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Why ‘stolen’ artifacts cannot be returned now, by U.S. representatives


Chokwe mask in the National Museum of African Art, Washington

As Exhibition On Royal Photographs Holds In Benin

Hopes of Europe and America returning thousands of artifacts stolen from Africa to their places of origin deemed yesterday as it was revealed that rather than return them, they were being used to market African history and culture abroad.

Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Arts in the United States of America, Johnnetta Cole, made this known yesterday in Benin City, Edo State.

She said this while fielding questions at a press conference to herald an exhibition of over 3,000‎ collections of photographs and images found in the royal court of the Oba of Benin, which commenced at the National Museum in Benin.


She said they would rather send the replicas of such artworks insisting that the museum has a comprehensive documentation of all artworks in their possession.

The exhibition of the photographs taken by Solomon Alonge, Photographer to the royal court of Benin‎ over 50 years ago, followed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Arts of the United States, which has the collections.

Cole said it was important in their museum to honour where each and every object came from, adding: “If we are ever aware that an object is in our museum because it was stolen, we make enormous effort to protect them.

“We have two figures and we went to the government of Mali saying we were prepared to send them back.The government of Mali said thank you, we know where they are, we are proud that they are in the National Museum of African Art. If every work of African Art is returned to Africa, how will the rest of the world know about your arts, your culture and history?

“I cannot speak for the British Museum, I cannot speak for the museum in Belgium but I can speak for our museum that we have enormous respect and we have documents of every work. We do everything within our powers to use them well to tell your story.It is with enormous respect we document where every work has come from.”

Speaking shortly before the commencement of the exhibition, U.S. Consul-General to Nigeria, ‎F. John Bray, said Art and photographs represent freedom of expression in his country’s democracy, adding that the Smithsonian’s National Museum and National Museum of Benin have been working for many years to hold the exhibition.

Commending the two National Museums and the Edo State Government for their support for the project, Bray said the exhibition was significant because it was the first time in history that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, was holding an exhibition in Africa.

“I think we are delighted because this first exhibition in Africa is not only in Nigeria, it’s here in Benin City. So, this exhibition of Benin National Museum will go a long way in preserving the essential history of Benin people and exhibition of its leaders,” he said.

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