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Should London museums give back their disputed objects?

Written by
Eddy Frankel

London’s museums are full of artefacts that were acquired in controversial ways. Now, there’s talk of sending them back where we got them from – but is it the right thing to do? Here’s a short primer on restitution, and the treasures London may be losing

A quiet storm has been brewing in the museum world, with heavy clouds gathering over the objects that line the walls and fill the cabinets of our great institutions. Ever wondered how the British Museum got its hands on a hoard of priceless marble wall reliefs, or how the V&A got hold of a trove of Ethiopian treasures? Well, it probably wasn’t in entirely ethical ways. And the countries that many of our museums’ objects were taken from have been asking for their repatriation for decades, but the British government has always stood firm. But when the V&A opened a display of artefacts from Maqdala a few months ago, and the Ethiopian government demanded their return, the V&A – shockingly – listened. Tristram Hunt, director of the museum, announced that the V&A would be open to sending the objects to Ethiopia on ‘long-term loan’. Meanwhile, in France, president Emmanuel Macron announced that he wanted to put in place a system for the return of ‘Africa’s heritage to Africa’. Jeremy Corbyn followed that by saying he’d be open to returning the British Museum’s Parthenon reliefs (the ‘Elgin Marbles’, pictured above) to Greece if he became Prime Minister. Now, the spotlight is turning to other disputed objects in our collections – especially works from Africa, as detailed below – and the clamour is growing. There’s no denying that in the objects that fill our institutions there is written nearly the whole history of colonialism, but returning them isn’t that simple. There are a lot of questions: are other countries equipped to look after these treasures? Can we really trace the provenance of them? And – seriously – if we give back everything we got from other cultures, legally or otherwise, what the hell will we be left with?

1) The Maqdala Treasures at the V&A

Courtesy the trustees of the V&A

In 1868, British forces launched an attack on Emperor Tewodros II’s Fortress of Maqdala in what was then Abyssinia, and is now Ethiopia. The attack was essentially punishment for the emperor’s imprisonment of a group of missionaries. The British were victorious and the emperor committed suicide. But before destroying the fortress and burning the city, the British forces looted its treasures. Their haul included golden crowns and cotton wedding dresses, which are spread across several UK institutions. The V&A has a large collection on display, and has offered to return them on long-term loan to Ethiopia. But Ethiopian ambassador to the UK Hailemichael Aberra Afework wants more, as he told The Art Newspaper: ‘My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned.’

What the museum says:

‘As custodians of these Ethiopian treasures, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, shine a light on their cultural and religious significance, and reflect on their living meaning, while being open about how they came to Britain.’ Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A

2) The Asante trophy head at the Wallace Collection

Courtesy the Wallace Collection

This stunning, near-life size golden head was acquired by British forces during the Anglo-Asante war of 1874. This, like the earlier attack on Maqdala, was another punitive attack, ending with the treasures of King Kofi Karikari being seized as war booty and eventually auctioned off. Richard Wallace bought it alongside 15 other Asante pieces from the jeweller Garrard for £500 a few years later and  bequeathed them, alongside the rest of his collection, to the state on his death. The Ghanaian government filed restitution claims on behalf of the reigning king in 1974, but were rebuffed by the British. This stunning object is the largest surviving gold work of art from Sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s on display in the Wallace Collection’s new exhibition gallery.

What the museum says:

‘As a national museum we have a policy of transparency about the provenance of the works in our care. We are keen to work with scholars and researchers in Ghana and internationally to develop our understanding of this incredible work of art for the benefit of all.’ Xavier Bray, Director of the Wallace Collection

3) The Benin Bronzes at the British Museum

Courtesy the British Museum

In what you might notice is something of a trend, the staggeringly intricate Benin Bronzes were seized by British forces during yet another expedition. The attack was revenge for the killing of several Britons and their porters who were attempting to visit Benin City in what is now Nigeria; it led to the city being sacked and utterly destroyed. Over a thousand of these beautiful items were brought to Europe, and the British Museum has the most important collection of them. After years of restitution claims, a new group of Nigerian parties and European museums has started to lead calls for, again, the long-term loan of the objects back to Nigeria, where a royal museum is being built to house them in modern-day Benin City. 

What the museum says:

‘While in the care of the British Museum, the Benin Bronzes have been seen and admired by many millions of visitors from around the world. They continue to have a profound cultural value and religious significance for the Edo people. Their controversial acquisition is openly acknowledged by the Museum and we are collaborating closely with colleagues in Nigeria to better interpret the collection and to make it more accessible.’ Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

Find slightly less controversial things to see by clicking here.




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