The German minister of culture has announced plans to return hundreds of art objects to Nigeria. Their provenance is the Benin Royal Palace--located in Benin City, which is situated in southern Nigeria--looted and destroyed by the British in 1897. Apparently, the objects will be deposited at the Edo Museum of West African Art, under construction in Benin City. Its architect--or, rather, starchitect--is David Adjaye, the Anglo-Ghanaian architect who served as the lead designer for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. When the objects will return is unclear. The construction of the museum is far from complete; Adjaye indicated that it could take five years.
The German minister characterized the return as a matter of "moral responsibility." Some Western media are tying agitation for return of African art in European and American collections to the "reckoning" underway of colonialism and Western racism. Germany's form of colonialism was especially brutal. The Germans, however, were not in Edo and, presumably, the objects from there were looted objects purchased on the international art market and then donated to German museums. The German decision has raised pressure on London's British Museum--which holds seven hundred pieces of the Benin Bronzes collection, more than any other museum--and other institutions to lend or return bronzes to Nigeria. Perhaps as few as fifty pieces remain in Nigeria at present.
Calls for the return of art acquired by Western countries during the colonial period is an old song. Some countries, especially where national identity is weak, see the return of art as a dimension of nation-building. Other cases are more narrowly a matter of principle. Since the nineteenth century, the Greeks have agitated for the British return of the Parthenon sculptures (the "Elgin Marbles"). This perspective takes for granted that the art produced in a particular locale uniquely belongs to the people who live there now, hence the importance of its physical repatriation. Another perspective is that art belongs to humanity as a whole. What matters in that case is the art's accessibility to all who wish to see and study it and its conservation and security, not its physical location. To take specific example, the Elgin Marbles are on permanent display in the British Museum, where they are fully protected in a country characterized by political stability and where the public has full access.
An issue with respect to the return of African art to Africa has been the lack of places where it could be exhibited, stored securely, and curated. That appears to be changing. The Edo Museum is designed to be a world-class facility. However, the museum located in a poor, increasingly unstable country. Where sustainable funding will come from or how security of the art can be maintained is unclear.
The sponsors of the Edo Museum are looking toward rotating exhibits of artwork to be borrowed from European and American collections and then returned. Such an approach might satisfy those who see the art as a badge of their ethnic or national identity and those who see the art as belonging to all of humanity.
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