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Why proposed ‘loaning’ of looted Benin artefacts to Nigeria may stop restitution plans

By Tajudeen Sowole
11 July 2018   |   4:26 am
Exhibition of loaned controversial cultural objects, particularly, looted Benin artefacts, is not new. Some foreign museum holders of these artefacts, in the past, had collaborated...

Exhibition of loaned controversial cultural objects, particularly, looted Benin artefacts, is not new. Some foreign museum holders of these artefacts, in the past, had collaborated with the government of Nigeria and showed them on tour exhibitions in Europe and the U.S.

However, a new twist has surfaced in the past few weeks. This time, the artefacts have been proposed as ‘temporary and permanent loan’ exhibitions for Nigerian space, specifically, Benin, Edo State.

Whoever authored the idea of loaning these looted artefacts to Nigeria appeared to have added a complex scenario to the restitution and repatriation issues. For decades, the Federal Government and the Benin Royal family have led agitations for return of looted cultural works of art, some of which include, the iconic ‘Iyoba’ (queen mother) masks and others.

Aside from the dearth of information on international relation modalities, which include trusts and understanding, the proposed loan exhibition appears to have created a fresh start in restitution efforts, leaving the gains of the past vulnerable to the trash can.

Recall that the Federal Government had, about five years ago, hosted international conference on restitution with European museum managers and directors in attendance.

But the current effort, said to have involved Edo State Government, casts questions of relevance on what is known as Benin Plans of Action. The documents emerged in February 2013, when Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) gathered leaders of select museums from across Europe for a meeting in Benin.

Specifically, the meeting, which focused on Benin bronzes, coincidentally, held on February 19, the same date the British colonial army invaded Benin in 1897. The organisers described the gathering as a follow-up to two earlier meetings on the subject, held in Vienna, Austria in December 2010; as well as Berlin, Germany, October 2011.

Few weeks ago, reports about a proposed-loaning of Benin bronzes were in the foreign media. Last year, an article titled, ‘University-owned Benin collections may be loaned to Nigeria’ written by Monty Fynn on April 4, 2017, in Varsity, independent student online newspaper of the University of Cambridge, also attracted attention.

While details of those behind the new initiative and other information are still sketchy, it seemed the NCMM is not in the know of such plans. A request sent to NCMM for its response to the proposed loan exhibition was not answered as at press time. But unofficial sources said the NCMM was still unable to trace the origin of the reported proposed loan-exhibition.

The Independent newspaper, U.K had reported that Nigeria might be willing to let Britain return the bronzes ‘on just a loan’ arrangement. The newspaper, like many others that carried the reports, said Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State has revealed that European museum officials have floated the idea of returning the bronzes on loan.

“Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are,” the reports quoted Obaseki. “We would be open to such conversations.”

Given the nation-state structure of Nigeria under which modern Benin exists, as well as the centralised management of the country’s cultural objects, it is strange that NCMM seemed left out of the supposedly Edo State dialogue with the foreign museums. Statutorily, the NCMM, according to the law that created the FG agency, as amended in 2004, has the responsibility to secure and manage cultural objects of Nigrian origin.

While an official statement from NCMM was not available as at press time, a director at the government agency who spoke anonymously argued that the ‘Benin Plans of Action’ document remains the pedestal on which full restitution of the artefacts could be achieved. She said NCMM was not aware of any plans by anybody to loan the bronzes for exhibition in Nigeria.

The bronzes being proposed as loans are among several hundreds of pieces, including ivory pendants, lost to the British invasion of Benin Kingdom in 1897. Currently, the artefacts are housed in various museums across Europe and the U.S.

In 2008, NCMM, in collaboration with select museums from U.S and Europe, had organised joint exhibitions abroad. Similar exhibitions and collaborations are part of the ‘Benin Plans of Action’.

Prof. Peju Layiwola of the Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos described the proposal as inappropriate. “This is not an acceptable plan by all standards,” Layiwola, who has done extensive academic research on Benin cultural objects, argued.

Highlights of the Benin Plan of Action document include, “measures to encourage collaborating institutions in assisting “with expertise in the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria; collaborating institutions shall assist the NCMM in developing its library and archive facilities; NCMM and collaborating museums shall create an enabling environment for an increased exchange of touring/travelling exhibitions for the Benin art objects and other art traditions where the European and Nigerian museum experts will work together in the planning and execution of such exhibitions.”

It added: “That these individual steps are part of the dialogue, which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria.”

And more importantly, the Benin Plan of Action will revisit the 1970 UNESCO Convention in its next agenda. Indeed, one of the major impediments in repatriation of controversial cultural objects across the world is the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Its inability to cover all pre-convention disputes has been the cover for illegitimate holders of most stolen artefacts across the world.
However, the Benin Plans of Action, according to NCMM then, was basically to build capacity for Nigerian museums to pave way for smooth restitution in the future.

Whatever gains the NCMM may have made so far are either too late or not enough, so said the lawyer and prominent art collector, Prince Yemisi Shyllon.

“The NCMM, by the 2004 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, is empowered extensively to conserve and preserve our heritage of antiquities, traditional objects of art, archaeological objects, etc and prohibits you and I from holding them,” Shyllon stated in his response to the restitution crisis.

He noted that “the bronze pieces being referred to here, are covered under that law” despite being looted in retrospection.

And as regards general and adequate management of Nigeria’s cultural objects, Shyllon blamed some of the past director-generals of NCMM, whom he described as too religious in non-African native faiths that “abhor dealing with such objects.”

He lamented that the leadership of Nigerian museum authority over the decades “see them (museums) as dens of demonic objects and not representations of our creative past and edifices of our contribution to world body of cultures and civilisation.”