Friday, November 26, 2021

The Metropolitan's Gambit

Warrior Chief, 16th Century, Benin Kingdom. Now-returned by the Met

This past Monday, according to news reports, The Metropolitan Museum of Art officially handed over two Royal Benin plaques to representatives of the Federal Government of Nigeria, following an announcement last summer that it was planning to return these two artifacts. Fantastic news! Bravo to the Met for keeping to its word. I wasn’t there, but I am sure the Nigerians were thrilled to get back artifacts that should not have left their care in the first place. But there is a problem with how that event seemed to have concluded.

Here’s the thing. The two objects returned this week have a different history from the 160 or so “Benin Bronzes” in the Met’s collection. According to the Museum, of these two, one was part of a collection it received in the early 1990s; the other was offered to the Museum recently. Both, it was discovered, had been in the collection of the Lagos Museum, after they were acquired from Britain by Nigeria decades ago. The Met, in other words, did not want to keep artifacts illegally removed from another museum (in museum-speak, they were never deaccessioned by the Lagos museum, and so had no business turning up in the international market). To be sure, most self-respecting museums would do the same as the Met. However, the news and festivity around the return of these two objects seem to have come at the WRONG time, if you ask me. Why? Well, because, it is being conflated with the restitution of Royal Benin Bronzes looted in 1897 and now scattered mostly in Europe and the US, including the 160 held by the Met.

Junior Court Official, 16th Century, Benin Kingdom. Now-returned by the Met.

Let’s be clear. The return of the two objects illegally removed from the Lagos Museum must not be confused with and is not equivalent to the announcement by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art that it intends to return the Benin Bronzes in its collection; or with the pledge by the German Government to return more than 1100 Benin Bronzes; or with the return two weeks ago by the French Government of 26 Dahomey Treasures to Benin Republic; or with the returns recently by Jesus College and University of Edinburgh of Royal Benin artifacts they once held. The Met has not said that it has any intention of returning any of the 160 objects in its collection. It appears to be sticking with the position that it acquired the looted objects legally. Reports from the Monday ceremony indicate that that position has not changed, and that is why no one should think otherwise.

Here is the part of the news reports that I am talking about. According to @hyperallergic and @observer, the Met and representatives of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments “entered into a shared agreement to collaborate on mutual loans of Benin objects and other “exchanges of expertise and art.” LOANS. Yes, the Met returned two artifacts that disappeared from the Lagos Museum, and while handing them over agreed with the Nigerians on a mutual loan of Benin artifacts! I thought that after nearly half a decade of debate and discourse on restitution, we have moved beyond the silly, dishonest, and arrogant notion of loaning looted objects to their original claimants. If there is going to be any loaning of Royal Benin Art, it will have to be done by their Nigerian owners, not some Western institutions that have so far refused to acknowledge the fact that they are keeping looted objected.

So, here is a big Thank You! to the Met for returning the two objects. To the Nigerian museum officials: keep your damn house in order! But the second part of the ceremony last Monday, the one about “mutual loan agreement” is most regrettable and must be rejected by advocates of restitution of looted Royal Benin artifacts. Others are moving to return and restitute; the Met is talking about loans. Are you kidding me? 

Here is what Barnaby Phillips said back in June when the Met announced its plan to return to the Benin Bronzes. "But in returning these specific plaques, [the Met is] making an unacknowledged distinction between them and the rest of their Benin Bronzes. They are giving these two back because they were stolen from Nigerian Museums after independence, not because they were looted in 1897, This return is about PR and legality, not morality

I could not agree more.

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