. Schicklgruber, op. cit. p. 265
23. Schicklgruber, op. cit. p. 266
24. Schicklgruber, op. cit. p.13.
25 Schicklgruber, ibid.
26. Schicklgruber, ibid.
29. One would also expect the museum to take a modern approach to the issue of human remains and refrain from using any part of human remains or semblance of human remains in its collection, such as the skull found in the museum’s collection. In this connection, we suggest to the World Museum, Vienna, to examine all its exhibits and remove any object that may contain parts of human remains such as skulls or hairs or any matter close to these. It would, of course, be desirable if all the major museums along the Ringstrasse Vienna, would make a joint effort to ensure that these great cultural temples do not contain any such human remains that would not be in accordance with the requirements of present day standards that are to be found in the International Council on Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics.
We read in a publication of the Natural History Museum, entitled, Natural History Museum Vienna-a Guide to the Collections: ‘The curators, therefore, have been asked to analyse the present value, the exact origin and the contemporary and future handling of these human remains. In particular cases (illegal export, grave robbery or ethical-religious issues) restitution/repatriation may be indicated.’. Stefanie Jovanovic-Kruspel, Natural History Museum Vienna-a Guide to the Collections, 2012 p. 129.
Human Head Trophy
See the link below for the image of head trophy used to recruit patrons for the museum https://www.weltmuseum+wien.at/object/460435/?offset=184&lv=list
30. Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystem verdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden“.
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, 1984, Bertelsmann Verlag, Munich, p.185.
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.