Fingerprints Episode 2
Dan Hicks takes us on a journey with three bronze masks from the West African city of Benin, through the hands of soldiers, collectors, and curators, and along with special guests considers the responsibility that European museums have towards looted art in their collections. Find a transcript of this episode here
Speakers in this episode:
About the Fingerprints podcast
Every object in the Ashmolean has passed from hand to hand to reach the Museum. In a new podcast, we uncover the invisible fingerprints left behind by makers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, rulers, curators, and many more. These stories of touch reveal the ways in which the forces of conflict and colonialism have shaped Britain’s oldest Museum. Join the Ashmolean’s curators alongside artists, experts, and community members, for our new podcast: Fingerprints.
Fingerprints will be released on the Ashmolean’s website, on Spotify, Apple, and wherever you get your podcasts, weekly from 21 January 2022 until 25 February 2022.
Fingerprints is produced and hosted by Lucie Dawkins. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Professor Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
My name is Simukai Chigudu. I'm an Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of St. Anthony's College. Now I joined Oxford as a graduate student reading for a master's in African Studies and a doctorate. But during that time, I became a founding member of the student activist group Rhodes Must Fall. Our aim was to decolonise Oxford. It was part of a strategy of challenging racism in all its forms: structural, symbolic, physical, and in its everyday manifestations. As part of this project, we wanted to transform our philosophies and attitudes towards teaching, to offer a more expansive and nuanced view of history, literature and science that takes into account the intellectual vitality of formerly colonised people. But our project didn't end there. We were concerned about the composition of Oxford University, at the student level and at the faculty level, and why so many people who are racialised as black or are from a minority ethnic background feel alienated within this institution that cannot be removed from Oxford's deep history of colonialism. And, crucially, the project of decolonisation is about what it means to inhabit the physical space that is Oxford. It's about who we choose to honour and commemorate in our portraiture and in our statues. The statue of Cecil John Rhodes, for instance, has been a key marker in these debates. But it's not the only one. Certainly when one surveys the museums and collections that Oxford University has, you stumbled upon loot that was stolen during the period of high imperialism, often denuded of its historical and affective context, its ties, for instance, to Africa. This is particularly true with the Benin Bronzes, which you'll find in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and institution that is not only a collection of art, but once doubled up as a facility for loot stolen during imperial rule. The restoration and repatriation of these bronzes as part of a wider debate about historical atonement for wrongs committed in the deep past, but that continue to affect us today.
This is Fingerprints, a podcast from the Ashmolean Museum. Invisible fingerprints cover every object in the Ashmolean belonging to artists, rulers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, curators, collectors, and many more. These fingerprints reveal the complex (and sometimes uneasy) history behind the making of a museum. I'm your host, Lucie Dawkins. And every week we're going to go on epic journeys with objects and the many hands that they've passed through to reach the galleries today. In this episode, I'm on the trail of three sculpted faces from Benin City in Edo state, which today is part of Nigeria. Each is roughly the size of your outstretched hand, made from intricately detailed bronze. They're part of the Ashmolean's collections, but you won't find them inside our walls. To track them down. I've had to take a trip down the road to another one of Oxford University's museums, the Pitt Rivers, where I've joined curator Dan Hicks in front of a display case full of objects from Benin City. Dan, great to see you. Can you describe what we're looking at?
So here we are on the lower gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, the first floor. There's a variety of objects and materials that are represented in this case. There are carved ivory tusks, which includes one that was actually burned in the sacking of Benin and you can see the burning on it. We have the more famous maybe brass plaques and heads of Obas, the kings of Benin, a whole range of items of metalwork, bracelets, and bangles and so on. But here are the three items that we're talking about, which are three hip ornament masks that would have been worn at the hip from a belt, and they're part of the royal regalia, the sacred royal regalia of the royal courts of Benin. These are the sort of items that were made all the way through really from the 16th and 17th century into the 19th century, in this really unique artistic tradition of the brass makers, which was a guild of the royal court and of course continues importantly to be a guild of the royal court in the present day.
To uncover the very first layer of fingerprints on these masks, those of the brass makers who made them, I sat down to talk to a leading Nigerian artist who still uses the same technique in his work today.
My name is Victor Ehikhamenor, I am an artist and a writer from Nigeria, specifically from the Benin Kingdom, Edo state in Nigeria.
So, Victor, could you introduce us to the history and culture of the Edo people?
That will be a tough one! How do you even begin to introduce a nation, you know? So, I mean, before colonialism came in, you know, it was a nation by itself. They had the king which is known as the Oba who ruled over the entire kingdom and beyond, you know, so there are different groups of people that makes up the Edo. Where the king resides in Benin City, you have the Benins. Then you have the Esans, you have the Etsako, you have the Akoko Edos, you know, but during colonialism and during amalgamation, we were yoked to what is today known as Nigeria, you know. So we are smack right in the middle of the country in the sense that you can't go to any part of Nigeria without necessarily going through Edo State. And also art making was a major part of what the people are known for - they're known for art making, you know, in all forms, 3D, performative, 2D. So it is part of our daily living that is just normal to us.
What were the significance of these three masks for the community, how would they have been used?
They are commemorative. Each Oba, or each King, would have to commission a bronze caster to make something to commemorate his father, or his mother as the case may be. But these particular ones are either hip or chest pendants, you know, sewn into the sarongs, like really heavy sarongs that the king wears, you know, during ceremonial dances and ceremonial rituals in the kingdom. For those that don't know that a lot of the works, a lot of the bronze works in Benin that were made in Benin Kingdom were part of our recording system, they were part of our archiving system. So each one is, as you can see, (because a lot of people think, you know, they're seeing exactly the same thing) but there are differences, you know. So, on the chin of this particular pendant you have mudfish, which shows that the king rules over earth and water, you know. This one has just three markings on the top of the eyebrow, the facial markings that shows which particular king that is, you know. Those are signifiers and messages that are embedded, are hidden in them for each generation to begin to know who is who, and which king is this, and which king is that, you know. So, like I always say we had our own writing system. These are communication systems you know, so they are very important still. Their importance can never be underestimated even though they have been removed from where they were created. They were written records of how things should be done, of how coronations should be done, if the Oba has a child how is to be announced, which king ruled before the other, you know. When those things were removed, there was a certain gaping hole.
And how would the artists of Benin city have actually made these sculptures? What was the process?
It's a long process where there is the clay work that is done. Then you have the wax that is are used to make the very intricate part of it. Then the part where they heat a lot of brass and they bury these model sculptures covered in mud and clay, and then begin to pour it. And oftentimes the entire community comes together to do that part whereby the pouring of the brass works. They pour it in and allow it to cool, then they dig it up from the earth to reveal the work. Then they begin to file and finesse. There are works that date back to 15th century of the lost wax process of bronze making. So that is how they have always made it for centuries, and that is how they still make it. I go back, all my bronzes works are made in Benin from that lost wax process.
So Dan, there’s an odd thing about today’s episode. Amongst all the artworks from Benin in this case, these three particular objects are part of the Ashmolean’s collections. And yet, we are standing here in the Pitt Rivers, where you are the Curator of World History. Can you explain why they are here and not in the Ashmolean?
So, you know, the Ashmolean Museum likes to pretend this it's a 17th century foundation, but really on its current site, it's a product of 1884, which was the same year as the opening of the Pitt Rivers Museum. So what we have to think about is how, in the same year as the Berlin Congress, where the European powers were carving up Africa between themselves, here in Oxford, something very particular was happening with arts and culture: the division of the existing collections held by the University, together with the accessioning and the acceptance of the gift of the 30,000 objects that were the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in order to create not one, but two museums of Art and Archaeology, and of course, including anthropology at the Pitt Rivers. So really, I mean, why does Oxford have two museums that these items could go to? And what kind of distinction are we making? For the Victorians, really, this was about, you know, the very obvious narrative of what Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt rivers, the founder of the Pitt Rivers Museum called 'the evolution of culture', his notion that superiority above Africa, above Asia, above the whole of the global south, above native North America, was based not only on European biology, the sort of fake race science. Over the course of the 20th century, any idea that human difference was based on the biological was, of course, debunked - we're a single human species. What we have still got, though, are institutions that were built in order in order to tell the story of human difference based on differences in culture, the idea that certain societies were at different points of development. We even have that notion in the idea of the developing world. You know, today, these are ideas that start with Pitt Rivers and those around him. If the Ashmolean is a museum of the West, the Pitt Rivers is constructed as a museum of the rest. So what happens with these items is that when they arrive in Oxford, it's found inappropriate to have these items in the 'museum of civilization' at the Ashmolean, so they're sent away to the Pitt Rivers where we see them now.
Here's Victor Ehikhamenor again.
Art history has been very, very unkind to what you call the contemporary or the modern African artist, you know. These works were labelled as primitive. They were in the archaeological section of anthropology museums. So whereas those that were influenced by what is still coming out of Africa were built into the canon of Western narrative, the places where they were getting those influences from were completely relegated in the documentation of excellence, you know. So whereas Matisse and Picasso can feature in big books, the artists from Benin was limited to primitive art, you understand. So that double standard has always been a problematic situation in the art world.
So Dan, we know when the objects in this case left Benin city, and it's from a particularly brutal moment in British colonial history, February of 1897. And you've recently written a book, 'The Brutish Museums' about this event and its fallout. So can you describe what happened?
So the sacking of the kingdom of Benin and the removal and the burning down of the palace buildings, the palace complex was one act and a very high profile, very massive act among many, many such act that were inflicted by the British Navy and Army across Africa in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It's an iconic incident because of the sheer scale of the violence, the use of the Maxim machine guns, rocket launchers, the very hyper modern technologies of warfare that included electric lighting, barbed wire. Military technologies that would find their way with such horror to the soils of Europe in the 20th century were being experimented with and tested on African bodies in the 1890s. The Oba of Benin, the king of Benin, was in the way of the corporate colonialism that was increasingly - so a lot of listeners will be aware of the South Africa Company, of Cecil Rhodes, maybe they've heard in earlier epochs of the British Empire of the East India Company, or indeed in the 17th century of the Royal Africa Company. Here, the Royal Niger company was a corporate colonial, you know, enterprise that was working its way up that up the Niger River hand in hand with the Niger Coast Protectorate. And the protectorate wasn't a colony, but it was a form of colonialism. This is right at the edges of empire, this kind of ultra violence, late Victorian attempt to start to seize power to seize resources. So the king was in the way of the development of the rubber industry and the palm oil industry. So at the heart of it really, you know, this attack is about the rubber on the bicycles that were made in Birmingham and cycled around Oxford at this time. It's about the history of margarine, and the use of palm oil in a whole host of their manufacturing contexts here in the UK. So this is very much, you know, a history that is so recent that indeed, the Royal Niger Company went on to be incorporated within Unilever. These are incredibly near, incredibly close moments of empire that had such violence in them. And the taking of artworks was a central part of the military strategy. So as well as the physical destruction of these ancient palaces - imagine the palace landscape laid out over centuries in a royal line that reached back further in time than Elizabeth I in an unbroken royal line of Obas - that royal cause artwork and the palaces in which each Oba had lived, that were left to fall into ruin, but were continued to be venerated with these altars, which has on them these incredible artworks of the Obas, the carved ivory is that told of the achievements of the royal court in each of these epochs. Interactions with the Portuguese, interactions with other Europeans, the history of court life: these objects were sacred and royal objects, but also their archives of sorts. All of those then were looted as a willful and a tactical removal of sovereignty, the destruction of traditional religion, and a wider cultural dispossession made to last all the way up to the present day. So it was just a chaotic free for all, you know, it was maybe 200 soldiers and sailors and administrators who took what they could, who loaded these things up into boxes, who took them home, some of them handed these things down to families, some of them sold them very quickly on the open market. Within weeks, items that were taken from the Benin expedition were on display in the British Museum, and in Oxford, and in Berlin. So we don't realise just how many people were involved and how many objects are out there. So it isn't only bronzes, its ivories, its coral work, its items made of ceramics and wood, more than 10,000 objects. And as I say, in 'The Brutish Museums', each of those more than 10,000 unfinished events, each in more than 150 institutions around the world, and in countless private collections as well.
To find out more about what happened to these thousands of objects flooding into Europe, I sat down with an expert in the market for African art.
I'm Adenike Cosgrove, I run a website called ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA chronicling everything that is African art. And obviously that term in itself has its own challenges, but we try to uncover the different artworks that were created in the past, what they are, what they were used for, the distinguishing features of those pieces. And more importantly, now we're speaking to collectors, scholars, dealers, galleries, to understand the full scope of what African art is, and the history of how a lot of these pieces came to be here.
So what happened to these looted artworks after they left Benin City?
Yeah, so it's really interesting, because, you know, with anything that's historical, it isn't black and white, there are lots of different paths that artworks have taken to ultimately reach the West. If we look at the punitive expedition, specifically, that took place in February 1897, the first auctions of looted Benin works took place in the UK on May of that same year. So you had a lot of soldiers that were in Nigeria, they collected these pieces from Benin City, or they stole these pieces. And we found that a lot of these pieces made their way to auctions to ultimately cover the costs of, you know, the UK being in Benin City, but also for these individuals to make money from these finds that they uncovered in Benin City. Now, it seems like this might have stopped, right, the sale or the trade of Benin objects, but the reality is, the sale of Benin objects still takes place and continues today. There's a sale that's coming up, in fact, in Switzerland of a Benin bronze hip mask very similar to the example that is housed in this museum. So I think this really shows that there are a lot of pieces that still reside within private collections. These are individuals that own these pieces that have been passed from generation to generation that are still being traded on the open market, and in some cases, privately between collectors.
And how did European collectors think and talk about these works of art once they received them into their collections?
It's interesting when you read the history, you look at books that describe Benin objects from, you know, the 19th century and later, where a lot of scholars and ethnologists actually didn't believe that Nigerians created these objects. You know, it was believed that potentially some foreign force was in Benin City and helped the locals create these objects. And and obviously, the reality now as we know it is that indeed, you had a lot of artists and creators in Benin City that were creating these bronzes, not as artwork even but really as that store of cultural heritage, that store of the palace that told stories of the many, many decades and years, hundreds of years of ancestors and kings and courts. They were documents, and they were in fact created by artists in those nations. But that was that perception in the past that there's no way Africans could have created these Benin bronzes.
And this passing of looted Benin Bronzes from generation to generation in the private collections of European families, which Adenike describes, is exactly what happened to the three masks we see in front of us. We don’t know the name of the soldier whose hands took them from the burning remains of the Oba’s palace complex in Benin City, but we do know who he sold them to in the months after: Harold Maudley Douglas, who was appointed assistant district commissioner of the Niger Coast Protectorate the year after the sacking of Benin City. He was a key figure in the aftermath of the 1897 attack, and took part in many similarly brutal colonial expeditions around the Niger Delta. The next time a record surfaces of the bronzes, it’s 50 years later, and they are in the hands of Douglas’ great-niece, Joan Osiakowski. Joan was a pretty extraordinary woman, an actress, gallery owner, and painter, who was right at the heart of the British modernist art movement. Her London gallery was bombed in the Second World War, destroying the business. We know that the family struggled for money in the following years, and this may be what led her to sell the three masks to an acquaintance, Gerald Reitlinger, in 1948. Reitlinger was a prolific collector of Islamic, Japanese and Chinese ceramics. His passion was for Asian art, so these West African masks were unusual in his collection. But, as Adenike pointed out, the Benin Bronzes had become real collectors items in Europe, a must-have for connoisseurs like Reitlinger. He turned his home into an idiosyncratic private museum, lining bookshelves and cabinets with brown paper and velvet to show them off to his visitors at his legendary parties. He assembled his own card catalogue, and did his own DIY repairs using varnish, glue, and sometimes plain old sticky tape. And this is where the Ashmolean comes in. Reitlinger had promised to give the entire collection to the museum on condition that he keep it in his home until his death. And he was a pretty idiosyncratic negotiator. On one occasion he even asked an Ashmolean curator to help him clean out his swimming pool when he turned up to talk about the bequest. When the terms were at last agreed, it turned to be one of the largest gifts the Ashmolean has ever received. But that brings us to a terrible night in February 1978, when a blocked chimney set the whole house on fire. Although Reitlinger made it out alive, he died just a few weeks later, believing his entire collection had been destroyed. Enter our next set of fingerprints. Oliver Impey, the Ashmolean’s then curator of Japanese Art, the one and the same who had cleaned out Reitlinger’s pool, refused to to give up on the collection. Along with a crack rescue team from the Eastern Art department. They arrived in the carcass of the burnt-out house, with a saucepans strapped to their heads as protection against falling timber, taking turns to camp out in the ruin. Miraculously, he managed to excavate nine tenths of Reitlinger’s collection from the ashes, and brought nearly 2000 objects back to Oxford with him. And among them, thankfully, were the pendant masks. To find out what happened next, Dan sat down with Xa Sturgis, the Ashmolean’s director.
So Xa, wonderful to be here with you. So where to start? I guess, so these things arrive, all the 2000 objects, and then what happens next?
So what I do know is that they're lent to the Pitt Rivers on long term loan, there was no expertise about these objects within the Ashmolean. There was no, I think, probably genuine understanding of them within the Ashmolean. And so it was felt that there might be that understanding and knowledge in the Pitt Rivers. But when they were accessioned in '78, they were accessioned as part of the Eastern Art collection. I mean, the Ashmolean is strangely arranged, as all museums are, but we have a Western Art Department, and an Eastern Art Department and an Antiquities Department. And so well, you don't need me to tell you that there is no department into which these masks would naturally fit and sit. And so fairly, swiftly (five years in Oxford museums, believe, me is fairly swiftly!) they move to the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Yes, absolutely. So there's a really interesting echo there actually, of how, in the immediate years after the attack of 1897, when the first items are arriving in London, and are going onto display in the British Museum, they are displayed in the Assyrian Saloon, because again, in the British Museum, where do you put them? They found their way alongside the Bronze Age art of the ancient Near East, almost as if the message was that this sort of living culture had been killed off, and it was now all the way back in the Bronze Age, and you're being displayed as archaeological. And when someone says, ‘your culture is archaeology’, then I guess, I mean, you you know, you're in trouble.
I suppose what interests me in relation to the bronzes is to understand what context they move to in the Pitt Rivers and how they were understood within the collections and displays of the Pitt Rivers at that point.
The bronzes have been a very important part of the permanent displays of the Pitt Rivers, all the way since the first items arrived in just months really after the attack, so as early as 1898. But I mean by 1983, the context into which these Ashmolean items would have been accessioned would be one where there was an interest in the original meaning of these items, their role in the you know, in the royal court, in the daily life of the royal court. When the bronzes were redisplayed in the mid 90s, which is the current display you can see now, there's a sort of a mock up of an altar on which, of course, so many of the sacred items would have been at the point of the attack, that sought to underline their religious significance and their sacred nature and their relationship to royal power. I think now we look at that display in a rather different way to say that it's, you know, it's maybe not only the ownership of these items is problematic, but the modes of display also is. You know, really, I can remember the day actually, when when I saw the Pitt Rivers with a different lens, which was when the protests were happening outside the Pitt Rivers led by the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement. So here was a movement that was pointing out the physical, material legacies of empire built into the very fabric of our institution, into the fabric of the centre of knowledge. And it had never occurred to me in these terms, that the display of loot of this kind - you know, because the taking of these objects was a particular military technique - and items in museums were being displayed as acts of violence, acts of seeking to declare white supremacy. It hadn't occurred to me that they were built to make that violence and and that racist worldview last and endure. So in the present, every time we open our doors, these displays can can cause hurt, not only to the people, of course, who walk into our museum and are hurt by them, but the many, many people that will never set foot inside the Pitt Rivers because they know what the place is.
And the fact that the bronzes were displayed so swiftly after their actual taking, do we know if at that point, that subject of the taking and acquisition was part of what was being talked about?
Absolutely. And I think that's why we have to think very, very hard and be very sceptical. One hears the argument, the sort of 'retain and explain' argument, the argument that our job is to hold on to these objects and to tell these histories in all of their horror and violence. And of course, the problem with that argument is that that's what these items were taken for in the first place. From the word go, the display of the bronzes was about showing the cultural superiority of these cultural institutions that could display these items, hand in hand with the notion of the technological superiority that led to the defeat of the Oba. And by the time you get to the 2000s, and the declaration of the universal value of museums, the idea that the argument for holding on to items in New York or London or Berlin or Paris is because of some idea that these are enlightenment institutions that hold a universal heritage for the whole of humankind - at that point, we ask ourselves, why is it that every one of these universal museums has to tell the story of the defeat of the Oba in 1897? What's that about? They were designed for that! They were designed as a propaganda to say: here are the cultures that we defeated. So in the present, we have to really sort of tackle those histories before the important work, which is led by Nigerians, can be done of understanding the history of the royal court, and the role of these objects in it.
So, let's talk about ownership. If you were to leap forward in time, thinking about the fingerprints on the Benin Bronzes another 20 years, what's your ideal as to where we are in terms of ownership and understanding of the process?
In the book, I talk about the notion of a decade of return. So the 2020s will be a decade of returns because restitution is something that takes time. You know, in the case of the Benin Bronzes, I think we can see something that's already happening, which is the sort of gradual removal of European and American agency from deciding the fate of these items. There's a there's a professional ethical evolution going on here. So I think we are changing, those of us that work in our museums. So we were both old enough to remember the arguments that preceded the changes of normal practice in museums that happened around the questions over human remains, and the questions over Nazi loot. So the very different historical circumstances of the Holocaust, leading to items of artwork that were taken, and then returned. You know, an entirely different history, but the principles established, under what are known as the Washington Principles, that the onus of responsibility for knowing what you have lies not with the claimant, but with the institution, we have a duty to know whether we have stolen items in our collection. I mean, that's just obvious, right, if you think about it now. But it was contentious at the time. Again, for the return of ancestral indigenous human remains, there were arguments from scientists, that if you return these items, they will lose something from science, you know. But of course, these items are destroyed when they are returned. Normally they're buried, and absolutely rightly. So for many of the African communities who are asking for returns. that distinction we make in between human remains and cultural items is far more complex, because these are sacred items that not only represent the ancestors, but constitute them in some way. Our job, I think, my job, our job, those of us in these institutions who hold these items, our job is both to do the work to share knowledge of what we have, so transparency, and then listening to and amplifying the voices of those who are demanding returns and implementing the procedures that increasingly we have in place. Certainly, here at the University of Oxford, we've adopted a formal procedure for how restitution claims will be handled. So that but all that work is about removing ourselves from the conversation, essentially, not trying to dictate and say, 'we'll give things back as long as you build a museum,' or, 'oh, you've got to assure us that you got to look after it properly.' All these arguments, which are really arguments about resource, when of course the cultural resource that was taken was a key part of the violence, a key part of the cultural dispossession that the aim was to enact upon Africa. Now after COVID, as we start to rebuild in culture around the world, are we ever going to get up to the visitor numbers that we used to see at the British Museum? Are we ever going to want to see the blockbuster permanent displays that are represented in the universal museums? Or are we going to see the value of a more distributed sense of culture, and a sense that in the case of the Benin Bronzes is actually a really good display, the best display should be in Nigeria. You, we can argue about the figure but for Sub Saharan Africa, 90 to 95% of the cultural heritage from that region is actually not on the continent, it's in Europe, it's in America. I mean, I would add to that, I think an even more eye-opening statistic for us here in the UK, which is less than 0.1%, almost certainly, less than 0.01% of the items that were taken from Africa, under colonialism that found their way into museums are on display. The vast, vast majority of these items are in the stores. Many are in boxes that haven't been opened for 100 years. Funnily enough, you know, this is the odd thing - he what some are calling the decolonisation of museums, and what I prefer to see as the unfinished work of anti-racism in museums, starts with the very traditional, the very boring and entirely conventional work of a curator, opening boxes and writing lists and saying what we have. How can we defend holding on to these items, when we're not quite sure how many we've got, when we're not quite sure the condition of all of them? You know, we often hear that if you return items to Nigeria, they will be sold or they will be destroyed by war. Well, actually mean there are instances of UK museums that were bombed in the Blitz were the bronzes were pulled out of the fire in Hull and in Liverpool. There's an instance most famously, of course, at the most important, arguably, collection of the Benin Bronzes made in the second Pitt Rivers Museum, that was just sold off onto the open market in the 1970s. So, you know, everything that we say that the Nigerians might do with these items, we have done here in the UK. And I think we're not really looking after this in the way that we should be. One of the challenges, I think, when we talk about these issues is to avoid the what-about-ism, and the where-will-it-end-ism. And you end up with this odd argument that says that restitution is an attack upon the museum, that restitution and these conversations are about this weird idea that everything ought to go back to where it originally was made. That's got nothing to do with this at all. This is this is about the very specific historical circumstances of racist looting and its ongoing presence in our museums. If we think about the combined collections of Oxford University museums, I don't know what the number would be in terms of objects
In the millions.
In the millions. And we're talking about 150 objects from Benin. I mean, if we were to, you know, if we were to look at items on a case by case basis, which is all anyone is doing in this conversation anyway, in terms of return or in terms of facing up to these histories, it's a tiny minority. We're learning that restitution can take a lot of different forms. The passing of agency, in this case, you know, over to Nigerians means it may well be that restitution happens by signing over ownership and objects don't move anywhere. They remain on display in London, or Oxford. We don't need to to fetishise the physical movement of objects, because it's the transfer of ownership which is at the heart of restitution.
And you're right, of course, that within seconds of conversation does lead in certain quarters to, 'where will it end?' And that that's an unhelpful way to have the conversation because every single one of them is a specific conversation about specific circumstances. But having said that, in a university town, I have certainly heard students walk into the museum and essentially challenge the Ashmolean to 'give it all back and where is it all looted from?' So, I think we need to be careful in this conversation. But let's focus on the Benin Bronzes, because the fact is, they were looted. You know, they were taken in ways that we say we do not tolerate and indeed in the processes and procedures around the return of objects that the university has recently published, the reasons that we might consider claims for the return of cultural property, and the idea that they were looted or taken illegally is clearly the most important element of that claim. So where would you personally, as Dan Hicks, like to see this conversation go? And, and where would you like to see it end?
Yeah, so I think it's a really, really crucial question, and I'm not sure I can answer it definitively, but I'll give it a go. There's, I think, a real value in not hiding away from this heritage and history anymore, facing up to these histories that we've hidden, literally hidden away in the storerooms. There is a real opportunity for our museums as public spaces to have a role for memory for reconciliation, for accountability, for something that starts to look like social justice. We have so much work to do in our institutions for understanding how we were for a short period of our institutional histories, we were co-opted, by a bunch of fascists who told these stories. We're still without meaning to, we're still telling them. This is precisely what institutional racism is. It is the fact that no one means to, it's just someone put something into the mix of the institution at some point in the past, and it's still there, like a cancer, you know, like a toxic inheritance from the past. So facing up to that, removing it where necessary, dismantling, and rebuilding. That's the positive side. And this is, in my view, this is how we save our museums, and ultimately and keep them in step with our times. We need art museums, anthropology museums, world culture museums that are fit for our times, fit for the society in which we live. And I think that the work of restitution. You know, the sine qua non of this is the return of objects. But also restitution is the beginning of a wider set of, you know, really urgent and immensely positive evolutions for our institutions.
In the last few years, this movement for decolonisation has been gaining ground across Europe, especially after a 2018 report commissioned by Emmanuelle Macron about the restitution of African art in France’s national collections. The report’s authors, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr set in place recommendations for the timely return of looted art, and Bénédicte Savoy joined me to talk more about what restitution means for European museums.
When you visit the museum, it is like travelling back in time. Museums are like time machines. You come to the museum with your own time, for example, as an adult person, or even as a child in this year 2021. And you encounter the very different times of the objects on display. And if you are lucky, this contact between your time and the time of the different objects can trigger something like an explosion, a positive explosion of knowledge, of aesthetic emotion, or even an explosion of anger or upset. But museums as time machines not only bring these two times together. In the museum, you also come into contact with a third time, the time of the acquisition of the objects. In Europe, this time was usually the period between 1860 and 1930, when wars, imperialism and colonialism, coupled with modern methods of transport, such as a railways and steamships, made it possible to extract prodigious quantities of valuable cultural objects from all regions of the world and accumulate them in the museum' of Paris. St Petersburg, London, Berlin or even Oxford. So, when we talk about restitutions today, we are talking about this third time about the invisible time in our museums, we are talking about these unbalanced power relations that made the building of collections possible, and about the fact that today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we know this history, and we need to engage with it in order to shape the future not only of museums, as walkable archives of this difficult time, so to speak, but also of our relationship with the rest of the world. Because it's very important that we get used to understanding that the presence of these hundreds of thousands of objects in our museums in Europe, means at the same time that these objects are no longer where they once were. For example, on the African continent, European colonial powers had undertaken a constant and systematic programme of what you can call cultural extraction, with different forms and methods of appropriation from brutal military looting, to forms of forced agreements, which cannot be considered as a voluntary exchange in this context. As a result, for example, on the African continent, there are almost no historical objects left, while almost everything is outside of Africa. And despite persistent requests for their return for five decades, the museums of former colonisers have kept hold of them. And they have usually told very, very little about how and when they acquired these properties. So to speak about restitution today means two things: on the one hand, the physical return of objects to their original owners, that responds to the need, not to annihilate colonial history, which is impossible, but to allow societies who were deprived of huge parts of their heritage, to reconnect with their own history, to access their own culture, and to engage with the creativity and spirituality of eras that are certainly past, but whose knowledge and recognition should not be reserved for Western societies; on the other hand, restitution means the dissemination of knowledge about how the collections came into our museums. If you ask me, tackling the history of collections of museums is, first and foremost, undertaking a process of introspection. And I mean, true introspection, not just lip service on labels and signs, but serious introspection, and this kind of work is neither a matter of flogging oneself, nor of deleting anything, nor of rushing to return things which some people, including outside of Europe may think are better kept here for now. To think and to speak about restitutions today means consciously embracing the less shiny side of the history of museums, and making it visible and thinkable. Because museums are very political places.
I asked Adenike Cosgrove about where she saw the challenges and complexities around the return of the Benin Bronzes, and what she thinks restitution should look like.
Well, morally, it's simple. If an item has been stolen, and should be given back to its rightful owner, and restitution is that act of restoring something to its original condition, returning something to that rightful owner, providing compensation for that loss of grievance. Because, again, we've heard a lot about restitution. We've not really heard about reparations, payment for these objects that have sat in museum collections and generated money for those institutions as well. You know, there's a lot of discussion about restitution right now. There's a lot of discussion about communicating where these objects came from. But what exactly should we be saying in that display? Should we say that, yes, they were indeed looted? Should we say that we're working towards the full restitution of these objects? Is that the right answer? Or should we actually say in the displays that these objects rightfully belong to the Oba of Benin? I think it's important to uncover what messages we're trying to deliver to the viewer, as well as uncover the work that museums need to do to ultimately prepare themselves for the eventual return of looted objects. But I think it's important as well to remember that the restitution debate didn't start today. It started many decades ago with many examples of works returned back to Nigerian museums. You know, in 1938, there was a Benin coral regalia that was returned back to Nigeria. Between 1950 and 1972 Benin Bronzes was sold back to Nigerian institutions. In 2014, Mark Walker returned to bronzes to Benin City. Also in 2014, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston returned eight artefacts to Nigeria, including some Benin bronzes. 2019 - Jesus College has promised to return their bronze cockerel, and more recently in 2021, German museums have promised to return in bronzes as well. So I think we're starting to see that recognition that looted objects morally should indeed be returned. Some museums have returned them, others haven't. But there are indeed examples of works that have been returned over the years that have made their way back to Western collections. Examples of that re-looting, as it were, where stolen works from Nigerian museums was sold to private collectors in the West, are in some cases, gifted by government officials to other nations. You know, there's a case of a governor that went into the storage of a museum in Nigeria, picked up one Benin bronze head and said, 'yeah, I'm going to give that to the Queen.' So this is an interesting one, because in an interview that we conducted with a Nigerian collector, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, he asks, 'how prepared are we as Nigerians to receive manage handle these works on their return?' You know, there are these cases, and that often leads to the common objections that we hear of, you know, Nigeria, not being ready to take care of its art, or that it should be housed in so-called 'world museums' for everyone to see. But is that reason enough to not ask for looted work to go back? I think, you know, ultimately, that the property of the Oba's Palace, the king's palace, and the palace can indeed do with their property what they want. If they want to sell it, destroy it, preserve it, it's their right as their property. And here again, we have that challenge, because there's a bit of a debate on where the objects should go back to - should it go to the National Museum, or should it go back to the Oba's palace. And there are disagreements and conversations that are taking place about where it should reside. And again, because of all these ongoing conversations, it could lead to inaction. However, I don't really think that should be a concern for Western institutions or individuals that hold these objects. If you have something that you know was looted, send it back, whether it's the Oba's Palace, or the National Museum, or whatever government institutions been created in Nigeria: send it back. And you know, ultimately, decisions will be made in Nigeria about where it resides. It shouldn't slow things down. It shouldn't lead to inaction. And this is another interesting dynamic. We're hearing a lot from Western voices. Even me, I'm Nigerian, but I'm in the UK. I live in London. Right? And we're hearing a lot from Western scholars, Western voices, Nigerians in the West Nigerians in the US. What do Nigerians in Nigeria want? What does the Oba's Palace want? Do they want it all back? I've heard from individuals in the palace that actually don't want everything back. Again, it's that question of ownership, just say it's ours! You know, if you make money from it, give us a cut - but we're not asking for everything back. Again, personally, I don't think everything should go back. I don't even think all looted work should go back. I discovered these pieces in the West. I first saw a Benin Bronze when I went to the British Museum. I walked down into the basement for the first time, walked to the back, and I saw all of these plaques. And that was the first time I'd ever seen Benin Bronzes. And, you know, we are in a new reality where they are artworks that we want lots of people to appreciate. We want lots of people to be inspired by globally. I think sharing is important. I think, you know, the movement of these objects across lots of different countries and cultures, brings that collaboration brings that common understanding brings our humanity, right. But you know, it's incredibly difficult for a citizen of today's Benin City to get a visa to the UK, stating simply that they want to come to the UK to see their cultural heritage. It will be almost impossible for that individual to get a visa because of that reason. So I do think it's important for some of these objects to remain, but it's a question of ownership, who owns these objects? Who has the right to determine the future of these objects and the reality of those objects and the stories that are being told around those objects? So it's not a request for the emptying of museums. It's a question of ownership. And it's a question of transparency.
When I sat down to speak with Victor, I asked him what his advice would be for European museums, like the Ashmolean, and the Pitt Rivers, who have Benin artwork in that collections.
My advice to these European museums is to first of all even be honest with the conversation. A lot of them have not been honest with it, you know. So, we the owners of these objects, we the owners of this art quite understand the fact that these directors or these museums are not the one that attacked Benin, they just received what was stolen, right. So if you receive a stolen good, and the owner has been identified it, the only thing you can do, the only rightfully you can do is that you allow the owner to dictate the tune of what should be done with those things that were stolen. You can't be in possession of stolen looted objects and you are still the one that has to dictate how those objects should be treated, where they should sit, where they should go. You do not have the moral standing for that. You don't. I also have the point that these museums that are holding so tight to looted objects should show the same passion to modern and contemporary African art. Because I mean, the story is incomplete when you can't say this is a continuum, African didn't stop to exist, right? So put more money in also collecting African artists so that the story that you really want to tell can be complete, because right now, a lot of the Western museums' story that they are telling about the continents and other parts of the world that are not in the Western hemisphere is not complete. It's not, and to continue to do that is cultural neocolonialism if you ask me, you know. So there's that continuous perpetuation of power hierarchy to say we are better than you guys who make the art, we take better care of things than you guys can, and after we left your countries and your continents, that was the end of the art world in that continent.
And Victor, do you see consensus around what the stakeholders in Nigeria want in terms of the future of these bronzes?
It's something that has happened over the years to say there is a consensus, there was no Nigeria when the British attacked the Benin kingdom. So we seem to quickly forget that a lot of things have shifted. So when it's time to revisit such past, there will be some disagreement, but there is definitely a route to realignment, which we're working on right now, which the Nigerian government and the palace and all the other stakeholders are working on. Definitely there is light at the end of the tunnel. In Edo State there is a plan to build a world standard museum, you know, also very much in the tradition of us as nation builders, as institution builders, you know. And one of the world's most celebrated architect David Adjaye, has been invited to be a huge part of this of this light at the end of the tunnel. And he has already started working on this and there is a lot of excitement around what he is creating, which he has the support of everybody that is in charge of it and all of those things. And the light at the end of the tunnel is also that the king's palace is still there. It was there before the British came, and it still very much there. And so the works that are coming, they will have a place that will receive them.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Fingerprints. If you want to look at images of these three masks, as well as more information about the work that the Pitt Rivers Museum is doing around the Benin artworks in their collection, you can find them in the links in the podcast notes. There you will find a report which outlines the ongoing research into better understanding the provenance of African cultural heritage in the museum and which echoes similar reports from other museums that hold similar collections. The Pitt Rivers is committed to transparency about its collections, and its duty to generate and share this information. It plays an active role in the Benin Dialogue Group, also linked in the notes, whose central objective is to facilitate dialogue regarding the return of Benin artwork stolen in 1897 and to support a permanent display reuniting Benin works of art dispersed in collections around the world, including the building of the new museum in Benin City to receive the artworks looted in 1897. The museum has shared these findings with colleagues in Nigeria, as well as the other Benin Dialogue Group colleagues. Thank you to all of our speakers his week - Simukai Chigudu, Dan Hicks, Adenike Cosgrove, Victor Ehikhamenor, Benedicte Savoy, and Xa Sturgis. You can find out more about all of them in the podcast notes, including a link to Dan’s book, The Brutish Museums. Join me next week when we meet a whole room full of sculptures from India with a story to tell about human zoos, colonial souvenir hunters, and Oxford University's Indian Institute.