Many great museum collections–the British Museum, the Louvre–were essentially founded on empire-building, war, and looting. The countries these objects came from–Greece, Italy, Egypt, and most recently Nigeria and Turkey, among many others–constantly demand these things back, and the more valuable and famous the object, the more vocally they do so. Particularly well known cases include the Rosetta Stone, the head of Nefertiti, and especially the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.
A not-so-recent (I originally planned to post this in November) article in the Art Newspaper highlighted a collection of objects from the Benin Empire in what is now Nigeria, which are now being transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the private collection of Robert Lehman. The objects were looted from the palace in Benin City in 1897, when the Brits launched a “punitive expedition” in response to the killing of a few British ambassadors, thereby dismantling the Benin Empire, and its rich artistic tradition.
British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897
The Nigerian government is demanding these objects be returned. Should they? There is no easy answer to that question, and it is extremely difficult to divorce one’s answer to this question from one’s self-interest; anyone with curiosity about these historically valuable objects will want them in whichever location they are more likely to visit.
First-world countries like Britain and the U.S. will claim firstly that the objects will be better cared for in their hands (museum standards and budgets for conservation and security presumably less in other parts of the world). They will also say that, as shared cultural heritage, it is important that the greatest number of people have access to them, and that will be more true in London or New York than Nigeria.
The object’s home countries will argue that the objects will be better contextualized close to their place of origin; even if the Elgin marbles cannot go back onto the Parthenon, they can be near the Parthenon (in a museum Greece already built, in bold anticipation of the return that may never take place). They will also argue that it is important for national identity and pride (not to mention tourism revenue).
It’s easy to see how intractable the problem is. Both sides have their points, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which side I fall on. I will leave you with a comparison to a similar issue.
In the case of objects looted by Nazis during World War II, there is a clear moral imperative to return works that were stolen from their owners, or left behind when they were forcibly moved, et cetera. Museums have put in an enormous effort to uncover those histories, including using a public online database, and if it discovers that a work in their collection was obtained in such a way, it unquestionably returns the work to the owner or his/her heirs (there was a case in the paper the other day). It becomes a bit more vague if the previous owner actually sold the work legitimately, even if they would not have sold it if not for the circumstances–requiring the money to get away, for example. Heirs may still demand the work, but the museum might not surrender it so easily.
Something similar occurs with repatriation issues. The argument has been made that, even if the circumstances were exploitative, the Elgin Marbles were, however shadily, bought. Such an argument cannot be made about the Benin bronzes. They were looted, in an aggressive “punitive expedition” that, in vengeance for the death of a few British citizens, destroyed an entire empire, dismantled a magnificent palace, and distributed the booty among the looters and their allies in the Western world.
The argument is also made that the statute of limitations has passed on such “historic” actions. No matter the shady dealings of the past, it seems intuitive that the British Museum is the de facto owner of the Elgin Marbles now, since the museum has been their steward for 200 years. Certainly the Benin bronzes fall into this category as well?
Well, the punitive exhibition that destroyed Benin took place in 1897, less than 40 years before the rise of the Nazi party and the beginning of the erosion of the rights of German Jews. Not so historically distant when put in those terms.
So, what are the differences between the two cases? The property of an individual versus the property of a country? Well, technically the palace riches of Benin were the property of the oba (king), so also belonged to an individual. By now you probably know what I’m getting at: the Benin riches were stolen from Africa, from people with black skin, from the “third world,” even though Benin was a highly sophisticated society.