Friday, April 17, 2020

Looted Benin Objects to be Published Online

Standing Figure, Benin Kingdom, c. 17th century
Collection of University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

In the fight to get museums in Europe and America to take seriously the matter of restituting important African art and cultural objects stolen or looted from the continent in the age of colonialism, there is small but significant progress.
It has just been announced that the Museum am Rothenbaum, Hamburg will publish online all known Benin objects in various media looted by British soldiers in that infamous invasion of the kingdom in 1897. Funded by a generous grant from the Ernst von Siemens art foundation, the project, under the auspices of the Benin Dialog Group, is significant, as it will provide scholars, activists, and institutions interested in the question of the Benin loots--since scattered in major museums around the western world--a comprehensive accounting of who is keeping what of these exiled objects. Until now, such information is buried mostly in barely illustrated scholarly books accessible only to a very small group of academics in universities and museums.
I hope that the goal of this project is to provide images of all the documented works. For with such a visual catalogue, the enormity and scale of that historic plunder of a kingdom will become all the more visibly evident.

Head of an Oba, brass. Collection of Field Museum, Chicago
But, I wonder. As I noted in a post on the subject early last year, the fact that US museums are missing in action is beyond scandalous. Notice that the announcement about the Hamburg project lists only the big European museums with huge caches of the Benin loots, including Hamburg's Museum am Rothenbaum, the British Museum, Berlin’s Ethnology Museum, Vienna’s Weltmuseum and the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden.
Where the hell are American Museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Field Museum Chicago, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia's Penn Museum, and Brooklyn Museum? What are they doing about the looted Benin objects they are keeping in their galleries and vaults? When will they tell us what they intend to do about their own loots?

For more on the Hamburg project, click here