The treasures of the world belong to us all

Germany’s attempt to ‘repatriate’ its Benin bronzes has backfired spectacularly.

James Heartfield

Topics Identity Politics UK World

In recent years, museum curators in Europe have been campaigning for artefacts, once looted from the rest of the world, to be returned to their sites of origin. Among the most discussed artefacts are the Benin bronzes – elaborately decorated brass plaques and sculptures that once adorned the royal palace of the historical Kingdom of Benin in western Africa. Several thousands of these bronzes exist and many are displayed in museums around the world. In the UK, you can see them in the British Museum in London and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But probably not for long.

The British Museum, like others across Europe, is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, which is negotiating over the bronze’s return with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. On the Western side, the campaign to return artefacts is part of a larger movement to ‘decolonise’ museums and universities.

Twenty-three Benin bronzes were returned last year to Nigeria from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. They were handed over in person, in Abuja, by German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and culture minister Claudia Roth. Unfortunately, the German government’s gesture appears to have backfired. Instead of being put on public display, as was expected, the bronzes were handed over to Ewuare II, the present-day Oba, or king, of Benin. Many now fear they will only be displayed in the king’s private collection in his lavish palace. Ewuare II is believed to have a net worth of around $60million.

The story of how the British got hold of the Benin bronzes is told in graphic detail by Professor Dan Hicks, the current curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and a leading light in the campaign to return the bronzes, in his book, The Brutish Museums. At the end of the 19th century, Britain waged war against the Kingdom of Benin. It accused the Oba of breaching a treaty commitment to open up Benin to free trade, after a group of merchants were ambushed on their way to Benin City. In response, Benin was then invaded and the Oba’s palace was torched. Many were killed in the British military operation, and the palace and other buildings were looted for treasure, such as the bronzes.

Oxford University theologian and historian of empire Nigel Biggar takes issue with Hicks’s telling. (They work in the same building.) In Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Biggar adds in some of the detail that Hicks leaves out. The raid on Benin is clearly not a simple morality tale of evil oppressor and good victim. For instance, Biggar notes that human sacrifice was widespread in Benin. The heads of the traders, whose deaths Britain had invaded to avenge, had been put on public display. Plus, one consequence of the British occupation was the end of the slave trade there. In fact, slavery was central to Benin’s wealth. In her excellent book about the debate over repatriating artefacts, Keeping Their Marbles, Tiffany Jenkins points out: ‘The Glory of Benin was built on the slave trade: the contested Benin bronzes were crafted from manillas [metal bracelets used for trade], brought by European traders, traded for slaves and melted down.’

The greater share of the Benin bronzes was taken by the British Army and auctioned off in London, with the proceeds going to soldiers’ benevolent funds. The British military, like others in those days, took the spoils of war and tried to prevent private looting.

A key distinction that is not often made is that the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers and other museums did not themselves steal the Benin bronzes – they bought them. Professor Hicks and other ‘decolonisers’ might argue that they were stolen in the broader scheme of things, but in strictly legal terms it is wrong to pin the blame on museums. Their acquisition of the bronzes was legal and the pledge to return them is a political gesture.

The argument for returning the bronzes turns on the question of ‘Who are they for?’. As cultural artefacts on display in museums in Europe or anywhere else, they are available for a large public to see. The ‘decolonise’ champions are right to say that the distribution of treasures around the world reflects the balance of power and distribution of wealth. But the public display of artefacts in places like the British Museum is still a positive addition to the world’s acculturation. This is not just a matter of selfishness.

The arguments for returning artefacts rest too much on a guilty, self-loathing account of Western civilisation. This will not lead to anything positive. The ‘decolonisers’ ignore the fact that the reason that many of these goods still exist and are available to see is because collectors – yes, even collectors from the wicked colonial past – cared for and treasured them.

We should make sure that our world’s culture is accessible to as many people as possible. That means putting artefacts on display in museums where they will be seen by the most people. Exchanges can ensure that they are not confined to any one country or to the West. To simply ‘return’ these objects to their countries of origin would mean siloing off the world’s culture. It may even mean, as with the Benin bronzes, that objects are taken off public display, and end up in the private collections of uber-rich monarchs. That would be a very strange kind of progress.

James Heartfield’s latest book is Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020, published by Anthem Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK World


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