Is It Time to Repatriate Africa’s Looted Art?Historians in the News
tags: museums, colonialism, art history, African history
On the eve of Feb. 9, 1897, the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now part of modern-day Nigeria, stood as a marker for the achievement of Black civilizations. Archaeologists describe Benin City’s earthworks as the world’s largest built before the mechanical age, and its city walls were estimated to have been “four times longer than the Great Wall of China.” But the next day, the British military entered the city to overthrow Benin’s king by force. By Feb. 18, soldiers had burned Benin City to the ground. After Benin’s fall, the British donned blackface and faux native dress to celebrate.
The art from its royal palace and civilian homes was looted during a 10-day massacre described in the British National Archives as a “punitive expedition”—a punishment for the Benin king’s men killing seven British officials demanding control of regional trade. At least 3,000 artifacts—known as the Benin Bronzes—were stolen and taken to Britain, with 40 percent sent to the British Museum. The remaining loot was sold to private collectors and galleries across Europe and the United States. Much of it ended up in major Western museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
More than a century later, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy, but a large number of its historical artworks remain outside the country. It’s a familiar story across Africa: 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent, according to a 2018 report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron. Given the shameful manner in which African artifacts were taken and the collapse of the colonial empires that enabled the looting, it is time for European institutions to reevaluate claims of restitution. In Africa, there are a number of new museums planned with a mission to empower citizens with this cultural heritage that could receive the artifacts.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread globally in June, anger directed at statues memorializing slavers and colonialists soon turned to Western museum collections. Activists urged museums to return art and artifacts taken from African countries under colonialism or offer direct financial compensation. Last month, protesters unsuccessfully attempted to remove a 19th-century South Sudanese funeral pole from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. “I will bring to Africa what was taken,” the Congolese artist Mwazulu Diyabanza, who led the demonstration, said in a video posted online. “Most of the works were taken during colonialism, and we want justice.”
The protests have strengthened calls to decolonize museums, but little has happened so far in terms of restitution. For example, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum responded to Ethiopia’s request for the return of plundered treasures with an offer to loan the items to Ethiopia for the long term. Private auction houses have also come under fire for selling items removed during Nigeria’s civil war. Despite an online petition and a strongly worded letter from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments calling for Christie’s to halt the sale of sacred Igbo sculptures in Paris, the auction went ahead in June and fetched 212,500 euros (about $240,000).
In practice, the British Museum has dismissed all restitution claims. Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent human rights lawyer, told the Guardian that “the trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property.” The “barbaric manner of the taking of the [Benin] Bronzes amounted to a war crime,” Robertson wrote in his 2019 book, Who Owns History?.
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