If I was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which just received a gift of 34 rare Kingdom of Benin objects from the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, I would not have responded to the official request by Nigeria to have 32 of these artifacts repatriated with the veiled and tired excuse that they will reach a wider, more diverse audience in Boston than in Nigeria. I would not have tried to pacify them by describing how the collection will be installed in an exhibition that will discuss both the history of the individual objects as well as the history and culture of the Benin Kingdom. And I wouldn’t have capped it all off by throwing in the bonus of presenting the objects on the museum website and the hope that keeping the objects will “further opportunities for cultural exchange”.
Once again, the MFA is being, let’s just be frank, a tightfisted little bitch about the obviously looted objects in their collection. Let me break it down for you: In 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Benin king and destroy Benin City. Field commanders were instructed to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages and hang the king whenever and wherever he was captured. After the British secured the city, looting began in the monuments and palaces of high-ranking chiefs, as well as homes and religious buildings. 2,500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, and artworks were exported to England. These objects were later auctioned off in Paris and held by the British Museum in London. The objects now in the possession of the Boston MFA were privately owned by Mr. Robert Owen Lehman. This donation is a big deal for the museum because until this acquisition, it had only one Benin object in its 20-year-old African collection. There are now plans to build a permanent gallery for the Lehman Collection.
That is, if the Nigerian government fails in its effort to have the artifacts repatriated. The MFA refusing to repatriate these Benin artifacts is disappointing for a number of reasons: 1) refusing Nigeria their cultural property that was so heartlessly taken in the midst of the death and destruction of their people, even if it was over 100 years ago, is not great for post-colonial PR; 2) you’d think that after problems like the Weary Herakles debacle, the MFA would have learned; and 3) every time a museum gets so tightfisted, it puts us all two steps back from the ideal many hope to see one day: that instead of these catty repatriation lawsuits, we will instead enjoy the generous and willful exchange of collections between countries and museums, and spend less time being concerned with ownership and economic value and more time educating, preserving, and respecting. This ideal has been described by many in the museum, archaeological, and cultural heritage communities, but it has been frustratingly slow to manifest in real life. Conflicts such as the one between Nigeria and the MFA only keep us in the mud of the mid-20th century encyclopedic museum dream.
If the MFA was at all interested in joining the rest of us here in the 21st century, it might begin by repatriating the objects to Nigeria and hammering out a deal for exchanges between our countries. Then it might consider taking the initiative and acknowledging fishy or limited provenance in the history of all its objects, not just the ones on trial, and make a whole-hearted effort to discover their true origins. Then it might acknowledge that many of the objects in their collection may still hold significance for living cultures and be less stingy when those cultures come forward and ask for repatriations. Then it might do a much better job of educating its public about art crime, the modern commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and the past and present war time looting that scatters artifacts and attempts to destroy cultures and ideologies. But instead, it will continue to drag its feet and deny a formerly occupied country the right it has to its stolen heritage.
Don’t be that guy, MFA. Be brave.