Justice & equality as museum values?
Court dwarfs, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Dr Kwame Opoku, Do Museums Transmit Values Of Justice And Equality? Comments On International Museum Day 2021, Modern Ghana, 25 May 2021
I decided not to comment on International Museum Day, which offers an annual occasion to reflect on the museums, their aims, and activities. Still, when I saw a statement of ICOM Austria making certain claims for the museum, I felt I should not keep quiet.
A statement of ICOM Austria issued in connection with the International Museum Day 18 May 2021 claims, among other things, that the museum transmits the values of justice (Gerechtigkeit) and equality (Gleichheit). The museums are also said to be the ‘most important educational institutions outside the schools’ (wichtigsten ausserschulischen Bildungseinrichtungen) (1)
This claim for the museums, at least for the European and Western museums, seems to be wrong and in contradiction to the experience and knowledge of the African, Asian, Latin-American and other peoples in their relationships to Western countries and their museums during the last hundred years. Discussions on the restitution of looted African cultural artefacts have demonstrated the complicity of Western museums in the crimes committed against the African peoples either at the times of the offences or at any rate, after the commission of the acts of aggression, murder, arson, violation of property rights or destruction of property.
Institutions like the British Museum often sent experts with the invading army to help select the artefacts to be stolen. Richard Rivington Holmes, an official of the British Museum, was with the invading British army under Lord Napier to attack Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia in 1868. Many of the looted Maqdala treasures are now in the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and other institutions in the Western world that refuse to return them. (2)
In so far, as most Western museums still refuse to restitute African artefacts that they know were looted, they must all be considered as accomplices after the crimes. Where then is the value of justice that the museums are supposed to be transmitting? Most western museums have still not restituted any of the looted African artefacts, such as the Benin artefacts, 196 of which are still in the World Museum, Vienna, that inherited them from the Völkerkunde Museum.
Many museums have declared willingness or intention to restitute some of the looted artefacts. Germany has expressly stated it would start restituting the Benin artefacts to Benin/Nigeria in 2022. (3) Despite sympathetic statements from time to time from curators of the World Museum Vienna, there has been no statement from the World Museum or the Austrian government of an intention to restitute the Benin bronzes to Benin/Nigeria.
The attitude of the World Museum, Vienna, as regards the Benin artefacts is remarkable. The greatest exhibition ever on the Benin artefacts, Benin-Kings and Rituals-Court Art from Nigeria, curated by Barbara Plankensteiner, then Deputy Director, was held at the Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna, 2007. The exhibition then travelled to Paris, Berlin, and Chicago. This excellent exhibition included an International Symposium at which participants debated the question of restitution. (4)
During the discussions, the Benin Royal Delegation declared it would be satisfied if each museum present were to return one Benin artefact. The delegation was promptly told by Prof. Christian Feest, director of the museum, that the museums could not restitute any object. I challenged the Directors explanations. This exhibition was the resurrection of the restitution debate that had been dormant for a while; it germinated the seeds for continuing discussion on the restitution. It was the most comprehensive Benin exhibition, which displayed many artefacts that even the Benin Royal Family had not seen since they were looted by the British in the notorious invasion of 1897.
Many persons seem reluctant to mention this magnificent exhibition and the excellent catalogue. It often seems that few remember this great exhibition, attended by the Benin Royal Delegation and many specialists involved in the continuing restitution debate.
Why is there reluctance on the part of many as regards this exhibition? We can only speculate. Perhaps the organisers were surprised and embarrassed by the resurgence of interest in restitution. They probably do not want to draw attention too often to the Benin artefacts in Vienna. In any case, the director of the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, Sabine Haag, who supervises the World Museum, Vienna, clearly expressed support for non-restitution at the Oxford Union debates on 1 October 2017. (5)
The World Museum, Vienna, is a leading and active participant in the Benin Dialogue Group, which decided that restitution is not on their agenda. They favour loans of Benin artefacts to Benin/Nigeria. This position is consistent with membership in the discarded Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums (2004), which sought to give immunity to the major museums against claims for restitution. (6).
Many Western museums, including the World Museum, were recently asked by an American site, news.artnet.com, on their position regarding the restitution of African artefacts. We reproduce in the annex some of the answers given and comment thereon. (7)
In criticisms and defences of Western museums against demands for restitution, one often hears arguments that seem to be in the direction of some inherent inability of Africans to look after their cultural artefacts; they are echoes of old racial theories about the inferiority of Africans. There has been no impression that the museums are trying to maintain any sense of justice or equality.
Regarding the claim that museums constitute the most important educational institution outside the school system, one wonders whether there is any supporting evidence. It appears most young people visit the museum once or twice in the whole school period depending on the interest of their teachers. Many adults do not visit the museum at all. As far as the restitution of looted African artefacts is concerned, discussions with people in Austria do not indicate that the museums have transmitted much knowledge and information.
The relations between European museums and Africans are too well-known to require any rehearsal here. Suffice to say that most experts have concluded that looting of African artefacts, both in the past and present, has been possible mainly due to the readiness of European museums to purchase looted artefacts without asking too many questions about provenance. It is common knowledge that much of Nok artefacts from Nigeria and Komaland pieces from Ghana have landed in Western museums where there is demand for African artefacts.
Western museums have constantly defied United Nations/UNESCO Resolutions urging the return of looted artefacts to their countries of origin. Western museums regularly ignore provisions of the ICOM Code of Ethics. What images does such lawless behaviour transmit to the rest of the world? Many Africans see a museum like the British Museum, a citadel of looted artefacts with a voracious appetite for the objects of others. And nothing has been done to improve or change this image. , The repetition of old discredited arguments and a demonstration of unwillingness to change has convinced many that the evils of the past, as regards African artefacts, will continue with some European museums.
A claim to transmit values of justice and equality by museums may be established by showing, for example, that the World Museum, Vienna, has decided that because of the violent and illegal way in which the British looted the Benin artefacts in 1897, the museum would return most of the 196 Benin bronzes it has. How many of the artefacts are to remain in Vienna will be discussed with Nigerian authorities. The museums should bring the full history of the acquisition of African artefacts to the attention and knowledge of the Austrian public.
If the museums want to improve or change their image, more work remains to be done. In the face of the history of injustices and the collaboration of the museums with colonial oppression, and the current unwillingness to restitute looted African artefacts, simple assertions of virtues will not suffice. Claims of museums transmitting values of justice and equality appear, therefore, as pure cynicism.
1. ‘Museen sind öffentliche Orte einer offenen Gesellschaft. Sie thematisieren die Herausforderungen der heutigen Welt und sind die wichtigsten außerschulischen Bildungseinrichtungen. Museen fördern das Verständnis einer immer komplexer werdenden Welt, sie vermitteln die Werte der Gerechtigkeit und Gleichheit und sind Vorreiter für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung‘
2. Richard Rivington Holmes, assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, acquired most of the items from the auction the invading British Army organized after the conquest of Magdala.
3. K. Opoku, Berlin Decision on Benin Restitution: Germany on the Way to Restitution of Looted African Artefacts,https://www.modernghana.com/news/1079313/berlin-decision-on-benin-restitution-germany-on.html
4. K. Opoku, ’Further Report from the exhibition “Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria,’
5. Sabine Haag, We Should NOT Repatriate Artefacts | Dr Sabine Haag | 6 of 6
6. Participation in the Benin Dialogue
K. Opoku,’ Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of An Arrogant Imperialist Project’ https://www.modernghana.com/news/441891/declaration-on-the-importance-and-value-of-univers.html
7. See annex below.
Answers by The British Museum, London, and World Museum, Vienna, on Restitution.
The website news.artnet.com recently published answers from several museums on their plans towards restitution. We reproduce here the answers given by the British Museum and by the World Museum, Vienna.
Benin Bronzes Are Scattered All Over the World. We Asked Museums That Hold Them Where They Stand on Restitution
Number of Benin bronzes: 928
Position on restitution: “We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time—whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange…The British Museum works in partnership with colleagues, communities, and organisations across the world. We are currently collaborating with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria and Adjaye Associates on a major new archaeology project linked to the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art. This innovative collaboration will investigate the archaeology of the Kingdom of Benin, including archaeological remains buried below the proposed site of the new museum. The Edo Museum will reunite Benin artworks from international collections. The Benin Dialogue Group, of which the British Museum is a member, will work with the museum to help develop this new permanent display of Benin works of art.”
Status of restitution requests or returns: No comment given
Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of the Benin Dialogue Group
I have seen different figures for the number of Benin artefacts the British museum holds- 300, 700,900 to over 1000. One day we may know the exact number.
The answer of the British Museum is typical and characteristic of this museum which holds 13 million artefacts, mostly looted. Instead of answering directly the question posed, the museum reiterates its belief in the universal museum, in its own strength in keeping together the artefacts it has, indicating its unwillingness to restitute any object from its collections which were built up as and when British armies looted artefacts around the world. At the same time, the museum creates the misleading impression that its disparate collections, acquired at different times and from different countries, constitute an organic whole that must under no circumstances be dismantled. The museum then launches into a narration indicating activities it is involved in with the relevant country, here, Nigeria, but which do not relate to restitution.
Regarding the specific question on restitution, the venerable museum prefers not to give any comment. It does not mention that the British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Oliver Dowden has recently warned British cultural institutions that the British government is against the removal of cultural objects. The museums should retain the artefacts and explain their history. See K. Opoku, ‘Will Germany Really Restitute Looted Benin Artefacts?’ https://www.modernghana.com/news/1072519/will-germany-really-restitute-looted-benin-artefac.html
The mention is made of the participation of the British Museum in the Benin Dialogue Group. At the , when it appeared the group might deal seriously with restitution, the British Museum absented itself from the meeting alleging logistical problems in travelling to Nigeria. K. Opoku, “Benin Plan of action for restitution: Will this ensure the return of Benin looted artefacts?
The Benin Dialogue Group, following the lead of the British museum, deleted restitution from its agenda and recommended the granting of loans of the Benin bronzes to Benin/Nigeria.
WORLD MUSEUM, VIENNA.
Number of Benin bronzes: 173, including 13 of which have been proven to have left the Kingdom of Benin as a direct result of the 1897 invasion. Eight others were acquired significantly before 1897 and were part of the Habsburg collections since the 16th century.
Position on restitution: “The Weltmuseum Wien has been following developments in Germany and other European countries regarding the return of objects from the Benin Kingdom to Nigeria very closely. The collections of the Weltmuseum Wien remain the property of the Republic of Austria. The museum itself is not therefore authorised to make decisions regarding the return or deaccessioning of objects. Such decisions are made by federal government authorities in consultation with the museum… The museum has also committed to ensuring that Benin works from its collection are shown in Benin City; to be fully transparent to our Nigerian partners and the public about the objects in Vienna; and to continue to research the provenance and significance of the objects themselves.”
Status of restitution requests or returns: No formal request has been made for the return of these objects
Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of the Benin Dialogue Group and Digital Benin
We have seen different numbers at different times, 200 for example, but I always thought 196 was the regular number. Here I read 173, but at the homepage of the museum, I have read 187 and read 198.
The World Museum, Vienna has learnt to speak like the British Museum. Regarding the number of Benin bronzes’ 173, including 13 of which have been proven to have left the Kingdom of Benin as a direct result of the 1897 invasion. Eight others were acquired significantly before 1897.’ Here is a clever use of unclear, ambiguous, and contestable language, demanding from the ordinary reader some research to decipher. There were no Benin bronzes in Europe before the 1897 notorious invasion of Benin City by the British. If the World Museum has eight pieces that left Benin City before 1897, this will have to be established. One would also have to bear in mind that the Benin bronzes were made only for the Oba of Benin, who employed the guild of brass casters who were not authorised to make bronze objects for the normal citizen. Any object that may have been sold before 1897 must be considered as a stolen object.
The answer of the World Museum that there has been no formal request for the Benin artefacts is remarkable.
1. The late Oba of Benin, Oba Erediauwa, requested the looted artefacts in the Introductory Note in the catalogue of the exhibition, Benin-Kings and Rituals Court Arts from Nigeria: “The exhibition is showcasing some of the works that made Benin (Nigeria) famous. It once again, reminds the world of a civilisation truncated by the imperial forces of the colonialist. The works on show at this exhibition are some of the 3000 odd pieces of bronze and ivory works forcibly removed from my great grandfather’s palace by some Britons who invaded Benin in 1897. The British kept some of the loot for themselves and sold the rest to European and American buyers. These works now adorn public museums and private collector’s galleries, all over the world.
‘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.”
Omo N’Oba Erediauwa CFR, Oba of Benin, in Introductory Note to the catalogue of the exhibition Barbara Plankensteiner (ed.) Benin Kings and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, 2007, p. 13.
2. In the Preface of the catalogue mentioned above, p. 17, the museum directors denied the request of the Oba for the return of Benin artefacts. Would they deny the request if it had not been made?
3. During the International Symposium organised within the exhibition, the Benin delegation asked each museum for one Benin artefact. The directors rejected this request.
4. UNESCO and the United Nations have passed several resolutions since 1972 urging museums to return looted objects.
5. The Benin Dialogue Group was founded precisely because of the Benin demand for restitution even if the group later abandoned the item.
6. ICOM’s Code of Ethics requires that the holding museum takes the initiative on restitution.
7. So, what have the Austrians and Nigerians been discussing all the times they have been meeting, everything except restitution?
8. Has the museum informed the Nigerians that the World Museum has no legal right to return the artefacts?