Why Tiffany Jenkins is wrong – and museum loot should be returned

Oba Overamwen, with his wives in Calabar, 1912.
Oba Overamwen, with his wives in Calabar, 1912. Source: Wikipedia

There seems to be a slow movement towards restitution of artefacts to the societies in the world culturally ravaged by colonialism – but it is slow in the face of great resistance. Tiffany Jenkin’s writing in London’s Evening Standard, argues that the global ambitions of European museums means they are the best, and indeed only legitimate custodians of world artefacts. It’s an argument that is as weak as it is arrogant, and historically blind. Like most British citizens, Ms. Jenkins will take it for granted to be surrounded by the cultural production and legacy of history; a stone’s throw away from the British museum are statues of (Charles I); move a little further down and you will reach Apsley house where the Duke of Wellington lived amongst numerous landmarks across the city. Yet for many cultures, those visceral links have been severed – but not irreparably, though it may still seem so to many in the world. One of the great ambitions of the third Reich in the event of winning the second world war was to establish a museum that would display a great deal of the art looted from various territories across Europe. Mercifully much of this art has slowly been recovered and restored to its rightful owners. There are few in the world who would quibble that this is unequivocally a good thing, yet this sense that one of the dividends of peace should be restitution seems strangely missing when it comes to the great number of artefacts from Africa and the rest of the world in European museums as a result of colonial wars and coercion. We may not be able to recreate the palace of the Oba of Benin as it was before the Benin War of 1897, however, it is important for young people of the country to see the bronzes and understand that their state – and it should be pointed out that the modern state of Benin in Nigeria is largely contiguous with the state called The Empire of Benin, and the political symbolism of the Oba remains just as potent as the House of Windsors to the people of Benin and indeed, Nigeria. Ms. Jenkins is right

that no one culture owns culture – and many would say, certainly not Britain.  so, we must assume that Nigeria, Greece and other countries are capable of creating world class museums to host these works.  Many arguing for return often jokingly say that the British Museum would be empty without treasures looted from the rest of the world. This is not true, there are treasures aplenty from these British Isles, and they would remain; add to that, that world institutions such as the British museum have such curatorial power that they can borrow from anywhere in the world. Indeed, why not, ‘return’ more objects, and then secure them as permanent loans?

However, the strongest argument to return these objects is that the encounter of cultures that was colonialism was not only materially devastating for many cultures, it was a psychological act of asset stripping on a monumental scale, to the degree that many cultures do not recognise themselves. The return of works that represent history, and culture is only one part of the long process of restitution and adjustment to the modern needs of self-interpretation and understanding, of which history plays such a large part. For a country like Nigeria for example, as its economy and society changes, it will be incredibly powerful to see the Benin plaques that represent the position of the empire, one of the constituent states of the Nigerian republic, as one of the central actors in a huge global drama that brought about the modern world. It is not this national argument that is most important, the truth of the matter is that there must be world class museums on every continent; every child in the world, whether they can afford a first class or economy ticket to London should be able to by some measure experience the vastness of the world through their own culture. For me, I would like my young Nigerian, British and American relatives to experience as many of these works of art in world class museums in Benin, Lagos, London, Easter Island and elsewhere.