John Lubbock explores how the restitution of looted historical artefacts is being navigated by cultural institutions around the world
The publication of Professor Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums on the British imperial looting of Benin City in 1897 has helped to accelerate a debate about the violent histories of the objects displayed in museums. It is also part of a wider reassessment of the role of history in the modern structure of racial discrimination, in which the voices of dispossessed groups need to be amplified.
Hicks’ book describes how the expansion of Britain’s militarist colonialism in west Africa used the cover of humanitarian intervention to overthrow local rulers like the Oba of Benin, killing thousands and destroying their cultural history. African rulers were accused of preventing Britain’s legitimate commercial activities, as well as of slave-trading and cannibalism. We now see these justifications for the crude excuses they always were, perhaps prompted by more recent experience of Western ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the Middle East.
The debate about cultural restitution of stolen items has often centred on institutions such as the British Museum. Hicks says, however, that the museum “holds less than 10% of what was taken in 1897” and that it needs to be “de-centred in these conversations”.
“The rest of the country/world will lead, and the UK’s national museums will eventually catch up,” he adds.
The University of Aberdeen recently announced that it will return the Benin Bronze in its collection, while Germany’s Foreign Minister has been in Nigeria for talks on the full return of its looted Benin Bronzes. This piles pressure on other institutions to do the same, including the British Museum, the website of which states: “There are around 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum’s collection.”
The British Museum says that, while “His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II repeated his request for Benin collections to be returned… no formal written request has been received for the return of the Museum’s Benin collections in their entirety”.
Hicks’ says that, “in the view of many curators, myself included, ‘we haven’t received a formal claim’ is no longer an ethically acceptable reply”.