THE MAN OF CONSCIENCE WHO RETURNED HIS GRANDFATHER’S LOOTED BENIN BRONZES
“These objects are part of the cultural heritage of another people… to the people of Benin City, these objects are priceless
Dr. Mark Walker.
Bird of Prophecy, looted by the British in 1897 and returned by Dr.Mark Walker in 2014.
BBC NEWS has published an article under the title of “The man who returned his grandfather’s looted art”, recounting the recent return of two Benin Bronzes by Dr. Mark Walker, a medical surgeon and a descendant of one of the British soldiers who invaded Benin City in 1897 and plundered the precious artefacts from the palace of the Oba of Benin. (1).
No doubt many readers would have already heard-about Mark Walker but the story by Ellen Otzen is worth reading for there are not many persons in the Western world who, plagued by their conscience for holding looted art of other peoples, are in a hurry to return the objects to the legitimate owners. Since Walker returned two Benin Bronzes last year, there has not been a similar gesture in the whole of the Western world. This is a sad commentary on the prevailing morality. But this should not come as a surprise since in this 21st Century we have powerful institutions and leading academics that seriously argue that artefacts that have been wrenched from former colonies with violence and other illegitimate methods should be kept by the holders in the West. This position provides evidence and confirmation that not everyone has rejected colonialism and its effects despite the various United Nations resolutions. Many Western scholars seem to have banned morality from discussions on restitution.
Walker who inherited two Benin Bronzes from his grandfather felt it would be the right thing to return the objects to the descendants of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the objects were looted. He felt the people of Benin needed those objects more than the people at home in Britain. When Walker arrived with the two objects in Benin City, he was overwhelmed by the warm and enthusiastic reception he received from the 92 years old Oba, a great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen and from the people of Benin:
“It was very humbling to be greeted with such enthusiasm and gratitude, for nothing really. I was just returning some art objects to a place where I feel they will be properly looked after.”
As we have always maintained, African artefacts mean more to the African peoples than to the Westerners who hold these objects mostly for aesthetic contemplation and economic gain. (2)
Ancestors Bell. Looted by the British in 1897 and returned by Dr, Mark Walker in 2014.
Prince Edun Akenzua, great-grandson of Oba Owonramwen with Dr. Mark Walker in Benin City, 2014.
The BBC News report contains certain statements which we must comment on for the better understanding of the invasion of Benin and its aftermath.
“But in January 1897, seven British officials who were on their way to see the Oba of Benin – the king – were killed in an ambush”.
The history of this unwelcome visit which proved fatal should be clarified. Captain Philips had requested a visit to the Oba who replied he could not receive him because he would be involved in sacred ceremonies during which time no foreigners were permitted to see the Oba. Philips and his group were equally warned by chiefs who were well disposed to the British to refrain from the journey. Despite all warnings, Philip and his group proceeded with the visit as planned. Philips and his group with some 120-200 personnel disguised as carriers but having arms in their boxes, had as undeclared objective: to depose Oba Ovonramvem who was considered by the Acting Consul- General Philips as the main obstacle to Britain gaining control over trade in that part of Nigeria. Instead of the surprise attack the British group intended to launch, they were themselves surprised by an ambush on their way. Readers must ask themselves since when can one visit another person who says clearly that the tine proposed is inconvenient? Since when does one vist a monarch who states he is not prepared to receive such a visit?
The attack on Philips and his group provided a welcome pretext for invasion which the British had been weighing for a long time, including discussing the possible sale of Benin artworks to defray the costs of the intended campaign. British troops were sent to Benin on what they called Punitive Expedition. (3). Benin City was captured and burnt. The Oba sent into exile in Calabar, in Nigeria. The destruction in Benin must have been awful. R.
Intelligence Officer to the expedition wrote in his book, Benin: the City of Blood: “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 lassa day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it.” (4)
“After the killing came the looting – the British seized more than 2,000 artworks and religious artefacts, most of them hundreds of years old, which were sent back to England.”
The figure of 2000 mentioned as the number of the looted artefacts seems to us an underestimate. Prof. Felix von Luschan who was instrumental in procuring a large number of the Benin artefacts for the Ethnologische Museum, Berlin, puts the figure at 2400. We prefer to use the figure of 3000 used by Edun Akenzua, the brother of the Oba in his plea to the British Parliament. But there is no officially agreed figure. The Oba did not keep a list of his artefacts nor are the Western museums willing to give us exact figures of the number of Benin artefacts they are holding. The Germans have officially stated 507 as the number they have. Field Museum, Chicago once indicated holding 404 Benin artefacts but nobody now knows where those artefacts are. The British Museum does not give any official information at all on its number of Benin artefacts some of which the venerable museum has in the meanwhile sold for cash. (5)
The BBC News report contains a classic response from the British Museum on why it is not willing to return any of the many looted Benin Bronzes it is holding
The British Museum says it has not recently received any new official requests for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
“As a museum of the world for the world the British Museum presents the Benin Bronzes in a global context alongside the stories of other cultures and makes these objects as available as possible to a global audience,” it says in a statement.
As usual, the British Museum presents first a denial that there has been a request and then advances a reason why it is justified in holding looted artefacts. We should note that the museum has made a modification to the usual denial of the existence of a request. For a long time, the museum simply denied that there had ever been a request at all for the Benin Bronzes even though the evidence for the demand was overwhelming. The Oba of Benin and the Nigerian Government and Parliament have for decades requested the return of the looted artefacts.
Various groups within and outside Nigeria have also made such request. The United Nations and UNESCO have since 1972 annually passed a resolution entitled “Return Cultural Property to country of Origin urging holding countries to return the objects.(6)The International Council of Museums has requested holding museums to take initiative in returning cultural objects. Several writers have also made such a request. The Oba of Benin sent his brother in 2000 to make an appeal to the British Parliament which is on the records of the British Parliament, known as Appendix 21. Still the British Museum denied there had been any request. (7)
The reported defence of the Bloomsbury museum is that “it has not recently received any new official requests for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.” We are dealing here with objects looted in 1897. How recent must the request for return be? Is the request in 2000 before the British Parliament not recent enough? Must the Oba of Benin and his people renew the request every year or month? What about the requests made by the Oba at the opening of the various Benin exhibitions,
-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
? The exhibition was in Vienna from 9thMay to 3rd September, 2007, in Paris from 2nd October to 6th January 2008, in Berlin from 7th February to 25th May, 2008 and in Chicago from 27th June to 21st September 2008.Do the annual United Nations/UNESCO resolutions then not matter at all? (8) We should note however the progress made by the museum from a blatant denial of the existence of a demand for return to absence of recent demand.
The claim that the British Museum is “a museum of the world for the world” is simply not true and people at Bloomsbury know this very well. The museum has not been created by any world authority with participation by other States such as those in the United Nations and other international organizations. The British Museum is a British museum created by the British Parliament through an Act of the British Parliament,
British Museum Act 1753 as subsequently modified by
British Museum Act 1963.
The Board of Trustees of the museum are appointed by the British Monarch and the British Government. No doubt the museum has high or world standards but that does not make it a world museum. There are several museums in the world with such standards but none will make such claims.(9) The big difference between the museum in Bloomsbury and other important museums is that the British Museum has looted/stolen artefacts from several parts of the world. In that sense, one may consider it a museum of the world but could one claim such a distinction on the basis of illegality?
Even if the British Museum were a “museum of the world for the world”, it would not be entitled, by this fact, to hold onto artefacts of other peoples, obtained through violence and the use of force who now request their return. The acquisition of” world status” cannot be advanced to deny the basic human right to cultural development.
But who requested the British Museum to present “the Benin Bronzes in a global context alongside the stories of other cultures”and “make these objects as available as possible to a global audience” whilst denying to the people of Benin access to their own artefacts?
We can see from the argument of the British Museum the urgent need to tell the story of Dr, Mark Walker as often as possible so that all may finally understand that every people creates its artefacts for its own use and should not through violence and other oppressive means be deprived of the basic human right to cultural development and self-determination of the location of cultural artefacts.
By his noble gesture, Mark Walker has restored our confidence in the ability of humankind to distinguish between right and wrong, justice and injustice; he has positioned himself beyond petty economics and the parochial nationalism that presents itself in the disguise of universalism, using arrogance and mendacity as its favourite tools.
Queen-Mother Idea, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Can MacGregor tell her story better than the Oba of Benin?
Culture is the soul of a nation. The illicit removal or destruction of cultural property deprives peoples of their history and tradition. Restitution is the only means that can restore damage and reinstate a sense of dignity”.
Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations on the Presentation of
the Resolution titled, Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin GA/RES/67/80, 12 Dec. 2012.
Kwame Opoku, 27 March, 2015.
1. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine See also K. Opoku, “Return of Two Looted Benin Bronzes by a Briton: History in the Making”,
Peju Layiwola, “Walker and the Restitution of Two Benin Bronzes”,
2. K. Opoku,” Africans need their cultural objects more than Europeans and Americans” …www.afrikanet.info/…/africans-need-african-cultural-objects-more-than-e.
Benin1897.com : art and the restitution question by Peju Layiwola.
pp.107-108 cited by the great Ekpo Eyo in “,Benin:the Sack that was”
5. Anja Laukötter, in her excellent book, Von der ‘Kultur’ zur ‘Rasse’ – vom Objekt zum Körper : Völkerkundemuseen und ihre Wissenschaft zu Beginn des 20.Jahhunderts (Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2007, P160), cites Luschan as follows:
‘Im ganzen sind rund 2400 Benin Stűcke zu meiner Kenntnis gelangt: davon sind 580 in Berlin, 280 im Brit.Museum, 227 in Rushmore (die von Pitt Rivers hinterlassene Sammlung), 196 in Hamburg,182 in Dresden, 167 in Wien, 98 in Leiden, 87 in Leipzig, 80 in Stuttgart, 76 in Cőln und 51 in Frankfurt a .M
Barbara Plankensteiner, a leading authority on Benin and Deputy Director, Volkerkunde Museum, Vienna, now World Museum, states as follows in her excellent book, Benin, 2010,Five Continents, p. 7;
“The quantity of historic works is impressive, estimated at between 2,400 and 4000 objects, including 900 relief plaques nearly 300 bronze heads, beads and roughly 130 elephant tusks covered with relief carvings.”
UN General Assembly,
A/RES/67/80 Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origins, adopted by the General Assembly on 12 December,2012
7. Appendis 21. The Case of Benin. Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ …/371ap27.htm. March 2000
K. Opoku, ‘Is the Absence of a Formal Demand for Restitution a Ground for Non-Restitution?
9. See K. Opoku,”When Will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor.
Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence
LIST OF HOLDERS OF THE BENIN BRONZES
Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of museums where some of 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 Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna (Now World Museum) has closed since 12 years and is not likely to re-open soon. The looted Benin artefacts are in the African Section.
German authorities still have to explain the disparity between 507 objects they now admit and the figure of 580 given by Prof. Felix van Luschan who was instrumental in procuring the Benin for the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Has the German museum, like the British Museum also sold some of the Benin artefacts? See K, Opoku, Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts? http://www.modernghana.com
See also, Felix von Luschan, Die Altertümer von Benin, hrsg. mit Untertstützung des Reichs-Kolonialministeriums, der Rudolf Virchow- und der Arthur Baessler-Stiftung, 1919.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 507.
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 (World Museum) 167.