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
Out of an estimated 160 metres original of these marble sculptures, 75 are known to be in the
Build-up to the completion of the museum suggested that the
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
In 1817, during the Ottoman Empire rule over
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
On-going efforts to have
When Greer put the position of the
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.
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
Objects of historical relics are so precious such that revered institution like the
Most recent row was on new exhibition of ancient African ceramics, African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage held at the
Not a few observers of the politics of restitution were surprised that the
Director General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joseph Eborieme was surprised that the
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