Museum Security Network

BENIN AND OTHER AFRICAN ART WORKS TO BE DECLARED UNIVERSAL/WORLD HERITAGE? (Kwame Opoku)

  Reparations, then, as a structure of memory and critique, may be regarded as a necessity for the credibility of Eurocentric historicism, and a corrective for its exclusionist worldview”.      Wole Soyinka, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, p.39, Oxford University Press, 1999.        In a very interesting and instructive article in Le monde diplomatique of July 2007, entitled “Faut-il restituer les butins des expeditions colonials?” Bernard Müller, Co-ordinator of the project Broken Memory raises the question of the restitution of objects stolen through the various colonial expeditions. After carefully explaining the issue of restitution, the various conventions relevant in this context and the museums affected by this issue, the author tries to propose a solution. Here I have some difficulty in accepting the proposed solution.   

Bernard Müller declares that to make sense the debate on the colonial past which is generated by the question of restitution should not only come from the western (colonialist) countries but also deal with the local connections of the system of colonial exploitation whose representatives or successors are often at the helm of dictatorships of today. It would be wrong to make excuses or to return the colonial booty to bloodthirsty and obscurantist leaders:  “Il serait déplacé de formuler des excuses ou de restituer des butins à d’Etats des dirigeants sanguinaires et obscurantiste!”    

Bernard Müller admits that even if these bloodthirsty leaders were not representative of their people, this would not affect the legitimacy of the demand for restitution. So what then is the use of the attack on the alleged bloodthirsty dictators who are not specified? What bloodthirsty leaders does Bernard Müller have in mind, except perhaps to repeat some of the insulting vituperations which are often made even by good intentioned Europeans when they come to deal with Africa? What is the purpose of this less than flattering generalization about African leaders which the author himself considers irrelevant to the question of restoration?

If one looks at the present leaders of Africa, it is very difficult to see many dictators, let alone bloodthirsty ones. What about the present leaders of Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal etc. They may not all be leaders of our liking or even democrats but are they bloodthirsty? And who trained, supported and often imposed the unrepresentative dictators? Incidentally, are we also going to examine the representative nature of the governments of the countries that are holding these art objects?

Are we judging only those countries which claim back their art objects? It may be relevant to recall that many colonial invasions were preceded by the alleged bloodthirsty nature of African States (Asante, Dahomey and Benin).These invasions brought the so-called booty which included some of the items now subjects of claims for restitution. Are we going to reject these claims on the grounds of the bloodthirsty nature of the governments in place?   

Incidentally, as far as bloodthirstiness and blood-spilling are concerned, Europeans have to be very careful. Their record is worse than that of Africans. There is not a single evidence of an African people leaving the continent of Africa to murder and destroy other peoples in other continents. And what has been the history of Europe since the 15th Century? Massacres, disorganizations, displacements, looting, subjugation and oppression of other peoples in America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. More destruction has been caused to others by Europeans. Slavery and colonialism are the best known examples of European greed and bloodthirstiness.

These facts have to be borne in mind whenever one raises the false spectre of African bloodthirstiness which has been conveyed over the centuries by colonialist and racist propaganda and which unfortunately survives today. We still read in European newspapers and even in parliamentary debates (e.g., Austria) that Africans are aggressive. Yet the number of Europeans killed by Africans in Europe is infinitesimal compared to the number of Africans killed by Europeans in Europe.Intellectuals must avoid repeating or representing images which are based on fantasy and racism.   

Most people will agree that returning, for example, the bust of Nefertiti by Germany to Egypt will not be a gift to the President of Egypt but a return to the Egyptian people. A return of the Parthenon marbles will not be a gift to the Greek government but a return to the place from which they were illegally removed. Besides, however bloodthirsty some African leaders may be or may have been, they cannot exceed the colonial kings and their armies in their use of violence and cruel methods.

Think of King Leopold of Belgium and his colonial army. Think of the British and the French armies in Africa. Did anyone ever raise questions about the characteristics of the European colonialists when they looted African objets d’art ? Have these brutal methods of acquisitions been thrown at the successors of the colonialists and those now holding these stolen objects? I will be the last one to want to defend dictators, bloodthirsty or not, European or African. Can one imagine anyone advancing the character of a regime in Europe as an argument in connection with the restitution of Nazi stolen items?

As for the reference to local collaborators of the exploitative colonial system, the author would have to elaborate on this. Who are the collaborators? All those who worked with the colonialists or did not actively oppose them? Could one say the same about all the Europeans who did not actively oppose the Nazi regime? And who are the successors to the colonial collaborators? Are the present European governments successors to the Nazi regime?    

I found very interesting the way Bernard Müller links the question of restitution with the alleged characteristics of African leadership even though he himself has clearly stated the irrelevancy of this factor: “Si ces derniers ne sont pas représentatifs des populations, cela ne remet pas en question la légitimité des demandes. Dès lors, que faire? Comment sortir de ce double lien, sinon en affirmant l’universalité de ce patrimoine ? » So what the author is saying is that to avoid the double link of these objects to the dictators and to their people, one should affirm the universality of this heritage. This is a very remarkable way of solving the issue of restitution.

In order to avoid an element that the author himself considers irrelevant to the issue of restitution, we end up by declaring the property of an African people, for example, the Edo, to be universal. “Universal” in the understanding of the author, means that the object belongs to nobody! : “Ne faudrait-il pas inscrire les objets de la polémique sur la liste du patrimoine universel, de manière que juridiquement ils n’appartiennent plus a personne ? »    

With all due respect to Bernard Müller, I think something is gone astray here. Up to now, it has been the general understanding that an item declared to be part of world heritage or “patrimoine universel” was still the property of the country or town where the object was situated and that the authorities there had to take special measures to ensure its preservation for all humankind. The States that ratify the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (16 November, 1972) assume certain obligations but they surely are not deprived of their property rights in the object. Article 6 of the Convention clearly preserves the sovereignty of the State on the territory of which the cultural and natural heritage is located and the Convention is “without prejudice to the property rights provided by national legislation”.

Is the author therefore trying to introduce a new concept or is this a misunderstanding of an existing concept? Clarification is urgently required here. The author should also consider the implications of his idea that the object declared part of world heritage or “patrimoine universel” would belong to no one. One obvious effect would be that whoever is now in possession of the object would in fact become the de facto owner.So from starting to plead for restitution of cultural objects stolen during the colonial period, the author would end up by awarding ownership to the colonialist and imperialist museums. Surely, this is not the intention of the author.     

Bernard Müller goes on to propose the setting up of an international commission which would draw this list of world heritage. The commission would consist of unspecified representatives of the parties involved, of museums of the former colonies and “acteurs de la scène culturelle des pays concernés”.    

According to the author, these commissions would envisage certain restitution on case by case. Since no guiding principles are suggested for the determination of the cases by the commission, one can only assume that the nature of the government of the recipient country may well be a significant factor, just as the European Union insists on good governance as a governing factor in according aid.  How does Bernard Müller’s position differ from that of the signatories of the so-called Declaration on Universal Museums who declared that “ each case has to be judged individually”? In this connection, it is interesting to note that many of the baseless arguments invoked by opponents of restitution with regard to African art objects, such as the conduct of African leaders or the  security conditions of African museums are not invoked  or do not apply to Asian demands.

Nevertheless, Europeans are not in a hurry to return Asian objects. It is therefore clear that once cultural objects are in imperialist museums, every argument, however untenable will be advanced to avoid restitution.    The proposed commission would above all (“surtout”) organize travelling exhibitions allowing these objects to circulate, following the recent exhibition, “Behanzin, roi d’Abomey” co-organized by the Musée du quai Branly and the Fondation Zinzou (16 December 2006 to 16 March 2007”. The author also cites the on going exhibition “Benin: Kings and Rituals. Court arts from Nigeria” at the Museum für Vőlkerkunde”, Vienna (9May to 3 September 2007) showing the Benin art objects looted by the British in 1897 and which the author hopes will also be shown in Africa (there does not appear to be any intention on the part of the organizers to take this exhibition to Africa, after it has gone to Paris, Berlin and Chicago). Bernard Müller gives the Vienna exhibition credit for not trying to avoid the colonial context in which these objects were looted.

This is, of course no problem for the Austrians who can point the finger at the British imperialists who were primary responsible for the looting. The Austrians merely purchased afterwards some of the stolen goods, knowing they were stolen. Bernard Müller should visit the exhibition and see how some of the information regarding 1897 is presented to the German-speaking visitor.   

It is rather ironic that Bernard Müller presents as good examples of a form of restitution, albeit symbolic, exhibitions on two of the worst cases of French and British imperialism. In both cases of Abomey and Benin, the imperialist powers sought pretext to eliminate powerful kings who refused to be subjugated and finally were removed from their positions by force. Are the French being very generous when they send to the Republic of Benin the stool of Béhanzin which they stole and now bring back for a short period to the land of its origin? Why could they not simply return it to the people of Abomey? What legal concepts are the French and the Fondation Zinsou using here? Is this an example to be followed by others?

Has Bernard Müller abandoned the quest for restitution?    

Bernard Müller writes about “museés universelles”. True he does so in inverted commas but he is surely aware the that these are imperialist museums which have arrogated to themselves this title which is not recognized by anyone except themselves in their overweening arrogance and will to dominate and defend their illegally acquired art objects. Why use a designation which is obviously intended by the holders of illegally acquired art objects as a defence strategy against possible future claims, as Bernard Müller himself explicitly states? The author seems to maintain still a lot of confidence in the imperialist museums. If we want to heal the wounds of colonialism and imperialism, common sense must surely direct us to avoid any act, even if only verbal which may smell of colonialism and imperialism. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums is surely not very helpful for the healing process .The Declaration was largely motivated by the desire of the British Museum to fend off demands from Greece for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

Geoffrey Lewis, Chair, ICOM Ethics Committee has quite correctly declared that  “The Declaration is a statement of self-interest, made by a group representing some of the world’s richest museums; they do not, as they imply, speak for the “international museum community”. 

The debate today is not about the desirability of “universal museums” but about the ability of a people to present their cultural heritage in their own territory”. (ICOM NEWS no 1 2004) Bernard Müller may wish to look at the foreword in the catalogue to the Benin exhibition where the directors of the museums cooperating in the Benin exhibition (except Nigeria) seem to want to outdo the infamous declaration as regards their obstinacy in respect of restitution. It is clear that the foreword in the catalogue as well as the infamous Declaration is all wrong gestures which do not contribute in anyway to reconciliation.

But will the makers of such statements have the courage to admit their mistakes? I doubt very much for Europeans in such positions do not seem to admit the possibility of mistakes.   

Bernard Müller’s penultimate paragraph, like some of his other statements, is capable of several interpretations. Sometimes it seems he does not wish to commit himself to a definite view point. He declares that it is important to take these objects out from their museal dullness (“engourdissement”) as well as from the ethnological and aesthetic constraints (“carcan”) by making possible several different and contradictory uses by encouraging a multitude of views. Since no concrete examples are given, I take this to mean the so-called decontextualization so that these objects lose their religious or cultural characteristics. How can anybody who supports restitution argue in this way? Is this not given in to the argument that the Benin bronzes do not belong to the people of Edo and thereby disregard the very role such objects play in their societies? For instance if the object is a means of recording and dating the history of a people, how can one seek to discard this information? Decontextualization appears in our context to be simply another name for deafricanization.

Take away all this African mystification and let us all enjoy the excellent craftsmanship of African sculptors seems to be the principle here. Is the author suggesting that we ignore the religious and ritual significance of most African art objects, such as the Benin Oba heads? Why then do we fight for restitution at all? Most African art objects have specific functions and an attempt to disregard their original functions, either out of ignorance or a deliberate attempt to play down their origins and their role in the societies that created them is not likely to be helpful to anyone. Is decontextualization a way of avoiding having to deal with such issues as slavery, colonialism, racism, looting etc which most Europeans would rather forget than discuss?    

Bernard Müller seems to be very much concerned that these objects may become sources of confrontation and thus transform“le musée universel” en espace de confrontation generalisée”. He suggest that there should be a constructive debate based on a spirit of reconciliation rather than on the moral principle of reparation.   I am not worried by having debates or confrontations around the subject of museums and especially around the museums hording stolen art objects. It is surely healthier to have open and frank debates rather than be silent about important issues of culture and politics. It is obvious that many Europeans do not appreciate such debates since they tend to reveal aspects of European cultural policies and hypocrisy which they would rather not think about.

Many are frankly embarrassed by the arguments the museum directors present in defence of their obstinacy in the face of the growing demands for restitution by Africans and Asians. They see the flagrant contradictions between European proclamations on law, morality and fairness on one hand, and the shameless violations of all rules by the museums. Above all, they are shocked by the scale of looting of African art objects in the imperialist museums the directors of which are always ready to preach good conduct to others.   

In many ways, the fear or lamentation of the author that the museum may become a battle-field (“espace de confrontation generalisée”) is somewhat anachronistic since the museum has already become an arena for the battle of claims and ideas since the 1980’s at the latest. His own article and my comments thereon indicate that museums are no longer considered neutral or apolitical but potential agents for the distribution of wealth and power. They are also seen as powerful instruments in identity formation. They cannot pretend to be outside or above the struggles of their States and peoples to construct and affirm their identity in the world. Power and wealth are to a great extent, the essence of museums. Powerful States tend to possess powerful museums and poor countries generally tend to have poor museums. It is clearly no accident that African museums have few and qualitatively poor objects of African art whereas European and American museums have almost all that is valuable and excellent in African art.   It is not clear what reconciliation Bernard Müller has in mind for this context. If reconciliation means that Africans should accept slavery and colonial past with all their continuing and present day effects without trying to change the situation, he will not find many self respecting Africans who will go along with this.

Certainly, Africans want to live in peace with Europeans but Europeans must be ready and willing to recognize past injustices such as Bernard Müller himself has so ably described in his article. There should be acknowledgement and genuine attempts at reconciliation which may even involve recognition of moral duties and failures and a determination to abide by the rule of law. Europe has not always accepted this and in her relationship with Africa has most of the time sought to rely on force and violence as the author has clearly established in his article. Take for example, the recent arrival of a few Africans into Europe by sea. The European instinctive reaction was to resort to the use of force and for this purpose an army cum navy force, Frontex, was set up to prevent illegal immigrants from entering Europe and to expel those who reach Europe.

Europe reacted hysterically as if threatened by an imminent invasion by a powerful enemy. Europeans do not seem to be concerned about the deep causes of this migration. They act as if they had not been until 1960 in charge of the areas from which most of these immigrants came. That the 500 years of colonial spoliation and imperialist exploitation might have something to do with the poor economic performances of the countries of West Africa does not occur to many European politicians.

The looting of African art objects was part of the general looting of the resources of the continent. Most Europeans have not yet grasped the real nature of the colonial system and its full effects on Africa: A deliberate and organized project aimed at the systematic spoliation of a continent, its resources and inhabitants without any regard for their humanity. Are Europeans ready for a just reconciliation with Africans?     “…the European mind has yet to come into full cognition of the African world as an equal sector of a universal humanity, for, if it had, its historic recollection would have placed the failure of European humanism centuries earlier-and that would be at the very inception of the Atlantic slave trade.”                                                               

Wole Soyinka, p.38 op.cit.    

As Bernard Müller points out, the General Assembly in its Resolution 42/7 of 22 October 1987, entitled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin   emphasized the “ importance attached by the countries of origin to the return of cultural property which is of fundamental spiritual and cultural value to them, so that they may constitute collections representative of their cultural heritage”.

The same resolution also reaffirmed that the restitution to a country of its objets d’art, monuments, museum pieces and other cultural or artistic treasures contributed to the strengthening of international cooperation and the flowering of universal cultural values through fruitful cooperation between developed and developing countries. In its most recent resolution of 4 December 2006, (A/RES/61/53, para. 2) the General Assembly reiterated the importance of restitution to these countries and called upon all bodies of the United Nations and UNESCO as well as Member States “to continue to address the issue of return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin and to provide appropriate support accordingly”.

Since 1972, the General Assembly has passed almost at every session a resolution on this item and yet certain western governments, especially those with imperialist museums stubbornly refuse to implement fully these resolutions and behave as if they were not part of the international community or members of universal organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO. They openly defy the Organization in such matters. They should not be surprised when other Member States, following their example, also choose not to abide by the rules of the international community in other areas.   

The debate on the restitution of stolen African art objects will surely continue for a long time and authors like Bernard Müller render inestimable service in raising all the complications of the issue but their suggested solutions must also be subjected to frank and critical examination.                                            

Kwame Opoku.                    

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