Why western museums should keep their treasures

The Benin Bronzes were plundered by Britain, but those who demand their return are ignoring some uncomfortable truths

On 13 January 1897, the Times of London reported a “Disaster” in Benin, modern-day Nigeria. As they entered the city during a religious festival, members of a British delegation had been attacked. Ostensibly in revenge, but probably to overthrow the Benin king, who consistently defied the British Empire, they organised a punitive expedition, stormed the palace, and had him exiled. To pay for it, troops looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper-alloy sculptures and plaques, known as the Benin Bronzes. Around 700 of the 4,000 objects ended up in the British Museum, where they have astonished millions of visitors. The rest were swept up by Germany and Austria, and then the US.

France has a similar, morally dubious, story to tell. An extensive collection of Benin artefacts, many taken by the French during the carve-up of Africa in the 1890s, are held in the Quai Branly museum in Paris. Upon their arrival in France, they influenced a sea change in the European understanding of Africa and enraptured artists, including Pablo Picasso, and Amedeo Modigliani. Though not for much longer, it appears.

The British Museum has announced plans to loan their Bronzes to Africa; the French have taken a significant step further. They will repatriate 26 artworks to the Republic of Benin from the Quai Branly. That decision comes after the forceful intervention of the President, Emmanuel Macron, who condemned colonisation as “a crime against humanity”, for which museums should make amends. Last week he took delivery of a report by the academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, who recommend “reopening the belly of the colonial machine” and sending back thousands of artefacts.

But whilst it’s true that the acquisition of many museum objects, seen through modern-day eyes, is ugly, so too is much of history. When the first wave of the Benin Bronzes was created in the 13th century, in an artistic golden age, Benin was an empire. The artists in the royal court fashioned the plaques out of brass bracelets brought by Portuguese traders, that had been exchanged for ivory, pepper – and slaves. The objects campaigners want to be returned, to apologise for colonisation, then, were crafted on the back of the slave trade. Following the logic of righting historical wrongs, aren’t these artworks tainted by that immoral practice? Perhaps the descendants of the Benin king should apologise for slavery, before they are approved as morally worthy owners of the artefacts.

With victimisation as the moral basis for the ownership of artefacts, there could be no end to competitive claim-making. The Louvre was founded on the French king’s art collection before it was seized by revolutionaries, right before they executed him on the guillotine. It could be said that the descendants of the dispossessed royal families are the rightful owners of many of the exhibits in that museum. Maybe they should issue a claim.

Turning the past into a morality play, in which grandstanding politicians and academics act as saviours, can have deleterious consequences for the way we understand it. Looking back on earlier times is a privileged and elevated position from which to view it, one that is often distorted by current preoccupations and interests. It’s easy to launch a press conference and condemn colonialism, after all; what’s harder is tackling contemporary social problems, and Macron faces and ignores many of those. It is important to guard against the simplistic and all too easily acquired feelings of superiority that we can have by surveying the past through contemporary mores, centuries later.

When history is judged through the simplistic prism of right and wrong, it flattens it. And as the accusations about the sins of the past grow louder, we hear less about the objects that are at the heart of the disputes and of those people that once created and so admired them. Ancient artefacts enlighten us about the world and about past peoples. That is the object of museums and their objects, which is too often forgotten in these present-day battles over the rights and wrongs of history.

Tiffany Jenkins is author of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There


Tiffany Jenkins

The GuardianTramp

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