Tomorrow was supposed to be a day of triumph for the campaign to send Benin bronzes back to Nigeria. Will it be? Not exactly, no. On Tuesday May 16th Cambridge University was supposed to hand over 116 artefacts from its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) to a Nigerian delegation, but has just postponed the project until October, at least.
Dissent has broken out in Germany over that country’s massive restitution of 1,130 bronzes, and in the U.S. the Smithsonian has ousted the director of its National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Ngaire Blankenberg. Bundestag deputies criticised the German ruling coalition’s naivety in a heated debate, newspaper articles there stoked the fire and a Benin prince gave a bizarre interview to Berliner Zeitung. It’s hard to be certain whether the wheels have begun dropping off the restitution bus, or if they’re just wobbling madly.
Like the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, Ms Blankenberg – previously a design consultant and TV producer – took up her job with a declared intention to restitute bronzes: just the one cockerel at Jesus, but some of America’s finest pieces in the case of the NMAfA. Blankenberg then sidelined evidence submitted by the Restitution Study Group (which speaks for slave-descended black Americans) that Benin’s Obas had, in some cases, cast their bronzes from brass they’d got from selling West African slaves to European traders.
Misled by their NMAfA director, the Smithsonian’s regents – including vice-president Kamala Harris and chief justice John Roberts – voted to transfer ownership of 29 pieces to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums & Monuments. The ceremony last October was held in private, with no media. It’s not clear whether tomorrow’s Cambridge handover was due to be equally discreet, but until Barnaby Phillips revealed the date and its postponement for BBC News on May 10th, the secret appears to have been well kept. Nor is it clear whether the MAA’s director Nicholas Thomas, so avid to restitute, will now have to fall on his sword as well.
Blankenberg is now back in South Africa and casting aspersions: her downfall, oddly, came thanks to German metallurgists who painstakingly investigated manillas (brass ingots shaped as bracelets) found in 16th and 17th Century shipwrecks; these never had any function other than to buy slaves, being the payment Benin’s Obas insisted upon. The metal turned out to come from Rhineland mines, with records showing that these special manillas were made first for Portuguese slave traders and later sold to other nations too. And it was a perfect match for metal scraped from the Benin bronzes.
That was inconvenient for German politicians and museum directors, who, until recently, insisted their nation’s only guilt in the matter had been to buy Benin bronzes from the British who’d wickedly looted them in 1897: but devastating for Blankenberg’s job, because as Smithsonian Magazine prepared its story on the German Mining Museum’s research, it became impossible to ignore the fact that the NMAfA director who’d arrived less than two years before, determined to engage new audiences, to tell new stories, had never told the true story. How her ousting was kept so discreet has yet to be explained.
Phillips’s BBC scoop also claimed that Nigeria’s National Commission for Museum & Monuments (the NCMM Director, Prof Abba Isa Tijani) had been “blindsided” by President Buhari’s shock decree that all restituted bronzes must go straight to the Oba. They’re all to be his personal property and not to be kept “for the people” (represented by the NCMM) as Germany and others had intended. Tijani’s academic qualifications for Nigeria’s top museum job seem as tenuous as Blankenberg’s – what he mainly seems to be is a first class fixer. Did he really not know about the presidential decree?
His words at the panel discussion after the Benin Dialogue Group meeting in March were entirely consistent with a plan that all restitutions would go to Benin’s king, though perhaps that wasn’t a plan that was clear to the assembled well-intentioned foreign curators. Nor has his NCMM made an effort to trace the hundreds of fine bronzes missing (looted by Nigerians themselves) from Nigeria’s state museums in recent years. As I wrote for the Daily Sceptic on May 5th, the president’s decree let the NCMM nicely off that hook.
What was Buhari thinking of? Did he really not understand how his decree would be received in the West? Nigeria is deeply, proudly tribal. Most humans like belonging (why else follow a football team?) and take pride in their roots. A comfort for the man in the street maybe, but pity a president who must strive daily to reconcile competing tribal claims in Africa’s most populous country, with its enormous oil and gas wealth so unevenly distributed, while also presenting to the world the facade of a modern, federal democracy. For a Fulani president from the Muslim north to make such a valuable gift to the important Edo tribe in the (largely Christian) south must have made sense in terms of domestic politics – how the world would perceive it perhaps mattered less.
Swiss-born Prof. Hauser-Schäublin wrote here on May 7th about that decree, and on May 12th in Neue Zürcher Zeitung she took a swipe at Benin Initiative Switzerland, which in February declared that 53 of the 96 Benin artefacts in Swiss museums should be restituted; it’s keen to do so, and is still waiting for a formal request. Her descriptions of the bronzes’ mystical role in Edo society, the legal position on ownership, and her demolition of Switzerland’s biased provenance research are worth reading.
On May 13th, Matthias Busse pointed out in Welt that important museums in Saxony (263 artefacts in Leipzig and Dresden) and Bavaria (24 in Munich) have not in fact signed restitution contracts. German museums are owned by their Länder (federal states) so it is the Länder and not the central government which have to give away their treasures – or not. First to do so was the Council of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) which controls Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. It signed a contract transferring ownership of 512 pieces in its collection to Nigeria last August. As Welt reported, its Director Lars-Christian Koch “does not mince his words: ‘It was not our intention to transfer [our bronzes] to the king [of Benin]’.”
The SPK’s restitution contract is detailed and interesting. The pieces kept on loan in Germany can’t necessarily stay there for more than 10 years, the signatory for Nigeria is Tijani of the NCMM, paragraph two of the Preamble says: “Acknowledging the importance of the Benin Bronzes to the people of Nigeria, particularly for the Edo people, and their universal importance for humankind….”. Which hardly squares with President Buhari’s decree that those same bronzes are now the Oba’s personal property.
Not that this matters: clause 1.1.(2) states: “The transfer of ownership is unconditional.” Amazingly, Nigeria was not held to any clauses promising to keep the restituted artworks safe, in curatorial conditions, available for study and display, as foreign museums and collectors have faithfully done since 1897: a straight gift, no questions asked. The Oba may now do exactly as he pleases with them, and may well hide them away, for he takes a quite different view: marvellous artworks though they may be to the rest of the world, to him they’re the living embodiment, still to be placated, of his ancestors and their – to us, murderous – dominion over the Edo and the surrounding tribes who provided their slaves.
Perhaps the oddest intervention has been Berliner Zeitung’s May 12th interview with an Edo prince, for decades resident in Germany. To him the Oba is literally divine: “..an Oba is born in heaven. And he’s [here] until he dies. Although you are not allowed to use that verb in connection with the Oba at all. He is [here] until he ascends to heaven again.” And: “The Oba does not interfere in political affairs, but he only needs to blink his eyes, and we know what he wants to say. He is our King.”
He then unwisely criticised Prof Plankensteiner (convenor of the Benin Dialogue Group, and the most committed restitutor of them all) and Foreign Minister Baerbock whose triumph was her speech at Abuja, “righting an injustice” and returning Germany’s bronzes “to you, the people of Nigeria”. The prince feels otherwise, all bronzes belong to his Oba: “I’m sorry, but your Foreign Minister is too young. She has no experience, and sometimes you can tell that when she speaks.” he said. “She overdid it. That is the problem with your Foreign Minister. She doesn’t know how to express herself diplomatically. And apparently she doesn’t have any good advisers.” He even repeated the theory that Benin City with a new museum or two could become become “a tourist attraction” – the so-called Bilbao Effect which used to be touted back in the days of the Edo Museum of West African Art, a project since forgotten.
Divinity notwithstanding, today’s Oba did serve as Nigeria’s ambassador to Angola, Sweden and Italy before succeeding to his throne, and in 2018 pronounced a voodoo curse on Edo’s persistent human traffickers: the 1897 Punitive Expedition did at last stop Benin’s human sacrifices and crucifixions, but West Africa’s most resilient slavers never entirely gave up.
I described in March why Germany’s massive restitution seemed to be essentially an enormous business deal – access to Nigeria’s gas and oil, in return for hugely valuable artworks from Germany’s museums. With a pretence that it had been altogether more worthy, talking about righting colonial injustices and so forth, the coalition government came out fighting in the Bundestag last Friday. The debate, called by the right-wing AfD (boo, hiss) in response to the “fiasco” and “scandal” of Germany’s well-meant restitutions being diverted to a private royal family, also drew criticism from the CDU and CSU, something the Art Newspaper’s report that evening failed to mention. The debate will continue this Friday and as Michelle Müntefering, an SPD member of parliament, told the Bundestag: “The last word on this has not [yet] been spoken.” Indeed not.
Nor should one forget the market value of Benin’s bronzes. With the disclosed record for a single piece standing at £10m for the Ohly Head – see Barnaby Phillip’s book Loot – then Cambridge University’s 116 artefacts must have a cash value well into the tens of millions. If the odd piece from that haul, whether lifted from a Nigerian state museum or quietly deaccessioned by the Oba (perhaps as a “duplicate”?), were to find its way to the market, then the effort to extract this first major restitution from a U.K. university museum would have paid off handsomely.
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