On the Elgin Marbles, the Benin Bronzes and Restitution: a View from Nigeria

Stuck with the editing of my chapter – my supervisor helpfully told me to relax my English … Relax my English?! Wayyo, ban gane ba! – I was checking out Nigerian newspapers online and came across this opinion piece on the interesting and highly controversial issue of restitution of art works.

To be honest with you, I haven’t yet made up my mind on the topic. Probably, because the issue goes to the very heart of the concept of the (Western?) anthropological/ethnographical museum (which could probably do with some serious rethinking anyway, though, embarrassingly, I don’t have any answers just issues which is of course so much easier) and the (Western) notion of ‘Art’. With regard to this particular one, I’m here thinking about the reclassification of (primarily) other peoples’ utilitarian and sacred objects (formerly considered idols and, hence, destroyed) into cultural curiosities in the course of the development of anthropology as a discipline and eventually into ‘Art.’ With that taxonomic shift, to borrow James Clifford’s term (cf. Clifford 1988: 196), came the need to preserve these objects intact and undamaged, first as ‘indices of evangelical efficacy’ (cf. David Morgan 2005: 128), the scientific artefacts and sources of knowledge about foreign culture and art works. After all, in as much as iconoclasm became a marker of ignorance, vandalism and barbarity, the preservation of artefacts and art works became and continues to be a sign of civilisation (here used as the opposite of primitive, also cf. my entry on Morgan’s discussion of iconoclasm). And, while I don’t think that these dichotomic pairs (iconophily/ preservation/ civilisation vs. iconoclasm/ destruction/ barbarity) are consciously reproduced in the debates about the restitution of art works I wonder … I mean, the issue of conservation that regularly crops up in the debate especially where the return to contexts where the artefact’s/art work’s preservation can (allegedly or actually) not be guaranteed or, in fact might not even be desired are concerned - is it not based in the very same notion of ‘Art’ as valuable of preservation originating in these very same dichotomies? Why am I asking this question? Well, because I honestly do believe that artefacts/art works should be preserved and my heart is breaking at the thought of, say, an elaborately illuminated Ethiopian manuscript being returned to some monastery where the means for its conservation might be missing. But in the course of my studies I also spent too much time reading authors who actively deconstruct concepts such as ‘Art’ and point to their origin in discourses that went hand-in-hand with colonisation. So … I don’t know (yet?). All this is, of course, further complicated by the entanglement not only of these discourses in colonisation but also the contexts in which many of these objects were, well, acquired – here, the Benin Bronzes are probably one of the more clear cut cases in which hardly an argument for any, even by the standards of the time, legitimate acquisition could be made. After all, even the British Museum’s argument in the plaque (or so it read the last time I visited, late last year) accompanying the display in the Sainsbury Africa Galleries draws particular attention to the circumstances in which the bronzes where encountered (allegedly abandoned) rather than the political context in which the kingdom was overthrown. To even further complicate matters one needs to consider the particular (political) interests of all those involved in these debates: the museums’ dependence on these objects for their displays on the one hand, cultural nationalism including its exploitation for political ends on the other hand. And then the question to which extent they inform any of the arguments made. Take for example the concept of ‘universal heritage’ that has been made in order to justify the objects continued storage and display in Western museums.

I don’t know all this is probably not even touching upon the major arguments in these debates but that’s what spontaneously came to my mind. So, after all my rambles let’s better look at the original article by Tajudeen Sowole published 14 July 2009 in the Guardian for a Nigerian view on the whole issue of restitution, more concretely the Benin Bronzes. Enjoy and let me know what you think:

Row over Parthenon Marbles... new restitution challenges for Africa

RECENTLY, Greece opened its much-awaited museum, New Acropolis Museum, housing sculptures from the memorable age of ancient Athens. However, the Greek Government's hope that the new museum would appease the British Museum that was dashed, as the latter remained adamant in granting a request for the return of parts of the Greek sculptures known as Parthenon Marbles - named Elgin Marbles by the British.

Out of an estimated 160 metres original of these marble sculptures, 75 are known to be in the British Museum while the rest are in Greece and Italy.

Build-up to the completion of the museum suggested that the British Museum's argument that "Greece lacks the right condition to receive the marbles" would be dead when the museum opens.

During the opening ceremony of the museum Greek President, Karolos Papoulias said the museum offers the opportunity "to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it." Built at the cost of £110m ($182m; 130m euros), the opening of the museum was attended by heads of state and cultural envoys from about 30 countries including the UN and the EU.

Sources said the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer present at the event stressed that the marbles should remain in London. She was quoted as saying that in London, the marbles were displayed in an international cultural context. A loan to Greece, she suggested, could be possible only "if Greece acknowledges British ownership of the marbles."

In 1817, during the Ottoman Empire rule over Greece, British Ambassador to Greece, Lord Elgin was said to have ordered the removal of the Parthenon sculptures and later sold them to the British Museum. Now known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, they were originally used to decorate the Parthenon temple of Acropolis in Greece, but about half are currently in the U.K.

If a museum built at the cost of $182m, (226, 000-square-foot) in Europe - adjudged by the rest of the world to be standard - was not good enough to convince the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, apparently, it is unlikely that African countries seeking repatriation would sail through.

"There is hope," artist and scholar on Benin Antiquities, Dr. Peju Layiwola assured, noting that "every case on its own merit." The Benin case, she argued, is one of the most documented "cases of historical injustice. It is a moral debt, which the West has to pay. We will continue to remind them that what was carried out in Nigeria was outright looting."

On-going efforts to have Nigeria's looted artifacts at Museums in Europe and America returned are yet to produce any significant success story. On adequate facilities to justify repossession of these objects, few months ago, a project of the Ford Foundation and the newly formed Arts and Business Foundation projected a new deal worth $2m to rescue the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. It was believed that a standard museum as contemplated by this project would give the country a better opportunity to have its artifacts returned, among other benefits. But with the new row on Elgin Marbles, it appeared that British Museum would not stop shifting the goal posts; Africa, particularly Nigeria, would be the ultimate victim.

When Greer put the position of the British Museum within international museum context, she was actually promoting an idea that is fast catching up with the popularity of repatriation: In 2002, a group known as Bizot and consisting of 20 directors of museum across Europe and America took a position towards a redefinition of who owns what. Under the forum known as Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, certain artifacts, they argued, should be seen as universally owned.

The politics of repatriation is taking another dimension. In March this year, an auction of belongings of St Yves Saint Laurent and his former partner, Pierre Berge, which recorded $483.8 million, also produced an embarrassment for the auction house, Christie's, when a bidder of some controversial objects of Chinese goat head lots refused to pay after winning the bid. Weeks before the auction, the Chinese Government had failed, through a legal process, to stop the auction; it claimed that the bronze heads were looted by French and British soldiers during the Second Opium War in 1860 and therefore should be returned.

The winning bidder, a Chinese named Cai Mingchao had disclosed that his refusal to pay for the lots was a protest to stop the sale of the objects.

But India had a different approach when it saved the memorabilia of its foremost statesman, Mahatma Gandhi from being sold into a private collection at a New York, U.S. auction, also in March. The objects were metal-rimmed glasses; a pocket watch, pair of sandals; a plate and bowl, all items used by Gandhi in his days.

After negotiation between the government and the owner of the objects James Otis failed, Indian businessman Vijay Mallya - suspected to be fronting for the government - put in a $1.8 million and got the objects returned to India.

Objects of historical relics are so precious such that revered institution like the Vatican could not insulate itself from controversy. One part of three Parthenon Marbles said to be in possession of the Pope was released to Greece last year, on loan. Earlier, the Vatican had refused Greece's request but settled for loan instead of outright return of the objects. Even at that, observers wondered why the Vatican's action came one month after Italy had returned - not loaned - a part of the sculpture held at a museum in Sicily; value of these treasure objects knows no boundary.

Most recent row was on new exhibition of ancient African ceramics, African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage held at the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva.

Not a few observers of the politics of restitution were surprised that the New Acropolis Museum could not change the policy direction of the British Museum on the issue, at least on the Elgin Marbles. Prof. Perkins Foss, a veteran on African culture and museum who always argue for better museum facilities as possible bait for repatriation, agreed that the game has to change, this time around: "And now is the time for the British and Greeks to look to ways to develop a win-win situation in which cooperation between the museums develops."

Director General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joseph Eborieme was surprised that the New Acropolis Museum could not make the difference on the return of the Parthenon. "Now that the Acropolis Museum is in place, the British Museum is not on legitimate ground to still hold on to the Elgin Marbles," Eborieme argued, noting that this development is out of place with the new spirit in some other places. For example, "the Canadian Government through the Nigerian High Commission just returned some objects to Nigeria."

On efforts of the NCMM to get more artifacts of Nigerian origin returned, Eborieme restated that, "we are using the machineries of UNESCO as well as hoping that the Ford Foundation assistance in rehabilitating the National Museum would make all the difference."


  1. On that note check out Ndubueze Odifu's blog entry on the Benin Bronzes, the museum where they are being held and the issue of repatriation:


  2. A link I just came about:


  3. Katrin,
    I think you may want to read some of my articles at:Afrikanet
    Museum Security Network:http://www.museum-security.org/?p=1476
    Modern Ghana.com

    Best wishes,Kwame Opoku.

  4. Dear Dr. Okupu,

    thank you very much for the links ... as of yet I only had a quick read of the article published in Modern Ghana but I feel I own you a quick response and probably an elaboration of my own stand:

    (1) Intellectually I'm mostly with you and your argumentation. That doesn't do away with the fact - and that is all that I've been trying to express - that at some level where perishable objects intented for (re-) use that eventually might lead to their destruction or to be destroyed via exposore to decomposition or burial etc.(and you do mention such objects in passing)my heart bleeds. I've been raised to believe in the value of preservatio of such objects and I cannot do away with that (on emotional level at least) just like that. Obviously, from somebody with a very pragmatic and unfussy approach to books (mine always suffer from being written into and carried around), artefacts massproduced as they might be as well, that's a pretty convulted (shall I say, hypocritical) argument. - But isn't accomodating conflicting and irrational conviction not human nature? That's where we need to invoke reason and intellectual argument. And, on that level, I'm largely with you.

    (2) However, could we please move the debate beyond general assumptions about 'the West' and its museums on the one hand and 'African' states and museum on the other hand. Let's discuss concrete cases and arguments relating to them. In other words, let's name the culprits - like the British museum or the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in the case of the Benin Bronzes. But, let's also acknowledge that ideology and self-interest not only plays into the arguments of officials of the British Museum and other 'Western' museums you mentioned.

    (3) As regards arguments about adequate and secure storage of restituted objects, from the little I know I suspect they have some validity. But, IMHO, that argument is beyond the point. If that was the actual concern I'm sure there were means of cooperation (financial, personal etc) from the part of the instutions currently housing these objects and the respective African (though the argument needs to be extened to other parts of the world as well) organisations. Though, having said this theft and security are certainly issues in many a European art museum as well - but that opens a whole new arguments.

    (4) As you mentioned Hitler (among other European dictators) and I happen to be German: Vast amounts of German art (of course, including - but to my best knowledge constituting a minority - pieces of African origin ) have been looted from Germany in the final days of the Second World War, many of which have not been returned to Germany or their original German-Jewish owners. All I'm trying to say here is that the argument you're advancing in this regard appears quite more complicated than you seem to suggest and that the can of worms institutions such as the British Museum fear to open with the restitution of such a well-known piece like the Elgin Marbles (an act that would receive global coverage and such establish a precedent) goes far deeper than the 'loss' of objects evidently stolen or acquired in colonial contexts. These questions go to the very heart of the museum as an institution and self-perception of many museum staff as preservers of human artefacts and, by implication, history - a notion that I suspect many times is more sincerely felt than you admit by labelling them absurd. That, of course, is no argument about their legitimacy as compared to historical and contemporary practices of collection and display. If that makes sense ...

    [continued below]

  5. (5) And, finally a question: who defines by what standards which acquisition by a museum has been legitimate or looted? While there are rather clear cut cases such as the Benin Bronzes there are certainly cases where things are more complicated - e.g. who, on the African side, can/could legitimately sell artefacts; under which circumstances should a strictly speaking legal transfer be considered illegitimate because of the general power structures involved etc. And, how far back in time are we taking the issue of restitution.

    As I said in the post, I haven't really investigated these debates in any particular depths, these are just my spontaneous thoughts - the latter questions in particular against the background of post-WW2 and post-1989 Germany (my home town having seen heated debate about the validity and legitimacy of claims of restitution of estates/houses abandoned by their owners who left for West Berlin before the wall was built and - many not having paid a penny, some houses having since been sold on by the East German government - their claim to return of 'their' property or, indeed, the case of the Jewish architect who was forced to sell many of these houses under value before WW2 and the post-1989 claims of restitution by his grandchildren). That’s not all that’s been coming to my mind while reading through the article but let’s leave it here for the moment …

  6. also, cf;



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