Europe returns looted African artifacts as it deals with colonial legacy

LONDON – Statues have been removed and national symbols revalued, but Europe’s efforts to come to terms with its imperial past have largely come to a halt in handing over the continent’s looted cultural treasures.

Maybe yet.

This week, Cambridge College, a French museum and a Scottish university have all returned looted artifacts from West Africa, with activists and officials hailing a potential turning point in the years-long battle to ensure Europe’s reckoning on race extends to recoup what it looted.

Jesus College Cambridge returned a bronze Cockerel sculpture to Nigeria on Wednesday, becoming the first British institution to return one of Benin’s most famous bronze stars. The next day, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland handed over a bronze for the head of an oba or king.

Jesus Sunita Allen College Masters with Aba Issa Tijani of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Antiquities before handing over the looted bronze rooster, known as Okukur.Joe Giddens/AFP

These were the statues Looting, along with Thousands of other businesses, from the historic Kingdom of Benin – located in modern Nigeria – when British forces overran and destroyed much of Benin City in 1897. The Benin Bronzes, a group of Copper and Bronze Statues From at least the 16th century onwards, they are widely regarded as among the most culturally important artifacts in Africa.

The British Museum still boasts Benin Bronzes among its collection, in London, while others have made their way into collections around the world.

Also on Wednesday, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris handed over 26 artifacts to Benin, a former French colony on the border with Nigeria. Stolen in 1892. It is among 5,000 jobs the West African country has requested, according to Reuters.

Amati Dooku, a former student at Jesus College who was among those who suggested in 2016 that the college’s cockerel be brought home, said the deliveries this week represented a “big turning point”.

“For the Benin Bronze Team in particular, this moment will be seen as a real dismantling of the argument that it cannot be done,” he said.

The returns will increase pressure on other Western institutions to follow suit.

More broadly, Ducaux said, they also highlighted the continuing legacy of colonialism in British and European institutions.

“The work is not finished, it is not finished,” he added. “But I think this is a really important moment.

Aba Issa Tijani, of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Antiquities, said Wednesday’s handover in Cambridge provided an opportunity for other institutions and countries.

“Jesus College is an example to follow,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.

Oba of present-day Benin, Iwari II, said that the bronzes “were imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken.”Kalyan Vera/Reuters

This week’s surge of activity follows a decision earlier this year by Germany to act on its own recovery plan About Benin Bronze, in what Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said describe it as “a turning point in dealing with our colonial history”.

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to Burkina Faso that it was no longer acceptable for a large part of the cultural heritage of many African countries to remain in France.

The following year, a report, commissioned by Macron, recommended French museums to return works taken without consent if African countries so requested.

Barnaby Phillips, author of “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes,” said this marked a critical step on the path to this week’s developments.

“Although this report concerned only France, I believe it sent shock waves through the museum world, particularly affecting the other major colonial powers, Germany and the United Kingdom,” he said.

Then came the account that followed the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May 2020. And while the fallout in America has focused largely on police violence and the legacy of slavery, much of the focus in Europe has been on continuing. colonial influence.

“This, once again, put European museums in a huge spotlight,” Phillips said.

“All young people need to own the history of their country in order to better build their future,” said President Emmanuel Macron, who chaired a ceremony in Paris this week. Michel Euler/AFP

The British Museum recently received a letter from the Nigerian government demanding the return of antiquities in the country. A spokesperson for the museum said the museum is reviewing the documents and will process them fully in due course, adding that it is hosting a group meeting this week during which “developments regarding the repatriation of Benin works to Nigeria” were discussed.

“The Museum understands and recognizes the importance of issues related to returning objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums around the world to share our collection as widely as possible,” the spokesperson added.

The institution has a strict policy on the permanent removal of art from its collection which is governed by an act of 1963, called the British Museum Act.

Soliman Bashir Diani, director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University in New York, agreed with Dokku that this week’s deliveries represented a turning point.

“It would be much more difficult to reject many museums.” [to] Even to discuss the question of whether some of the bronzes in Benin were actually returned,” he said, adding that museums are also under pressure from public opinion to justify the presence of African artifacts within their collections.

What’s more, Diani said, the Global South will now be a player in the circulation and exchange of artifacts in museums because they will now own these works.

This is a result Doku also wants to see.

“It is not about having these artifacts returned to their countries and they will never be seen again, it is about having these artifacts in the right place,” he said.

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