“What few people realise is that MacGregor's activities on behalf of the British Museum, although dressed up as a laudable didactic mission of public enlightenment and edification, are actually part of a more urgent project to protect the beleaguered edifice that is the Encyclopaedic Museum in Europe and North America.” Tom Flynn (1)
Oba of Benin with two Attendants and two Portuguese in background, Benin/Nigeria, now in the British Museum.
Seized by British troops during the invasion of Benin in 1897.
A basis of MacGregor's approach can also be discerned in the 250th British Museum anniversary lecture where he declared that it is only when the museum can show that objects like the Benin bronzes permit a different reading of history between Benin and Europe that their retention can be justified. From this fundamental premise, the museum director weaves a story which basically states that some of the materials used by the Benin people to make the famous bronzes came from Europe and therefore this justifies their retention by the British museum. We have already stated elsewhere our criticism about this approach to history underlying MacGregor's position and the project of telling stories with the looted artefacts of others. (6) Effectively, the others are prevented from telling their own history because most of the objects are kept by the “universal museums” that insist on telling our histories for us. True, some non-Westerners may be involved in the narration but they have to act within the parameters and limitations set by the museum.
Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, Greece, now in British Museum, London.
What can one say about the following: “MacGregor firmly believes that art and culture can make us better people in our understanding of the world. And if in turn we understand each other, we will get along more easily. Objects have the power to speak of our inter-connectedness,” he says. It's his favourite political theme“.
Is somebody being naive or disingenuous? We all know that art and war have often gone together in Western history and experience. The major museums such as Louvre, Berlin State Museums and the British Museum, owe a large part of their acquisitions to wars and other aggressive actions. Napoleon Bonaparte, in his various military adventures ensured that the French army looted enough artworks for the Louvre. The Rosetta Stone though was lost to the British after Napoleon's defeat in Egypt. The notorious Adolph Hitler was an artist himself; some would say a failed artist. Nevertheless he and Hermann Goering organized large scale robbery of artworks from occupied countries, such as France and Poland for their projected museum in Linz, Austria. Post-war Europe has been occupied till today with questions of restitution of Nazi-looted artefacts. Many Nazi-looted artworks are hanging in museums, including the British Museum. The British Parliament has recently passed legislation to enable owners and their successors to claim the return of such objects. Has all this discussion on Nazi-looted art gone unheard by some?
The British Museum probably has the greatest number of looted artefacts in the history of mankind. Jeanette Greenfield has stated in her excellent book, The Return of Cultural Treasures that: “The United Kingdom stands out as a principal holder of some of the major cultural treasures of the world, primarily because of her colonial history, although not all the treasures were acquired as a direct result of this. Many were acquired simply as the result of long-distance archaeological raids and these were not always carried out by archaeologists. The United Kingdom was not alone in this, all the European countries which maintained colonial interests abroad mounted archaeological expeditions and amassed collections containing items which are of special cultural significance in their homeland. These countries included France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark and Spain. Often objects were collected in the spirit of intense competition and rivalry, and this only hastened the destruction or removal of countless treasures”. (12)
We need not recall all the various aggressions against African and Asian peoples which resulted in massive transfer of artworks to Britain. The use of violence was frequent in colonial expeditions such as Benin in 1897, Kumasi (Ghana) 1874, Magdala (Ethiopia) 1868, and Dahomey (Republic of Benin) 1890. Tribute and punitive removal of treasures were the usual practice of colonial masters. The example of Benin is surely on the minds of most readers. British invasion and loot resulted in the dispersal of some 5000 Benin objects in the Western world, a large number being in the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Field Museum, Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, the Ethnology Museum Berlin and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna.
Even the British Museum which is the example par excellence of the so-called encyclopaedic or universal museum has admitted at various instances the connection between its large collection and the imperial connection. David M. Wilson, former director of the British Museum, stated in his book The Collections of the British Museum as follows:
“The Asante's skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874, 1896 and 1900″. (13)
We know what happened to artworks in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by USA, Great Britain and their allies. Baghdad Museum was looted and much of the loot ended in the Western world. Discussions on what artefacts should be collected seem to be part of war preparations.
In view of all this, how can MacGregor, the director of the British Museum declare that “art and culture can make us better people in our understanding of the world. And if in turn we understand each other, we will get along more easily.” Has the presence of the Benin bronzes in his museum for a century helped him to understand the people of Benin and their need and desire to recover some of their looted art? Most Western museums do not bother to respond to requests for restitution even from the Benin Royal Family.
One could assert that in the history of mankind, the more aggressive, less peace-loving nations have accumulated more art objects, looted from the peaceful or weaker nations. There is not a shred of evidence that the more peoples or nations understand the art of others, the more likely they are to live in peace. Germany's aggressions against its neighbours surely disprove this postulate. Indeed, we might even suggest that the knowledge about the art and culture of some nations may have acted as catalyst for their invasion by foreign States. The gold of the Aztecs (Mexico) and the Asantes (Ghana) as conveyed by their arts and culture may have excited the greed of the invaders. That many European nations - Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, British and of course, Portuguese built castles and forts along the coast of Gold Coast (Ghana) was surely due to their knowledge or information about the availability of gold in that part of the world. Knowledge about the wealth of Asantes may have been conveyed by acquaintance with the display of gold in Asante art and culture.
The British Museum itself admits on its own homepage that it had sent experts to accompany invading British troops in Ethiopia. (14) It appears to be a well-established Western tradition to send art and culture specialists in wars against other nations. A look at the stocks of the great museums could be very instructive.
Western museums, including the British Museum, have had African arts for more than a century. Will anyone be bold as to declare that this illegitimate possession has made them any more respectful or tolerant towards Africans and their cultures? True, there is now a general, sometimes reluctant, agreement about the essential contribution of African art to modern art. But many take the wrongful possession of African artefacts as confirmation of their superiority and efficiency. How else can one interpret the often repeated insulting argument that Africans cannot look properly after their own cultural artefacts and that the Europeans have done mankind a great service in looting and keeping the objects?
The announcement of the BBC and British Museum project has been greeted with almost general uncritical approval by the British media which does not seem to be aware of the real motivation behind the programme. Tom Flynn has quite correctly stated: “…we've witnessed a nauseating media hagiography of British Museum director Neil MacGregor in which he single-handedly educates the world from the comfort of his beautiful Bloomsbury office. We hear of "Saint Neil", a "suave and smooth-talking Scot", with a "lilting highland brogue", a "skilled diplomat" with "infectious schoolboy enthusiasm", a "natural storyteller" and "the most fortunate man alive." (15)
If the British Museum and the BBC are hoping that through this massive publicity and propaganda for A History of the World in 100 Objects, they can divert attention from the urgent need for restitution of some of the looted artefacts amassed during the heyday of colonialism and imperialism, they have misunderstood the movement of history; they underestimate the intelligence and determination of those deprived of their cultural objects now located in the British Museum and other Western museums. Times have changed since the idea of the so-called “universal museum” was born. The museums cannot resist the tide of history and continue to offer us nineteenth century ideology of European superiority and domination to justify the constant and permanent violations of the cultural right of the peoples of Africa and Asia.
Even some commentators, sympathetic to the project by the BBC and the British Museum, have seen through the real objective behind all the words of MacGregor. Ben Hoyle, who is supportive of the project, has declared:
“The project will ram home his argument that the British Museum belongs to the world, strengthening its moral case for holding on to controversial artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria both featured in the series”. (16)
Another commentator on the programme also commented as follows: “Casting his museum as an international hub is also his answer to the questions that won't go away about whether the BM should give some stuff back.“You have to decide what kind of museums you want, and whether you want museums that try to put the whole world into one context, into one building, so that you can actually look and compare and take a view of the whole thing, or whether essentially you feel that you want museums to be about individuated national stories, local stories." (17)
Double-headed serpent, Mexico, now in British Museum .London
Bust of Ramesses II, weighing 7.25 tons, Egypt, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
The British Museum can sing the praises of Egyptian civilization, the glory of Greece and the beauty of Benin art as long as the museum is locked in permanent dispute with Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Benin (Nigeria) and other States over looted artefacts, so long will its credibility be in serious doubt whenever it presents programmes on those cultures.
Kwame Opoku, 6 February 2010.
1. Tom Flynn, “A History of the World in Looted Objects”, http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com
2. British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org BBC, “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/programme British Museum and BBC reveal history of the world in 100 objects http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk Telegraph, “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, http://www.telegraph.co.uk “The story of civilization in 100 Objects”, http://entertainment.timesonline
3. Neil MacGregor, "The whole world in our hands” http://www.guardian.co.uk,
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk See also, Martin Kettle, “The world needs new histories” http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk
5. N.MacGregor, http://www.guardian.co.uk,
The story of Benin has been told several times but I found the short account by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie very useful:
“In February 1897, an elite British force of about 1200 men (supported by several hundred African auxiliary troops and thousands of African porters) besieged Benin City, capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, whose ruler, the Oba Ovonramwen sat on a throne that was a thousand years old. The British Punitive Expedition used Maxim machine guns to mow down most of the Oba's 130,000 soldiers and secure control of the capital city. They set fire to the city and looted the palace of 500 years worth of bronze objects that constituted the royal archive of Benin's history, an irreplaceable national treasure. The king and his principal chiefs fled into the countryside, pursued by British forces that lay waste to the countryside as a strategy to force the people of Benin to give up their fugitive king. According to Richard Gott, for a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle were seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel down in front of the British military "resident" the town and to literally bite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed. Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered to stem the slaughter of his people. Many of his soldiers considered his surrender an unbearable catastrophe and committed suicide rather than see the king humiliated. A significant number, led by some chiefs, maintained guerrilla warfare against the British for almost two years until their leaders were captured and executed. The remaining arms of the resistance thereafter gave up their arms and merged back into the general population.”
6. K. Opoku. “Tristram and Neil, a dubious alliance.” http://www.elginism.com
7. Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal museums (2002). See also, http://icom.museum/universal Signatories to this extraordinary document are: The Art Institute of Chicago; Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek); State Museums, Berlin; Cleveland Museum of Art; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Louvre Museum, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Prado Museum, Madrid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; State
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Tom Flynn, “The Universal Museum - A valid model for the 21 Century?” www.tomflynn.co.uk/ Mark O'Neil, “Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global? http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/m&s/Is
8. Barbara Plankensteiner, Ed. Benin - Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007, p.17
9. K. Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum: Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy? http://www.modernghana.com
10. Deirdre Fernand, “The story of civilisation in 100 objects”, http://entertainment.timesonline.
11. Susan Rustin, “The greatest exhibition you could have”, http://www.guardian.co.uk
12. Third Edition, Cambridge 2007.p.97.
13. British Museum Press, 1989, p. 97
14. Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition against Magdala, Ethiopia, as an archaeologist. He acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library.” http://www.britishmuseum.org
Professor Richard Pankhurst has written about Richard Holmes as follows:
“One of those present at this large-scale looting was Richard (later Sir Richard) Holmes, an Assistant Curator in the British Museum's Department of Manuscripts, who had been appointed “Archaeologist” to the expedition. He later noted in an official report that the British flag had “not been waved… much more than ten minutes” over the fort of Maqdala before he had himself entered it. Shortly afterwards, while night was falling, he met a British soldier who was carrying the golden crown of the Abun, or head of the Ethiopian church, and a “solid gold chalice” weighing “at least 6 lb”, i.e. pounds. Holmes purchased them both for four pounds Sterling. He was also offered several large manuscripts, but declined to buy them as they were too heavy for him to carry”
“The Ethiopian Millennium – and the Question of Ethiopia's Cultural Restitution” http://nazret.com http://www.elginism.com
An internet site provides the following: The invading British force included a number of mysterious civilians and an "official archaeologist", a Mr Richard Holmes, said to have secured "many interesting items" from Magdala. Holmes was an assistant in the British Museum's Department of Manuscripts, but soon after the successful war became Sir Richard Rivington Holmes KCVO, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and Librarian to Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII at Windsor Castle (from 1870 until 1906). http://www.elecbk.com/facts.htm-
See also Adrian Cooper „Arts & Artefacts: Raiders of the lost ark, “http://www.independent.co.uk Terry Kirby, Hidden in a British Museum basement: the lost Ark looted by colonial raiders http://www.independent.co.uk
On the Ethiopian treasures that are in the British Museum, see www.afromet Ethiopian treasures are found at the following places in the United Kingdom: The British Library, The British Museum, Duke of Wellington's Regimental Museum, Halifax, Dundee University Museum, Edinburgh University Library, The John Rylands University Library, Lancaster Museum & Priory, National Archives of Scotland, The Schøyen Collection (London/Oslo), The Victoria & Albert Museum and Windsor Castle. More stolen African treasures can be found at the homepage of the African Reparations Movement www.arm.arc.co.uk
15. Tom Flynn, http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com
16. British Museum and BBC reveal history of the world in 100 objects http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk
17. Susan Rustin, http://www.guardian.co.uk