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Ahead of 2013 show of looted Benin artefacts, U.S. museum plots legitimacy

Museum responses to the issue of provenance

Published on 8 October 2012

Author(s): The Guardian Nigeria/Tajudeen Sowole

Type:  Report Originally published 28 September 2012

Without any categorical commitment to returning the controversial artefacts, the Boston-based Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), in response to the issue of provenance, is seeking an understanding from the museum authority in Nigeria and the Benin monarch.

In a conversation via the Internet few days ago, MFA’s Associate Director of Public Relations, Karen Frascona confirmed that the museum received a letter from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

In the letter, dated July 20, 2012, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abddallah Usman requested that the works be transferred to Nigeria.

Frascona relayed the response of MFA: “Director, Malcolm Rogers responded to Mr. Usman (on August 30, 2012), that after careful deliberation, the Museum decided to accept the gift as a way of sharing this private collection, giving access to these long-hidden objects to our more than one million annual visitors.”

Rogers, according to Frascona, “conveyed his desire that the gift inaugurates fruitful dialogue with colleagues locally and abroad, and further opportunities for cultural exchange.”

Late last June, MFA received donation of 28 bronze and six ivories from Mr. Robert Owen Lehman who is the heir to the vast collection of a famous American banker and collector, late Philip Lehman. The late banker and great-grand father Lehman was one of the beneficiaries of the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition.

MFA’s press release sent by Frascona states: “Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time. A number of these appeared in publications from 1900 onwards, but have not been seen by the public for several decades.” The gift, according to MFA, will go on display at the museum, late next year at “a gallery dedicated to the arts of Benin.”

In what appeared like using diplomacy to manage whatever issues that may have arisen over the donation, MFA had informed the Oba of Benin about the donation.

Although sources from the Benin traditional council have denied the monarch’s involvement in the donation, however, lack of formal response to the MFA from the royal house is untidy, leaving room for suspicion of complicity in the planned exhibition.

A source close to the Oba said the curator of the palace was in possession of the letter, but he is yet to act on it.   Frascona confirmed that “Yes, the MFA sent a letter informing the Oba (King) Erediauwa about the acceptance of this gift, but has not received a response.”

And in defence of the monarch, a member of the Benin Royal house, Chief Irabor Frank stated via email: “The Oba of Benin had said at many forums that the looting of the Benin palace by the British government in 1897 was premeditated. The Oba had made demand very clear that the stolen Benin artefacts should be returned.”

Cultural objects of Benin origin stocked in several museums in overseas have continued to generate controversy with regard to issues of acquisition, sales and exhibitions.

For instance, two years ago, Sotheby’s, in London, was forced to cancel a proposed sales of six 15th century art pieces of Benin origin, including an ivory-made pendant mask of Queen Idia, after an outcry and protests over the questionable acquisition of the works.

Works in the Sotheby’s cancelled sales were from the descendants of Late Colonel (Sir) Lionel Henry Gallway (he later changed his surname to Galway), an army officer whose efforts led to the looting of the Benin Kingdom in 1897. Galway was the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-consul in the then newly created Oil Rivers Protectorate.

With 32 pieces, MFA appears to have the largest acquisition of controversial Benin artefacts in recent times. Some of the works, according to the museum include a 15th-century bronze bust of a young man with tightly braided hair and almond-shaped eyes; a stylized royal portrait from the late 16th century, Commemorative Head of an Oba; a 16th-century rendering of a Portuguese rifleman; three late 15th to late 16th century commemorative heads; about 15 pieces of 16th to 17th century bronze plaques in high relief depicting Benin kings, royals, and dignitaries.

THERE are indications that Nigeria is not making serious progress at getting its vast collection of ancient cultural objects under incarceration in foreign museums returned. Critics of NCMM keep faulting the authority’s approach. Last month, at the 2012 AGM of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, one of Africa’s leading collectors, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon who was a guest speaker at the event criticised the foreign museums’ lack of respect for the right of original owners of the cultural objects.

He cited an example of a spokesman of the British Museum who responded to the issue of reparation. “In reply, he told us to rather concentrate more on the benefits accruing to us from the on-going human-capacity development programme of the British Museum by their assisted training programme in England, of civil servants instead of calling for the return of the looted works.” Shyllon argued that “our civil servants are just unconsciously being made to serve as curatorial semi-slaves of the British Museum and as pawns by the British in their strategic positioning of retaining their looted Nigerian artworks.”

However, the posture of NCMM in the Lehman donation suggests a departure from the usual collaborative or partnership with holders of Nigeria’s priceless collections. NCMM requested MFA to return the art pieces to Nigeria. “We believe that objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in the case of the Benin objects, the people of Nigeria.”  Usman insisted, “no one can give objective and true history of their patrimony however much they tried than the true owner.”

From the statement of MFA in the press release, the Lehman donation is sure to be another long, perhaps, endless battle for Nigeria’s quest towards restitution as the Boston museum appears more passionate about the works.

MFA states: “These treasures of Benin represent a highly significant addition to the MFA’s growing collection of African art. This gift will transform the collection with works that bear witness to the extraordinary creativity of African artists.”

In 1897, British army invaded Benin, sent Oba Ovonramwen to exile. And at the end of the military action, an estimated 4, 000 objects from the Benin palace were said to have been looted by the British army.

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