By Barbara Ciosk
The call for restitution of art is not recent. Since at least the 1960s, governments and museums across Africa have been asking for the repatriation of the looted cultural property. Unfortunately, too little avail. This March, however, the German government entered into historic talks to return to Nigeria the plundered Benin bronzes from their public museums. Although agreements, such as this one, offer new hope for the decolonization of the heritage institutions, they, in fact, have long been demanded by the rules of international law.
The Benin bronzes, discussed in the German-Nigerian agreement, are an array of exceptional metal plaques and sculptures created from the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria). They were looted from the royal court in Benin City in a punitive expedition by the British troops in 1897. After they were brought to Europe as part of the military booty, the British government gave a large quantity of them to the British Museum and sold some which ended up in other European and North-American museums. Thus, although the largest collection of the bronze plaques resides in the British Museum, the second-largest, with 440 pieces, belongs to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Nowadays, the Benin bronzes became the prime example of African heritage owned by foreign institutions, and their fate attracts a prominent spotlight.
This attention results from the unethical means of obtaining the bronzes, warranting illegality of their ownership by Western museums. In 1954, the First Protocol of the Hague Convention became the first international treaty that focused on the protection of cultural property in armed conflict. It prohibited the State Parties to retain works of culture as war reparations and obliged them to unconditionally return any art exported in war-time, establishing no time limit for bringing a claim for return. Also, more recently, the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects of 1995 reiterated an obligation to restitute any stolen cultural objects. This obligation holds even if the works are recovered from a country where the legal system protects a good faith possessor. Thus, the international law adamantly condemns retaining cultural artifacts looted in wartime. It also provides many legal tools to recover war-time spoils already present in the art trade, regardless of how long ago they were illegally obtained.
Although difficult to enforce, those international documents exemplify the universal recognition that cultural property carries significance beyond its monetary value. They are not calling for loss-based financial compensation for an exported artwork, but instead urge for a return of the physical object to its homeland. Indeed, repatriation of art benefits home nations in many ways other than financial. Firstly, people gain the ability to engage with their cultural heritage on their own soil, sparking new cultural connections and appreciation for cultural identity. Secondly, redistributing the collections of Western European institutions to museums worldwide can facilitate homegrown research in the receiving countries. Namely, professionals and academics who often cannot afford to fly thousands of miles to see works from their own countries would gain easier access to such primary materials. Also, by enriching the museums’ collections with artifacts, repatriation can benefit the nations economically through the development of cultural industries with added employment and tourism. In the U.S., museums contribute $50 billion to the economy every year. Not surprisingly then, the Nigerian people and the government want the Benin Bronzes back in their country rather than on a display in Berlin.
However, in addition to the restitution of artworks, the German-Nigerian agreement reportedly includes financial and substantive aid as well. Germany is, namely, said to also offer training of Nigerian museum staff, funds for archaeological excavations, and assisting with the completion of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City. The project for this museum, which construction is to start in 2021, proposes to build the new structure into the ruins of the Benin Palace. This amazing plan would allow the bronzes to return to exactly the same spot from which they were looted in the 19th century.
Importantly, those additional services address the common arguments pronounced against restitution. The opponents to restitution, ignorantly unifying the whole continent, often claim that Africa lacks the cultural institutions that would allow them to take care of the invaluable artifacts. Concerned with the artifact’s safety, they want them to stay in Europe since the African institutions might lack the required security systems to counter theft and professional care to conserve the works.
Those arguments, however, are largely false and reveal the condescending way of looking at the African cultural sector. The Nigerian officials and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments already established a foundation, the Legacy Restoration Trust, which aims to facilitate the transfer of full ownership of the Bronzes to Nigeria, manage them and plan the museum space for their display. What the restitution negotiations necessitated was a constructive partnership between the two governments rather than an adamant refusal of any repatriations.
Although Germany is currently doing the most in Europe to return the artifacts to their rightful owners, the negotiations offer hope for more moral responsibility in the heritage field. The agreement will provide a blueprint that other countries and institutions can follow when they enter similar talks about the restitution of their looted art. The primary spotlight falls on the British Museum, with the largest collection of the Benin bronzes in the world. Unfortunately, this public museum adamantly refuses to let go of their displayed objects. One cannot help but question the goodwill of the State Parties to international treaties on cultural property. Have they ever intended to follow the rules set in the documents they signed? Germany and Nigeria show that progress can be achieved through intergovernmental partnership. Hopefully, we will soon see more artifacts in their home countries.