Blood Artifacts in Boston Museum

The dirty secret of western museums is that their collections of foreign cultural artifacts are often the products of colonial era looting and theft. A private donation to a Boston museum triggers outrage in the Beninese press.

For years the people of Benin have tried to reclaim plundered works of art with no success. Now a collection of artifacts have a new ‘owner’ in America.

“The year 1897 means much to me and my people; it was the year the British invaded our land and forcefully removed thousands of our bronze and ivory works from my great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen’s Palace,” says His Royal Highness Oba [King] Erediauwa, Oba of Benin.

The American media reports that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has recently received a large number of Benin artifacts as a donation from a New York banker and collector, Robert Owen Lehman, great-grandson of the founder of Lehman Brothers. The gift consists of excellent artworks from West Africa of which 32 are from Benin – 28 bronzes and four ivories. The other two are from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Benin artifacts were purchased in the 1950s and 1970s. A quick look at the artifacts indicates that they are among the best of Benin artifacts; and the press has praised the beauty, elegance, and sophistication of these works.

The sophistication of the artifacts clearly points to their origin: the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897 by the British army in their criminal enterprise, the so-called Punitive Expedition.The invasion culminated in the looting of the palace of the Benin king, Oba Ovonramwen, and the killing of innocent men, women and children before Benin City was burnt down by the invading army-as was their tradition whenever and wherever the British army was sent to punish recalcitrant colonial or semi-colonial subjects.

The Museum of Fine Arts itself refers to the invasion and looting of1897 as a source of many of the artifacts. However it subtly attempts to lessen the criminal nature of the source of these magnificent artifacts. A press release issued by the museum states:

“The kingdom expanded and flourished from the late 14th through the late 19th century, when it came under British influence upon the conclusion of a treaty with Britain in 1892. Five years later, after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action.”

The statement “after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897,” is surely incomplete, if not misleading. In fact, the so-called British delegation was the British Pre-emptive Force, consisting of 120 African mercenaries, disguised as porters with guns in their luggage, led by British officers that intended to unseat the Oba of Benin by a surprise attack. This force was itself surprised by a Benin attack.

Readers are not informed that the so-called British delegation went to Benin after the Oba declined their request to pay him a visit because the date chosen by the British coincided with traditional rituals during which no foreigners are allowed to see the Oba. Since when do delegations visit royalty when they have been told explicitly that the date chosen is unacceptable? The attack was a convenient pretext for British plans that were in the works to depose Oba Ovonramwen, who was resisting British endeavors to control trade in Benin and its surrounding states.

Christraud Geary, senior curator of the African and Oceanic Art Department of the Museum of Fine Arts is credited with declaring that, “We have looked at the legal situation here at the museum and we’ve come to the conclusion that the gift meets all of our standards.” The curator also added that there were no official claims for the works of art. This attempt to give the impression that there are no legal problems in connection with the acquisition of blood antiquities would not convince anyone, particularly when the museum does not deny that the artifacts were acquired initially under circumstances of violence and brutal force. The phrase “our standards” needs to be clarified to describe whether they refer to standards of the museum or standards prevailing in the USA. It is noteworthy to mention that the museum also came into conflict with Italy over the museum’s acquisition of looted artifacts, some of which were eventually returned.

There is little mention that the people of Benin, under the leadership of the present Oba, Erediauwa (great-grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, from whose palace the Benin artifacts were looted in 1897) have been trying for ages to recover some of the artifacts. An article from the news site Boston.com says, “over the years, some archaeologists and African government officials have demanded the return of the objects.” Christraud Geary commented that there have been no official claims regarding the artifacts. However, these artifacts are records of Benin history and culture and are surely more needed in Benin than in Boston. Did anybody think about the needs of the Benin (Edo) people?

Apparently, the needs of the world have been considered by the senior curator: “What entered my thinking was that here was a wonderful opportunity to move into the public domain objects which hadn’t been seen for decades and which spoke so wonderfully of the great African culture,” she said. The curator is anxious for the “world” to see objects that have not been seen for decades. But what about the Benin people who have been violently deprived of their cultural artifacts and records of the history for more than a hundred years?

The height of arrogance, paternalism and insensitivity is reached when a curator declares:”In the MFA, we can share them with people of all nations. We can present their history. It’s a complex history. And that’s our role. To move great cultural objects into the public domain.”

We can all agree that presenting history, especially the history of another people, is a complex matter. But has anyone considered that it might be easier and better to let people tell their own histories by returning the records of their history to them, especially those artifacts that have been violently looted? Or, are other people, by some genetic disability, not in a position to reconstruct their own history? Why must Western scholars be the only ones to tell the history of others? If curators at Western museums consider this as their role, they must reconsider, especially if this directly or indirectly reinforces the injustices of an imperialist past that enabled certain countries to deprive people of their material, spiritual and cultural resources.

Christraud Geary, who considers the donation a major contribution, is reported to have declared: “It’s such a major, major gift and it’s so important for understanding African creativity and African culture.” The needs of the deprived owners appear to be less relevant to Western museum directors and officials who are more occupied with their “universal” museums. But their “universalism” is a Western universalism that does not extend to non-Western people, especially those from Benin because they would face difficulty in obtaining visas to enter the United States.

Readers may recall that fairly recently there was criticism and a call for boycott when Sotheby’s announced they were going to auction off Benin artifacts that were in possession of inheritors of the participants of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897. The hue and cry against the proposed auction was such that the Galway family and Sotheby’s withdrew the artifacts from the proposed auction.

It is true that a donation to a museum of looted artifacts and an auction of looted artifacts are different matters, but the fundamental objections to both situations relates to their common origin: the violent looting of 1897 by the British military force. The initial stain of violence and blood mars the Benin bronzes. Donations to museums are not always guided by pure altruism; there are tax rebates for making such donations, in addition to an enormous amount of social prestige that can be used by the donor to maximize profits in other enterprises.

During the protests against Sotheby’s, led by the NGO, the Nigeria Liberty Forum, the Nigerian Government declared its intention to request the return of all Nigerian artifacts illegally held abroad. A body was set up with a mandate to implement this specific objective. The work of the Nigerian body may reveal the exact location of the looted artifacts, which would bring much relief to the Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin.

There is no rule in Municipal Law or International Law that prevents a holder of a looted or stolen object from returning it to the rightful owner even if he has not asked for it. Normally, most owners will quickly put in a claim once they are aware of the whereabouts of the object and the identity of the holder. But how can one state there has been no claims in this case? The museum itself indicates that the Benin artifacts have not been seen for decades. Indeed, the rightful owners of the artifacts have not seen them since 1897.

Arguing that the owners of looted objects have not tried to claim them is a remarkable tradition in Western museology. The British Museum maintains that there has been no request for the return of the Benin artifacts even though the Oba of Benin sent a petition to the British Parliament, printed in Parliamentary records. How much more formal can a request be than a petition to the British Parliament? As recently as 2008, the Benin Royal Family sent a demand to museums for the return of the artifacts. (Annex ll). The museum directors have not even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the petition, hand carried by a member of the Royal Family to the museum. The request was reiterated at the opening of the exhibition, Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, in Vienna, and subsequently in Berlin and Chicago.

In 1968 the great Ekpo Eyo-then Director of Museums at the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments-sent a request to various Western governments to return some Benin artifacts for the opening of a new National Museum in Benin City. Not a single government responded.

Several resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO have urged holders of such artifacts to take the initiative to return these artifacts. The ICOM Code of Ethics for museums requires museums to enter into discussions with owners of foreign cultural artifacts they are holding. In view of all this, can anyone honestly and seriously state that there has been no demand for the return of the looted Benin artifacts?

The patent immorality and illegality of the violent 1897 British invasion of Benin clearly calls for acts of atonement and reconciliation from the persons and the institutions concerned. It is not enough to condemn the illicit traffic in antiquities and at the same time accept artifacts that are obviously tainted with opprobrium. It is true that many Western states, and their intellectuals, have adopted the position that justice and morality have no place in the question of looted artifacts, especially if this concerns African people. If the Benin people had been Europeans, the attitude of Western museum directors and art collectors would have been different. In fact, the reaction towards Nazi-looted artifacts is very eloquent in this regard. Indeed some of those holding on to the blood antiquities from Benin would be the first to support recovery of Nazi-looted artifacts. The British Government and Parliament that remain deaf to the cries of the Benin people have recently passed legislation to enable recovery of Nazi-looted artifacts.

The movement to amend the fundamental iniquity of robbing others of their cultural artifacts, especially where violence has been involved, is gaining ground. Recent restitutions give us some hope that even the West will finally accept that it is wrong to steal the cultural artifacts of other nations. One cannot envisage a peaceful world that accommodates such blatant violations of the human right of others to develop their culture with their own cultural products.

Holders of looted cultural objects are clearly not responsible for the deeds of their predecessors or previous possessors. But are they not also expected to make a contribution to a better world? Or would they rather continue to contribute to historical injustices against African and other people? These historical violations of our human right to cultural development led to the present imbalance in the distribution of classical African artifacts between the West and Africa, to the benefit of the former.

Western museums should finally do something to dispel the views held in the rest of the world that they are dens of looters, holding and protecting thousands of ill-gotten cultural artifacts of other people.

Kwame Opoku