“There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also these seemed to a fate. Here was this head centre of iniquity, spared by us from its suitable end of burning for the sake of holding the new seat of justice where barbarism had held away, given into our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into every corner and …….. fire only could purge it, and here on our last day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it.” –
- R. Bacon, Benin the City of Blood. (1)
Stool of Oba Eresoyen, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.
When I saw Neil MacGregor’s recent article in die Zeit (2) I was very keen to read it, for although I hardly agree with him on anything, I have always found his articles very interesting and thought- provoking. However, an insert on the same page indicated that MacGregor’s article was a response to a previous article by Hanno Rauterberg and so I decided to read first Rauterberg (3) and then the response of the Emeritus director of the British Museum.
Rauterberg begins his article entitled‘ Schluss mit dem Falschen Frieden!(Stop the false peace) with a short account about the recent exhibition of three looted Benin bronzes in Hamburg, recounting the history of the brutal British invasion of Benin City in 1897,the looting of some 3500 Benin artefacts and the slaughter of hundreds of persons that preceded the burning of Benin City. The Benin artefacts are now in various western cities including Berlin, Hamburg, London, Stuttgart, and others.
Rauterberg reports that German museums are full of boxes of looted artefacts, some even not yet opened even though the museums are not willing to return the artefacts to the lawful owners as required by various United Nations /UNESCO resolutions. He also refers to the Humboldt Forum that is to receive some of the 500,000 objects from the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin.
Rauterberg’s article is full of information about the issues concerning looted artefacts and restitution. The author recounts the attempts made to recover looted artefacts but with no success. He adds that Neil MacGregor, Founding Director of the Humboldt Forum, would rather discuss other matters that talk about looted art and restitution.
When I turn to the article of Neil MacGregor, I immediately feel I am in a different world. It is very general in tone, it does not refer to any other article to be criticised and does not seem to be aimed at any critic although it is presented as an answer to the critics of the Humboldt Forum. I decided therefore to consider the article on its own merits.
MacGregor’s article entitled ‘There is not the single history’( Es gibt nicht die eine Geschichte) taking his cue from a Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who in a TED-Globalconference, in a piece entitled, ‘The danger of a single story’, points out the danger of having just one stereotyped view of a people or a place.(4)Her college roommate seemed to have heard only of an Africa with wars, catastrophes, and poverty and was naturally surprised that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie could speak English so well and did not correspond to her view of an African. MacGregor transposes this warning of a single story to the criticism of the Humboldt Forum but does not specify which critics have this one-dimensional view and how this one-dimensional view leads to a misunderstanding regarding the Humboldt Forum.
Read full report, including images and references: