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Black History Month: A case for the repatriation of looted African art

Hugh Johnson-Gilbert explains why art stolen by British colonialists should be returned to Africa.

Posted on 29 October 2020

On 25 May 2020, the Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing. That singularly brutal act, perpetrated by a white figure of authority against a black citizen, sparked the tinderbox of American racial tension and led to widespread civil unrest.
 
As the wave of anger spread across the Atlantic over the summer months, we were compelled in this country to confront our own history and the cultural lens through which we perceive it.
 
Images of the statue of Edward Colston, the 17th century slaver, being unceremoniously tipped into Bristol harbour made the headlines and debates about public iconography reverberated around newsrooms and the Twittersphere. However, the cultural battleground could just as easily have been the polished marble floors and imposing galleries of the British Museum.
 
For many years, the British Museum and other institutions across Europe have been the custodians of looted African art: enduring symbols of the European colonial project, its violence and its avarice. The time is ripe to address that injustice and commit to a progressive, candid and wholesale repatriation of stolen artefacts.

What was taken?

The list is a long one, but perhaps the most well-known example of looted African art in this country is the Benin Bronzes.
 
The Bronzes are a collection of bronze and brass sculptures that adorned the altars and palaces of Benin City in the West African Kingdom of Benin (now part of Edo State, Nigeria). The Bronzes were looted during the violent British occupation of the City in 1897.
 
As the British Museum itself explains: “The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Royal Palace was burned and destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK…”.
 
The Bronzes were retained by the Foreign Office, distributed amongst members of the expedition and, over time, sold to museums and private collectors. The British Museum’s collection currently comprises around 900 objects, while important artefacts from the city can also be found in other museums across the UK, Germany and America.
 
An equally lucrative venture for the British army came in 1868 at the battle of Maqdala in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia).
 
In April 1868, a British expeditionary force led by Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier and comprising 13,000 troops stormed the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros II on the premise of seeking the release of British hostages. Having overpowered the Abyssinian forces and witnessed the Emperor’s suicide, the British wasted no time in plundering the fortress’ treasury and library.
 
Indeed, journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley observed “officers and men, rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s (Tewodros’s) blood-stained shirt. No guard was placed over the body until it was naked”.1
 
According to Ethiopia scholar Richard Pankhurst, the loot was transported away from the burning remnants of Maqdala on 15 elephants and almost 200 mules.2
 
Among the British convoy was the British Museum’s manuscripts curator, Richard Holmes, who secured a number of key items for safe passage back to England.
 
Today, treasures taken from Maqdala such as the Emperor’s intricately decorated gold crown and a solid gold chalice dating from the mid-18th century can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum. A collection of objects and manuscripts are also securely ensconced in the British Museum and the British Library.
 
On 30 June 1871 a motion came before the House of Commons that the crown and chalice be purchased for the Nation.
 
In his address to the House, Prime Minister William Gladstone said that “he deeply regretted that those articles were over brought from Abyssinia, and he could not conceive why they were so brought… he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that those articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British Army”.
 
Gladstone further commented that “if those articles were acquired [by the nation] it should be… with the view of their being held only until they could be restored”.
 
Gladstone’s perspicacious remarks were not heeded, and 150 years later attempts by the Ethiopian government to reclaim the treasures are ongoing.
 
At the heart of this issue is the recognition that these are not simply objects endowed with a financial value by a western market. They are the history, the religion, the identity, the craft, the knowledge and the shared collective consciousness of millions of people. 

The case for repatriation

There are a number of arguments and justifications invoked against repatriation. It is sometimes said that European museums are a safer home for these precious works; that they wouldn’t have been properly preserved if left where they were.
 
That argument not only ignores the obvious moral case for the restoration of stolen items, it displays an extraordinary condescension and is itself underpinned by racism.
 
It is also undermined by reports that the Elgin Marbles (another controversial British acquisition of foreign art) were irreparably damaged by British Museum restoration efforts in the 1930s.
 
It is a western-centric argument and begs the question: from an African perspective, what is the difference between an object having been lost to time and it being stashed away in a European vault?
 
Putting to one side the inherent flaws and prejudices of the argument, it is nevertheless one that African nations have sought to answer through cultural investment.
 
In the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the Museum of Black Civilisations (opened in 2018) stands ready and waiting to welcome back the thousands of items that were taken by the occupying French forces, while in Nigeria the movement to repatriate the Benin Bronzes gathers pace with the development of a new Benin Royal Museum.
 
Running in tandem with this argument is one that preaches the ‘democratisation of art’: that by removing artefacts from Africa, we gave them a broader audience.
 
That proposition, with its pseudo-Robin Hood rationale, similarly ignores the victims of the misappropriation. In removing works of art, European colonisers stole the opportunities for learning and inspiration that rightly belonged to the children of colonised states and gave them to anyone who is able to visit a European museum and pay the entrance fee.
 
It is also worth noting that at any one time, a mere 1% of the British Museum’s collection is on display and on average around 0.005% of the collection is lent to other institutions each year. Much of the collection rarely sees the light of day, including some of the artefacts taken from Maqdala that are considered so sacred that no one is allowed to view them.
 
The British Museum retains a collection of 11 ‘tabots’ (Christian plaques), which are of such spiritual importance to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that only its priests are permitted to view them. The tabots remain in a sealed room in the Museum’s basement.
 
A further supposed obstacle to repatriation is the British Museum Act 1963. Section 3(4) of the Act holds that the Trustees of the British Museum shall not dispose of objects vested in them other than as allowed by Sections 5 and 9. Sections 5 and 9 set out the limited circumstances in which objects can be sold, exchanged, destroyed, gifted or otherwise disposed of (“returning objects that were violently stolen” is not one of them).
 
In 2005 the High Court ruled that, despite the moral obligation, Section 3(4) prevented the Trustees of the British Museum from returning four Old Master drawings that had been stolen by the Gestapo from a private collection in Czechoslovakia in 1939.3 In response to the obvious injustice, the UK government enacted the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. The Act gave specific authority to the Trustees of various museums (including the British Museum) to return property that was stolen during the “Nazi era”.
 
In 2019, Parliament voted to amend the 2009 Act to remove its 10-year expiration clause.
 
When that amendment was first mooted in 2017, then Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism John Glen explained that “Our plans to renew the Holocaust Act underline our commitment to building a fairer society and we will do everything in our power to return Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners”.
 
That sentiment stands in stark contrast to the apathy that repeatedly stifles the movement to repatriate colonial-looted art.
 
It therefore seems that the real obstacle to repatriation is not the British Museum Act, or any other specific museum legislation, but the lack of impetus amongst our institutions and our politicians. 

Why now?

This is not a new debate. It has been rumbling on for years and has even had some successes, with certain countries and museums agreeing to return artefacts, even if only on loan. However, the case for retaining items looks increasingly unsustainable and in the current climate the calls for action are getting louder.
 
Earlier this month the Dutch Council of Culture released a report recommending that “The Netherlands must… be willing to return unconditionally any cultural objects looted in former Dutch colonies if the source country so requests”.
 
Directors of the Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam have expressed their support for this proposal.
 
Activists in Paris have taken more direct action, attempting to seize a Chadian funerary staff from the Musée du Quai Branly in the hope of returning it to Africa. 
 
It is of course impossible to right the innumerable wrongs that are associated with African colonisation.
 
However, it is perverse that we continue to profit so blatantly from them. In that respect, we have a choice.
 
In seeking to shape the cultural narrative of our past we should choose education over eradication, candour over complacency and honesty over obfuscation.
 
A genuine commitment to repatriate plundered colonial art would be a bold endorsement of these principles and is long overdue.

Relevant articles

Is It Time to Repatriate Africa’s Looted Art? by Nosmot Gbadamosi 



Stanley, H.M. (1874). Coomasie and Magdala, p.459
Pankhurst, R. (1985). The Napier Expedition and The Loot From Maqdala. Présence Africaine, (133/134), nouvelle série, p.236. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24351450
Attorney General v Trustees of The British Museum [2005] EWHC 1089 (Ch)

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Hugh Johnson Gilbert
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Hugh Johnson-Gilbert

Hugh Johnson-Gilbert is a solicitor in the international department.