It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the European museum directors are not very convinced of the soundness of the arguments they present in favour of the retention of stolen African cultural objects by their museums. We have shown the illegality, illegitimacy and immorality of the continued holding of thousands of African cultural objects which the museums are unable to display for lack of space.
We have also demonstrated their denial of the cultural and human rights of many Africans by the persistent refusal even to discuss the issue of restitution of stolen cultural object and also that the refusal to return these items constitutes a violation of several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions. (K. Opoku, NEFERTITI, IDIA AND OTHER AFRICAN ICONS IN EUROPEAN MUSEUMS: THE THIN EDGE OF EUROPEAN MORALITY * http://www.afrikanet.info )
If any further proof were required as evidence of the disgraceful and untenable behaviour of the holders of stolen items, the article below would be more than sufficient. It describes how the Director of the British Museum, the leader of those museums resisting any attempts to return stolen cultural objects, ran away from a group of Africans who sought to discuss the issue with him; he ran away for very good reasons: he would have had no intelligent and acceptable explanation for the refusal to repatriate. The recent UNESCO International Conference, The Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, 17- March 2008, Athens, has emphasized the importance of the cultural heritage of a people as an indispensable element for their self-definition as a people and community, serving as a link between the present, the past and the future and urged museums to start dialogues on the return of important cultural property to the country and community of origin.
The British will of course not be impressed by conclusions and suggestions from a UNESCO conference at Athens, Greece since they do not appear to have much respect for international organizations and definitely do not want to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The completion of the new magnificent museum at the Acropolis will not move them. They are keeping the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta stone, Ethiopian historical documents and religious objects and other stolen items that fill the British Museum and other museums in Great Britain. It seems when their interests are involved, law and morality have no place in their considerations.
How long will the British, the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Portuguese and other Europeans hold on to the stolen cultural property of others? I sometimes have the impression that they do not read the publications of the ethnologists and other social scientists. They would by now have understood and appreciated the importance of these cultural objects in the societies of origin. They would have realized how much these objects are linked to the history, religion language and culture of the societies concerned. The British, the Germans , the French and the Portuguese are thus depriving the societies concerned of essential elements for their culture and development by keeping cultural objects which are not necessary for European or American self-definition but are kept merely for aesthetic contemplation. By holding on to these stolen items, the British and their allies are contributing to violations of human rights and the disrespect of law as well as disregarding the right of self-determination and the independence of the peoples. They are, of course, sustaining and nurturing thereby the market for plundered archaeological items. The rampant stealing of cultural objects ,even in churches, cannot be halted if venerable institutions such as the British Museum, London, the Louvre, Paris, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin and other similar institutions do not denounce cultural pilferage and renounce any “rights” to stolen items and return them. One cannot cultivate thievery and immorality in higher public institutions and expect to produce honesty and high morality in private life. One cannot have a very high private or public morality in a society where museum directors praise robbers for their bravery and condemn States for attempts to control illicit trade in archaeological objects.
(K. Opoku, “A blank cheque to plunder Nok terra cotta? http://www.afrikanet.info/index ).
Kwame Opoku, 1 April 2008
Retrospective: British Museum and Africas stolen artefacts
Me2We – Culture
Sun 30 March 2008
A year ago, British Prime Minster Gordon Brown pledged support for the UK’s first ‘Museum of Britishness’. Meanwhile the British Museum still refuses to return the artefacts raided and pillaged from Africa as recent as a hundred years ago.
The proposal for what would be the first National Museum of British History was reported by the Telegraph newspaper as part of their ‘Call yourself British’ campaign. Writing for the paper, Gordon Brown commented ‘while so many other countries have a museum dedicated to their history we in Britain…still do not’.
In his support for former Tory MP, Kenneth Baker’s proposal, Brown continued that the museum could lead in the narrative of British history, also celebrating what he referred to as ‘the great British values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped’. Brown added that the museum would complement a greater emphasis on the teaching of British history in schools, repeatedly stating the importance of history in the child’s relationship to their national [and personal] identity. The omission of historical fact and denial of the brutality exemplified by the British empire highlights the hypocrisy of the ‘great British values’ to which Brown alludes.
This moral double standard is not the sole domain of British politicians, in March 2008, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York announced that “Britain must regain the values of mission and enterprise that had made it so successful when it had an empire”. He is not alone. In 2003, Trevor Phillips used a racist anti-African newspaper to publicly chastise author Benjamin Zephaniah for publicising his rejection of an OBE and with it its formal membership into the British empire.
Defending his own decision to accept an OBE and genuflect before British imperialism the former head of the governments scrapped Commission for Racial Equality project and now chair of the governments Commission for Equality and Human Rights said “you can’t rewrite history – Empire happened. It wasn’t all bad”. Phillips later went on to claim at a Tory party conference that the British empire had an upside. What is astonishing about this is that both these men are Africans. Trevor Macdonald, June Sarpong, Floella Benjamin, Kelly Homes, Trevor Beresford Romeo (Jazzy B from Soul II Soul), Lenny Henry, Linda Bellos, Novlette Rennie, Kanya King, Doreen Lawrence are just a few of those willing to betray and one day meet their Ancestors as official members of the institution that enslaved, raped, murdered and c
tinues to exploit and oppress them.
When considering Britain’s seminal and often leading role in the enslavement of African people, then the progression to the destruction of cultures and land grab of Africa that defined colonialism and neo colonialism reveals a story that is in fact one of a ‘culture, politics and society’ shaped by repugnant racist ‘white’ male supremacist ideology.
Collectively many of the museums in the major cities of the UK have dedicated their resources to boastfully reflecting British history by documenting and ‘collecting’ artefacts from the history of other cultures and civilisations, notably those destroyed by Britain, colonised by Britain; or both. As a result there is an ongoing debate between the consortium of national museums across Britain and representatives from countries across the world on the issue of returning items displayed within these institutions to the land and peoples from which they originate.
Today the peoples of many African nations are denied daily access to their own heritage and Ancestral legacy. As a result much physical evidence of the thriving African civilisation pre-European contact, invasion and destruction exist in the basements and vaults of Britain and not in the museums, schools and communities across Africa.
The most notorious of all for the appropriation of cultural-historical artefacts is the British Museum, internationally condemned for their persistent refusals to repatriate the stolen items they illegally hold in their possession.
Pan African Community Action
Last May, the Ligali organisation along with other members of the African community, paid a visit to the British Museum requesting to meet with the museum director, Neil MacGregor. Upon arrival they told senior management of the institution that they sought to discuss their illegal possession of the Benin and Ife artworks. While staff at the museum assured the members of the African community present that MacGregor would see them, the group decided to leave when it became clear that the director was too afraid to answer these questions about cultural theft, Ancestral ownership and morality in public.
Ligali submitted a renewed application to the British Museum calling for the release of all African artefacts within their holdings.
Of particular concern was the repatriation of a 16th century mask commissioned in honour of Queen Idia by her son, the Oba (King ) of Benin, in the 16th Century as recognition of her contribution to the success of his reign. The mask which is now commonly known as the FESTAC mask after famously representing the second Festival of Arts and Culture which took place in Nigeria in 1977.
This festival of global African art and culture was inspired and paid homage to the African spirit of resistance and fight for self determination. It followed a succession of conferences, starting with the convening of the Pan African Cultural Society of 1956, by some of the first ever Africans to refer to themselves as Pan Africanists. This era spawned the rebirth of the awareness and knowledge of African culture leading to the FESTAC mask being chosen to represent the spirit of Pan Africanism.
The Ligali application represented one of the latest efforts in the battle to have the mask and all the articles of the former Benin Kingdom and Ife Kingdom the museum has in its possession emancipated and returned to their ancestral home and people since the museum accepted these stolen artefacts from the Foreign Office in 1898.
The location of the treasures of the Benin kingdom – fractured, now span the globe, the majority of which having been sold by the Foreign Office to both private collectors and museums across Europe and North America, the proceeds of which was seen as ‘reimbursement’ for their warmongering.
Indeed, up until the mid 1970s the British Museum was still selling its stolen artefacts. It is estimated that the British carted away in excess of three thousand items from the Benin kingdom. This is why the FESTAC mask, the Benin bronzes and the many ivory ornaments and figurines that are on display in the museum’s lower ground ‘Africa’ section represent just a small fraction of the total African artefacts stolen and brought to Britain.
In the application for repatriation Ligali highlighted the unlawful possession of these items; not only because the war that seized them from their native territories was illegal but also because they are the property of the African people and Britain presiding over them asserts the nation maintains the same arrogant misperception of entitlement that exemplified Britain’s imperialist past. Despite its many years in captivity, the FESTAC mask has come to symbolise unity against the continued struggle of African people worldwide.
The incompatibility of the British Museum and all it connotes (“Britishness”) with the cultural and spiritual value imbued within the African items was also brought to the attention of MacGregor in the request for the return of the pieces. That these items are moreover displayed as ‘things’ to be gawped at bereft of their functionality and purpose while detained by the British has been one of the key focal concerns for African people.
The calls for the return of these artefacts have been persistent since Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Most notably, the Benin royal family have petitioned for their repatriation with Prince G.I. Akenzua, the brother of the Benin monarch, arguing that the continued retention leaves African people “…impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property” continuing that the repatriation to their rightful owners is instrumental in teaching the history and culture of Africa to African people.
In 2003, the people of Zimbabwe received a soapstone carved bird representing the national emblem of the country after a German museum returned the symbol which had been stolen by Europeans over 100 years ago.
In 2005, Ethiopia successfully fought for the return of one of its national religious treasure, the 1,700-year old Axum Obelisk. The spiritual obelisk that was looted over 70 years ago by Italy finally arrived in Addis Ababa, April 2005 to a rapturous homecoming from its rightful owners.
The British Museum has refused to participate in an open forum debate where the Pan African community in Britain can comprehensively address these issues with both the director and museum trustees in public. Perversely some of the trustees to the museum such as Emeka Anyaoku and Bonnie Greer are African. Despite Anyaoku being of Nigerian heritage he is also an official member of the British empire who was initiated as an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCBVO) by the British monarch. Greer was given her four year appointment by the British prime minister on 4 April 2005.
The Board of Trustees of the British Museum has statutory duties for the general management and control of the museum as well as for the appointment of the director. The political docility and amoral actions of the trustees ha
ve made them all complicit to the ongoing injustice. Worldwide they are seen as one of the major obstacles to the requisite action required to dismantle this particular odious and racist legacy of empire.
This article is from the Ligali Media Network
Copyright © The Ligali Organisation
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