|Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, late 15th-early 16th century, *Robert Owen Lehman Collection, *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston|
As a student of Benin art, this is great news, and I cannot wait to see this collection when it opens to the public in late 2013. It is unquestionably to the benefit of Benin art scholarship and enthusiasts that the Lehman Collection, which has more or less been off the radar, will now be accessible to students and scholars -- excluding of course(!) those from Africa who would never get travel visas to visit the MFA, or any other American museum for that matter. And who knows what new scholarship the collection might inspire?
Commemorative head of an Oba (King), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, late 16th century, *Robert Owen Lehman Collection, *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One thing is certain: Calls for the resolution of the problem caused by British looters of Benin royal art collection will not go away -- especially now that Nigerian/world-citizen voices have learned to harness the popular power of the internet to demand action, with occasional victories.
|Pectoral showing two officials, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, 16th-17th century, *Robert Owen Lehman Collection, *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston|
This time around, some commentators have tried to equate the Galway-Sotheby's saga with the Lehman-MFA gift. But I think these are not quite the same, given that, according to the MFA press announcement, Mr. Lehman bought all the works in his Benin collection from the art market between the 1950s and 1970s. Where the Galway family simply wanted to make lots of money from their looted inheritance (and given the controversy surrounding the auction, I could not imagine any self-respecting public institution touching them with a long pole, which means they most likely would have disappeared into private collections, not to be seen again for a long time), Mr. Lehman moved his collection to a public museum, where the works will be available to anyone interested in them.
Relief plaque showing a battle scene, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, 1550-1650, *Robert Owen Lehman Collection, *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
There are small, significant steps that can be taken in the meantime, and there is some indication that the MFA may be willing to begin. According to Christraud Geary, the respected Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art, the Lehman Collection installation will fully explore the circumstances under which the objects were taken from Benin City. That is to say, the MFA will not ignore (or relegate to a footnote as some other collections have) the problematic history of the Benin objects in their collection; and the Court and Benin communities will be consulted in the process. I would hope that the museum will find the courage to go further than this.
Saltcellar, Sapi peoples, Sierra Leone and Guinea, late 15th-early 16th century, *Robert Owen Lehman Collection, *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
At the 2007 opening of the groundbreaking, comprehensive Benin: Kings and Ritual exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Oba Erediauwa stated that while the Benin Court is not necessarily demanding the repatriation all the objects looted by the British, it wishes to enter into workable, mutual understanding with museums holding these objects such that there could be temporary loans to the Court where these objects (actually their replacements produced after the restoration of the kingdom in 1914) remain a vital part of the ritual and social life of the Oba and the Edo Kingdom. But will museums holding Benin Court's works of art explore this commonsense, ethical route?