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Where does repatriated African artwork really end up?

The British Museum's Benin Bronzes have been a long-standing source of controversy. Credit: Getty

January 27, 2024 - 8:00am

In recent years, there have been passionate campaigns across the West for looted artefacts displayed in public museums to be repatriated to the lands of their origin. In what can be counted as a modest victory, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum have announced that they will loan to Ghana dozens of artefacts that originated in the Asante kingdom, including court regalia dubbed their “crown jewels”. This is becoming part of a trend, after Germany returned a number of the notorious Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in 2022. 

Many arguments for repatriation contain romantic nationalist premises. Essentially, proponents argue that artefacts are the immutable expressions of a particular volksgeist which was ruptured by colonialism and hence must be restored. As one of Ghana’s cultural advisors is quoted as saying: “They’re not just objects, they have spiritual importance as well. They are part of the soul of the nation. It’s pieces of ourselves returning.” Behind this is the assumption that the treasures of the Asante kingdom mean more to an Asante or a Ghanaian than could possibly be the case for a white British person or an Arab. 

What’s noteworthy is that the negotiations weren’t even with the Ghanaian government, but instead with the current Asante king to commemorate his silver jubilee. Likewise, the Benin Bronzes that have been returned were handed over to the current day Oba, or king of Benin, Ewuare II. The Nigerian government issued a decree last year that gave the Oba, and the Oba alone, exclusive rights over all repatriated bronzes as their “original owner”. The worry is that the same fate will befall the repatriated Asante artefacts. 

The sad reality is that “decolonising” Western museums will likely mean repatriated artefacts are to be treated as the personal property of redundant African potentates, rather than the common property of the citizenry of these countries. Should this really be the fate of these cultural treasures? 

It is certainly true that many of the treasures that currently lie in Western museums were initially seized through the looting and pillaging that came with European colonial expansion into Africa from the late 19th century onwards. Nevertheless, this was no morality tale between oppressor and victim. Both the Benin and Asante empires had slavery as part of their social order and were heavily engaged with European powers in the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, slavery helped them garner the material and productive base to create their wonderful artworks. 

These facts shouldn’t dampen our admiration of these artworks, nor erase the violent history of how they ended up in Western museums. But it does demonstrate the tragedy that is history and the moral quixotism of trying to make the past “right”, especially through the symbolism of cultural repatriation based on nationalist mythology. 

Overall, we should ensure that the treasures of world culture are accessible to as many people as possible. This means defending the cosmopolitan, encyclopaedic museum that publicly displays the various treasures from different civilisations from across the world in relation to each other for the masses to see and admire. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean they must be restricted to one country or exclusively to the West. Exchange programmes between different museums can be a solution for this problem. But to simply “return” these artefacts to the lands of origin would be to segregate world culture. The truth is that all these treasures were formed by human beings, and thus they truly belong to us all. 


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Ian_S
Ian_S
5 months ago

“the moral quixotism of trying to make the past “right”,” — nice turn of phrase.

On the other side of the equation, the recipient institutions or indigenous groupings have no real appreciation of the resources required to keep an artefact for perpetuity, and returned artefacts are bound to deteriorate or ultimately disappear.

Westerners involved in these transactions, fired up by high moral dudgeon, seem only interested in scoring victories for decolonisation, and are evidently far less concerned about the welfare of the artefacts they find themselves managing. But the kudos in their networks are for ostentatious performances of decolonisation morality, and not for the principles of traditional cultural conservation (though they still love the rituals of white cotton gloves and expensive archive boxes). It’s a kind of vandalism which they perpetrate.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

On the walls of one of the corrupt leaders? Our own ex Premier of the ex Free State, took a Pierneef. Well, it was a bodyguard, but who would not notice this and who knows the collusion. The ex Premicer, Ace Magashule, was and is rotten to the core.

William Brand
William Brand
5 months ago

Expect that these bronzes will soon be sold by the African ruler who gets them. The big question then is whether the rich man who buys them will have clear title. Can Nigeria then demand them back to play this game a second time. Can Britan sue the oil rich Arab sheik to get them back. Should the British museum buy them back from the future sale at Southby’s.

John Murray
John Murray
5 months ago

I feel like this argument would have more force if the British Museum hadn’t recently discovered it had so many artefacts in its coffers that it could not only not keep track of them, some had actually been nicked. So, if they’re emptying out some old boxes marked “Asante” and sending the contents back to the current Asante king (or whatever) that seems fine. Speaking for myself, I feel confident that Asante bloke does care more about his ancestors’ old knick-knacks than I do. (Obviously, I am not talking about the stuff from Wakanda, we should hang on to that.)

N T
N T
5 months ago

Is condescension an art form, now? If it isn’t yours, return it. It’s none of your business what the rightful heirs do with it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago
Reply to  N T

So the British museum should return artefacts to their original owners? Even if they lived in Britain?

Sylvia Volk
Sylvia Volk
5 months ago

The original owners are largely dead … even if they lived in Britain.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  N T

I’m inclined to agree with that.
As far as i’m concerned, the contra-arguments all have a touch of unedifying sophistry about them, in an attempt to evade the simple principle you’ve outlined.
Just to give another example, the artworks looted by the “German regime” during WW2 are now being repatriated to their rightful owners. If this isn’t wrong, then the arguments for keeping treasures looted during colonial times is.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  N T

Thanks for the ‘insightful nudge’, the colonial mind and predators value African artifacts as reminders of their glorious past and still devalue the creators of those works. Handing something looted back to its owners is not rocket science, the attempt to question the authenticity or catetaking of original owners is even more disgraceful. Keeping them in colonial metropoles is another colonial strategy. So Africans have to trek to Berlin/London to watch their ancestral skulls/artififacts? Stop this sanitization crap

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

No-one cares about black African trinkets except craven Guardian / NYT readers. They treasure them more than any Nigerian ever will and for that reason every last scrap of black African art should be returned to the local potentates to dispose of as they see fit.

Matt B
Matt B
5 months ago
Reply to  N T

NT?

Tony Price
Tony Price
5 months ago

It’s a tricky one, but repatriation of artefacts does depend to a great extent on the circumstances of their appropriation. Re the Benin bronzes, giving them all back to the current King is difficult as the sacking of his predecessor’s palace was to a great extent justified – see the article here in History Reclaimed, a site which I imagine most commentators here will like. The Ashante stuff sounds more like a colonial war of occupation and ought to be returned, especially given it’s religious significance.

In general, how can we approve the return of artefacts looted by the Germans and Russians during/after WW2 and not much of the stuff in our museums where appropriate?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

A different standard is used when judging Germans vis a vis WWII. For example, the prevailing consensus is that no German alive during Hitler’s reign of evil escaped responsibility for what the Nazis did. It is considered to have been the product of cultural arrogance, militarism, and racism that distilled into violent fascism, ergo a shame shared by all Germans. No German was allowed to say “but I wasn’t a Nazi” or “I didn’t know” or “I was just a powerless civilian” or any other excuse to mitigate their guilt. The human civilian devastation meted out to Germany by the Allies–with no pangs about “collateral damage”–remains in the world’s memory as the most justified of all military endeavors. Somehow today, after decades of vicious xenophobic jihad from Islamist monsters, expressed in countless acts of terrorism and overt acts of war, we are queesy about the fate of the Gazans and eager to find some narrative that justifies Islamic genocidal violence. But most people still enjoy a WWII movie where the Allied bombers sweep in to blow a German city to smithereens and–most rightfully–no contemplation of German justification for the war and Holocaust.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Here’s an idea: give the otherwise useless, money-wasting UN the constructive task of creating world art museums–one per continent say–that would curate, preserve, and display all of the art taken under colonialism. The pieces would be perpetually rotated among these institutions for the edification and enjoyment of all the world’s peoples. The uber-wealthy EA tech dweebs could use their foundations to pay for it all.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago

“What’s noteworthy is that the negotiations weren’t even with the Ghanaian government, but instead with the current Asante king to commemorate his silver jubilee.” Heavens! Insults, such as this, to the managerial elite must not go unpunished!
I’m almost with Marinetti on this one. Not only should the court regalia be returned but it is time that the museums were wound down and shut. At this late stage their existence only serves to alienate and estrange us from our own history anyway and re-present it to us, “formulated, sprawling on a pin”. To turn deeply numinous regal and religious totems into neutered ‘art works’ to be interpreted and contextualised for us by the academic priesthood.
What precisely is this ‘Nationalist Mythology’ at which the author sneers? Does he apply it to St Edwards Crown or the Augustine Gospels used at the Coronation in this country? And is their value diminished because they are possibly the “personal property of redundant… potentates” rather than in the posession of credentialled museum curators?
Is it ‘Romantic National[ism]’, as the author suggests, to insist that, say, the Curtana or the Coronation Spoon rightly and specifically belong in Britain rather than anywhere else on earth? That rather than being ‘cultural treaures’ belonging to the “common property of the citizenry” they are the property of the King and ‘shine in use’?
No, close the museums, return the chattels and release history from the embalming clutches of the professoriate.

Matt B
Matt B
5 months ago

Send them back. Few know about them, and the likely truth is that few care about them. Their fame rests largely on the toxic and quixotic arguments swirling around them. Let Africans be the viewers at home. The Museum has plenty of other stuff to put on show.