It is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.

The Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa. (1)

After the publication of my article entitled “Looted /stolen cultural articles declared shared heritage” (2) a friend sent me from Germany a magazine with the title, “Ein Berliner Schloss fur die Welt”, (A Berlin Palace for the World), issued by the Humboldt-Forum. (3) Apart from the very misleading title, creating the impression that the future museum had been built specifically for the world and not for Germany, as evident from all available information. The publication follows the style of the British Museum which argues that the British Museum is not a British museum but a museum for the world. (4) The magazine contains many tendentious statements and articles that assume, apparently, that the German public cannot distinguish between facts and fiction.

Under the heading, Humboldt Lab Dahlem, we are informed that the African and Asian artefacts in the museums in Dahlem (a suburb of Berlin) will not only travel to the middle of the city to the Humboldt-Forum but will also be transformed in the process (“sie verwandeln sich dabei auch”) for the narratives concerning them will be different. How are the objects when they arrive in the museum (and why not other objects?) How has the viewing perspective on these objects changed and what do they still have to tell us? After these questions the author declares:

Objects have no meaning in themselves. They always play another role-for

human beings. And whoever begins to think over this changing process, will not

be able to finish with the questions posed thereby”. (5)

What the author is telling us is that objects such as the African sculptures in the

Ethnologisches Museum have no fixed meaning since meaning or importance

depends on their location and viewer. The Benin cultural artefacts, for example,

would be transformed in the process of their transfer from Dahlem to Berlin

Mitte, a journey of a few kilometres. What an extraordinary statement. Most of

us will agree that the symbolism and the meaning attached to a particular object

may differ from society to society and that what may be seen as a sign of good

luck in one culture may not have the same significance in another context. In

other words, the function and meaning of an object may vary from culture to

culture. To extend this fact to imply the transformation of objects from a short

journey in Berlin, within the same city, is a view that cannot be easily

accepted without further evidence.

Do the Benin artefacts cease to possess the meaning and importance they had in Benin through the travel to the Humboldt-Forum via London and Dahlem? This seems to be a very easy transformation. Did this also occur when the objects were transported from Africa to Europe? If so, why do museums still attach African labels to these objects and assign their origins to Africa?

The author may be reflecting here the spurious theory of shifting values that the

organizers of the 2007 exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from

Nigeria (6) tried to advance as justification for holding on to the looted

Benin Bronzes.

Read full text at: HUMBOLDT.doc

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.