Britain cannot decide whether to return its looted treasures to their rightful owners
Britain reckons on its imperial history during a week of two ceremonies held to celebrate the return of ancient looted artifacts from Britain to Nigeria.
On Wednesday, a Cambridge University college held a ceremony recognizing the official return of a bronze statue of a rooster to the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments.
Donated to the university by the father of a student in 1905, the rooster is a Benin bronze that was sacked in 1897 during the British invasion of the city of Benin, modern Nigeria, in which British forces burned the Royal Palace, among other things, and stole priceless artifacts.
The event at Jesus College was followed by a similar delivery on Thursday evening at the University of Aberdeen, where a sculpture depicting the head of a Benin king was returned to Nigeria. Elsewhere in mainland Europe, too, France and Germany have taken measures to repatriate similar objects. President Emmanuel Macron was present on Wednesday at an event at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, where 26 artifacts were ceremoniously returned to Benin.
These moves have put pressure on a number of academic and cultural institutions such as the British Museum, which has faced calls to return its huge bronze collection of over 900 artifacts. In a statement sent to CNN, the museum said it “understands and recognizes the importance of the issues surrounding the return of items” and remains committed to “sharing our collection as much as possible”.
The problem is uncomfortable for the museum, which is also home to other world-famous stolen artifacts, including the Parthenon marbles, a series of ancient sculptures looted from Athens.
The UK government believes the museum is the right home for the bronzes as it makes them accessible to most people and as the premier museum in one of the world’s most global cities, it has the best facilities for preserving them.
This is an argument that many find offensive and imbued with the very kind of British imperial thought that first looted the artifacts.
“This logic suggests that Nigeria is a poorer country, unable to properly care for the artifacts stolen by the colonialists, despite a state-of-the-art museum waiting for them in Nigeria. It’s a classic racist argument that Britain is is.” a place of sophistication and knows best, “said Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University.
Others have argued that because the Kingdom of Benin benefited from the slave trade, modern Nigeria does not have the moral basis to demand the return of the artifacts.
Enotie Ogbebor, a Nigerian artist and authority on the bronzes, said this was an irrelevant point as “many of the artifacts were made long before the slave trade”. “They are part of our culture, they tell a story of our history and they have been stolen. It’s very simple.”
No matter how much the UK government would prefer these artifacts to remain in the UK, critics say they are already on the wrong side of history.
A parallel debate over Britain’s statues of historic colonialists and slave traders – sparked by the protests against Black Lives Matter that swept the globe after the assassination of George Floyd – has forced many in Britain to finally have this difficult conversation about their country’s history and horrors to lead the British Empire.
When protesters last summer saw a 17th-century statue of slave trader Edward Colston doing everything possible to protect the monuments in the name of heritage – a bill followed in March that included measures that would make defacing statues a criminal act.
On the specific issue of the Benin bronzes, a government spokesman told CNN this week that museums “are independent of the government with decisions regarding the maintenance and management of collections, including the loan of objects, made by the trustees of each institution” ” and indicates that the bronzes are a private collection rather than part of the national collection.
This level of money handover combined with a government policy that firmly supports the protection of statues from colonialists in the name of heritage is frustrating for those who believe that artifacts like the bronzes should be returned on the basis of stolen goods.
“There is a new generation who will remember the theater of the George Floyd protests and the demolition of statues,” said SI Martin, author of several books on British colonial and black history.
âIt seems inconceivable that the conversation would end there or that people would suddenly be 100% comfortable with the way these items were made in the UK. That could force museums to act on their own relevance. âAdded.
Currently, the British Museum is prohibited from returning its artifacts under British law, although it is reportedly discussing possible loans to the proposed Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria.
Deciding whether this is the case could set aside a small symbolic victory in the culture war over Britain’s colonial past. The question is, which side will this institution, which has so much cultural weight, give its stamp of approval when Britain tries to come to terms with its complicated, controversial history at a time of such division and anger.
Pictured above: Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne with Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments Director General Professor Abba Isa Tijani ahead of a ceremony at the University of Cambridge to bring the looted bronze faucet known as Okukur back to Nigeria.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated where the artifacts would be returned from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The artifacts will be returned to Benin in West Africa.