Museum Security Network

Kwame Opoku – “BENIN PLAN OF ACTION” FOR RESTITUTION

“BENIN PLAN OF ACTION” FOR RESTITUTION

http://www.museum-security.org/benin-plan-of-action-for-restitution.htm

February 27, 2013

BENIN PLAN OF ACTION FOR RESTITUTION

”: 

WILL THIS ENSURE THE RETURN OF LOOTED BENIN ARTEFACTS?

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that the different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation. It seems that Nigeria is chary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition in 2010, without demanding reciprocity?(1)

 

 

Wilhelm Östberg, former director Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm.

 

Queen-Mother-Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

 

 

 

When I first received the so-called Benin Plan of Action for Restitution (2), I was surprised by the title since this was the first time that holders of looted artefacts and the claimant owners have issued a joint plan of action even though the interest of the parties are diametrically opposed as far as restitution of the objects is concerned. Egypt, Italy and Turkey, have all obtained restitution of their artefacts without having to produce such a joint document with all the holders on one side and the claimant owner on the other side. Such a joint document has the tendency to amalgamate the specific histories of the acquisition of the artefacts by the present holders and confuse the approaches to be adopted towards specific holders of the artefacts. Austria, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands acquired the Benin artefacts under different circumstances.

 

 

 

When I read the contents of the text, I was flabbergasted. I simply could not believe what I was reading and when I saw the names of those who participated or were present at the three days of meeting between Nigeria’s National Commission for Monuments (NCMM) and representatives of holders of the looted Benin bronzes, I gasped. I know some of the persons named and even though I do not share their views, I respect them a lot. Reconciliation between what I was reading and the high reputation of these persons seems impossible. The history of the process of formulation of the so-called plan of action must be told one day by the participants.

 

 

 

The title, ”Benin Plan of Action for Restitution”, is clearly a misnomer for the

 

document contains “no plan of action” but is an assemblage of propositions or proposals for a future memorandum of understanding. Under a plan of action, we expect a clearly defined objective and the enunciation of the ways and means proposed for achieving that objective. There is nothing like that in this document which, apart from the title, does not mention the word ”restitution” even once. It appears therefore that the document is, as it were, sailing under a false flag.

 

 

 

Is the use of the name, Benin intended to honour Benin City, the city from which the British stole some 3000 artefacts in the notorious invasion of 1897?

 

If so, I would expect the document to refer to the invasion of 1897 and to affirm

 

strongly the inalienable right of the right of the Oba of Benin and the people of Benin to recover the looted artefacts which are now in Western museums, (3) We noticed the absence of British and US American museums from the meeting in Nigeria. Museums in these States have a considerable number of the looted artefacts. Were these museums ever invited? Did they refuse to participate? How does the so-called plan of action stand in relation to these major holders of looted Benin artefacts in the USA and in Britain? Someone should explain to the Nigerian public the absence of the British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Major museums in the USA have recently restituted a large number of artefacts to Greece, Italy and Turkey at their request. Will they refuse to do the same for Nigeria?

 

 

 

We now turn our attention to the specific propositions of the “Benin Plan of Action” and make brief comments thereon.

 

 

 

1. Developing a data bank by the collaborating institutions on Benin art collections in their holdings in form of a digital archive of electronic and hard copies. This data will be submitted and made available to the general public.

 

None of the participating museums has established such a data bank. The Ethnology Museum of Vienna certainly seems to have problems in establishing

 

a data bank of its acquisitions and refers to this at its homepage.

 A visit to the database of themuseumwww.ethno-museum.ac.at shows some six Benin objects and we read that the rest of the objects are in the process of digitalization. How long this will take appears to be anybody’s guess. Incidentally, the African Section of the museum has been closed to the public for more than ten years because of repairs.

 

If the Ethnology Museum of Vienna takes so long in digitalization, how long will the NCMM take to complete its part? In any case, what relevance has digitalization to the restitution of looted artefacts?

 

Whilst waiting for the completion of the digitalization process, the museums could tell us exactly how many of the Benin artefacts are in their possession and whether they have sold any, like the British Museum did. They could also publish lists of the Benin objects with photos and information on their dates of acquisition and sources.

 

 

 

Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Austria.

 

 

 

 

2. That all collaborating institutions upon request shall have right of producing free of charge photographs of Benin art objects in the collection of collaborating institutions particularly for scholarly purposes. 

 

This is all very well but what does reproduction of photos of Benin art got to do with the restitution of the Benin artefacts? What about the profits the holding museums have derived from the fees they have been charging for all these decades? Will any part of that amount be handed over to the owners of the looted artefacts? Are Nigerian scholars expected to be satisfied with photos of the Benin objects and not the objects themselves?  Nigerian scholars will be worse off than their Western colleagues who would have access to the original artefacts. Whose culture are we then dealing with?

 

 

 

3. That staff of the collaborating institutions shall have access to Benin Collections in their holdings in accordance with the existing procedures of the institutions.

 

 

What is new about this proposition that refers to existing procedures? Is it really relevant to the question of restitution?

 

 

4. That the National Commission for Museums and Monuments shall improve the university education of its staff working on the collections and on this basis collaborating institutions will assist in securing support for internship and scholarship for postgraduate studies on the Benin collections.

 

 

Is this the quid pro quo of the whole arrangement between the NCMM and the holding States? Improvement in education is always welcome under all circumstances. Can Nigeria with its own resources not cater for the education of those working in the museums? How long are Nigerian officials going to require education from abroad when there are universities and other institutions of education in one of the richest African States? What is the relevance of this education with the restitution of Benin artefacts? Is training being offered as compensation for not pressing the issue of restitution?

 

 

 

 

5. That collaborating institutions assist with expertise in the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria.

 

Why must the establishment of such an institution be discussed within the framework of arrangements for the restitution of Benin artefacts? After all, conservation is important for all arts and not only for Benin artefacts. Incidentally, how did the Benin Royal Family conserve these artefacts for centuries before they were looted by the British in 1897?

 

 

 

6. That collaborating institutions shall assist the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in developing its library and archive facilities.

 

 

Developing library and archive institutions will surely be good for any institution but what is the relevance of this proposition to the restitution of the Benin bronzes? Why must it be dealt with here in connection with the restitution of Benin artefacts?

 

 

 

Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin ,Germany

 

 

 

 

7. That the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and collaborating museums shall create an enabling environment for an increased exchange of touring/travelling exhibitions for the Benin art objects and other art traditions where the European and Nigerian museum experts will work together in the planning and execution of such exhibitions.

 

 

That these individual steps are part of the dialogue which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria.

 

 

The touring/travelling exhibitions of the Benin and other art/traditions have in recent years been extremely successful for example Benin- Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria ,2007 Vienna; Kingdom of Ife– Sculptures from West Africa ,2010, LondonWhat new element does this proposition bring? Why is this raised in connection with the restitution of Benin artefacts? Or is this to implement the misleading and tendentious suggestion of Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum that

 

The value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible and explain the present to as many people as possible that may not be achieved by being returned to the place where it was made. When you see these objects they will mean more to you in your own experience than they would in London or the place where they were made.” (4) 

MacGregor thus contradicts one of the fundamental tenets of archaeology, namely, that objects are best understood in their original context where they were placed by those who made them. One can understand that the director of the venerable British Museum, with a huge number of plundered/stolen artefacts takes such a position but his statement contradicts not only archaeological principles but also common sense. The idea here, like most of the theories of the

 

British Museum director and his colleagues in the Western countries, is to ensure that owners of artefacts looted, stolen or taken under dubious circumstances, do not collect their artefacts from the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Louvre and other major museums. So any idea or theory that has the tendency to prevent, discourage or disarm owners of artefacts from making demands, is encouraged by Western museums.

 

These travelling/touring exhibitions do not go to Nigeria or any other African country. What benefits do the people of Nigeria derive from these shows?

 

 

We were surprised to read:

 That these individual steps are part of the dialogue which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria. 

Until now we had been told that by the Director-General of NCMM that the dialogue with the holders of Benin artefacts would lead to restitution of the Benin artefacts. Now it appears that dialogue is to lead to the display of the artefacts in Nigeria. Is “display” now a substitute for restitution?

 

 

 

 

 

The meeting resolved that there is a need at the next meeting to discuss:

 

 

The issue of fake Benin art objects on the international art markets and its consequences for museums, The 1970 UNESCO Convention, The publication of their inventories

 

 

Why will anyone wish to discuss the issue of fake Benin art objects in the context of restitution of the looted Benin artefacts? Is this the concern of the NCMM or Western States that hold the vast number of original Benin artefacts? Who stands to lose if fakes flood the market and diminish the price of these objects? One can only assume that the holders of these artefacts would like to reassert a right they have claimed all along that they are the only ones who can certify the authenticity of Benin arts and other African art objects.

 

Should the NCMM help them in this matter? After having stolen the best of the Benin artefacts, the holders of the looted objects are worried by the existence of many imitations of the original which tend to create doubts and diminish the value of the originals but eventually spread the fame of some of the artefacts.

 

Queen-Mother Idia, pendant mask, Benin, Nigeria, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America

 

 

 

As we have often written training, internship and scholarships are no substitute for the precious artefacts that are part of Nigeria’s national treasures(5) Self-respect demands that Nigeria recovers her stolen/looted treasures in the Western museums. The Director-General of the NCMM has in recent months reiterated the need for Nigeria’s artworks abroad to be returned:

 

“For the avoidance of doubt we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artefacts from Nigeria under whatever guise.(6) 

 

 

The so-called Benin Plan of Action for restitution does not appear to be aimed at recovering the Benin Bronzes that were looted with violence in 1897 and are now in many Western museums. The document seems aimed at postponing the restitution of the Benin Bronzes for a considerable period.One cannot avoid the impression that the propositions in the so-called plan reflect fairly closely the standard doubts expressed by holders of looted artefacts about the capacity of Nigeria to look after them. The doubts now appear as preconditions for discussions on restitution of the artefacts

 

 

 

 

The document reads more like a book of lamentations on all the weaknesses of the Nigerian museums system, a catalogue of diagnoses of the Nigerian museums. Such a text does not appear to be calculated to bring home quickly the precious national treasures to a system diagnosed to be seriously sick. Was this a condicio sine qua non of the holders of the holders of the looted artefacts? Greeks, Italians and Turks received back their looted artefacts without the holders insisting on confession and admission of their weaknesses. Why must Nigeria indulge in self-exposure without even a promise of restitution?

 

 

 

 

.If we take the requirements seriously, it would take Nigeria at least 20 or more years to complete the tasks assigned before serious discussions on restitution could begin.

 

 

The name of Benin should not be associated with such a plan for it does no honour to those whose lives were sacrificed in the 1897 invasion.

 

 

The so-called Benin Plan of Action appears to be a step backwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The exhibition is showcasing some of the works that made Benin (Nigeria) famous. It once again, reminds the world of a civilization 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.” Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin

(7) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                          

 

 

 

           

                                                              

Kwame Opoku, 26 February, 2013 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

 

 

 

 

1.

Wilhelm Östberg, former director of Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, was reflecting on the collaboration between Nigerian authorities and Western museums, including his own museum which staged an exhibition on Benin art, Whose Objects? Wilhelm Östberg, Whose Objects? Art Treasures from the Kingdom of Benin in the collection of the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, 2010, p.68.

 

 

 

2See Annex I.

 

 

3. See Annex II.

 

 

4

. K. Opoku, “Travelling Exhibition as Alternative to Restitution? Comments on Suggestion by Director of the British Museum.” http://www.modernghana.com

 

 

 

5. K Opoku, “Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures” http://www.modernghana.com

 

 

 

6.

Yusuf Abdallah Usman. “

Nigeria’s antiquities abroad must return

 

 

 

 

 

K. Opoku, “

Nigeria Reacts to Donation of Looted Benin Artefacts to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,”

http://www.modernghana.com 

 

 

7.

Introductory Note to the catalogue of the exhibition, Barbara Plankensteiner,(ed.) Benin Kings

and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria

, Snoeck Publishers, 2007, p.13

. 

 

 

 

 

Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J A Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum

 

 

 

ANNEX I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THURSDAY, 21 FEBRUARY 2013

‘Benin Plan of Action’ for restitution

After three days of meeting between Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and representatives of holders of Benin bronzes in foreign museums, here is what the gathering arrived at as “Benin Plan of Action”. 

 

 

The plan of action signed by the Director-General of

 

 

NCMM, Yusuf Abdallah Usman states: 

 

 

 

 

Museum professionals in Europe with holdings of Benin art collections and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria a scholar on copyright law and representatives of the court of Benin, met in Benin, Nigeria on the 19th and 20th of February 2013, in continuation of previous meetings in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany and proposed that a Memorandum of Understanding be made between the collaborating institutions on the following issues:

 

 

 

 

1. Developing a data bank by the collaborating institutions on Benin art collections in their holdings in form of a digital archive of electronic and hard copies. This data will be submitted and made available to the general public.

 

 

 

2. That all collaborating institutions upon request shall have right of producing free of charge photographs of Benin art objects in the collection of collaborating institutions particularly for scholarly purposes. 

 

 

 

3. That staff of the collaborating institutions shall have access to Benin Collections in their holdings in accordance with the existing procedures of the institutions.

 

 

 

 

4. That the National Commission for Museums and Monuments shall improve the university education of its staff working on the collections and on this basis collaborating institutions will assist in securing support for internship and scholarship for postgraduate studies on the Benin collections.

 

 

 

 

5. That collaborating institutions assist with expertise in the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria.

 

 

 

 

6. That collaborating institutions shall assist the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in developing its library and archive facilities.

 

 

 

 

7. That the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and collaborating museums shall create an enabling environment for an increased exchange of touring/travelling exhibitions for the Benin art objects and other art traditions where the European and Nigerian museum experts will work together in the planning and execution of such exhibitions.

 

 

That these individual steps are part of the dialogue which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria.

 

 

 

 

The meeting resolved that there is a need at the next meeting to discuss:

 

 

The issue of fake Benin art objects on the international art markets and its consequences for museums, The 1970 UNESCO Convention, The publication of their inventories.

 

 

 

 

In attendance at the meeting were: Dr. Michael Barrett and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius represented the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden Dipl.

 

Ethn; Silvia Dolz of Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Dr. Peter Junge represented Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria; Dr. Annette Schmidt represented the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.

 

 

 

 

Other participants included Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh,  Babatunde Adebiyi, Prof. Folarin Shyllon,  Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua MFR – Enogie of Obazuwa, Chief Stanley Obamwonyi – Esere of Benin.

 

 

 

 

ANNEX II    LIST OF HOLDERS OF BENIN BRONZES

 

 

 

Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of some of the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. The museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna has closed since some 10 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to repair work.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.

Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.

London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.

Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

 

 

“BENIN PLAN OF ACTION” FOR RESTITUTION.

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