“IIf the museums of Great Britain returned all the stolen things, their galleries would be empty and all would have to be closed ”. This old scary story is repeated often, but it confuses necessary and enlightened reform with iconoclasm. When it comes to Nazi loot and human remains cases, case-by-case returns have been the norm for museum curators since the 1990s. Such work has not diminished to museums; It has kept them in tune with our time. A parallel process is now underway around requests for the return of stolen African heritage, as we saw with the announcement last week by the University of Aberdeen that it would return a looted Beninese bronze to Nigeria. There has been a sea change in what museum visitors demand of the institutions they love. As with ethical consumption in fashion retail, today people want to know where the culture they consume comes from, how it got here, and if someone is asking for it back. In Germany, there are even campaigns to Museum archives to be posted online., so that the museum public can investigate for themselves the facts of the colonial looting. The public is increasingly demanding transparency about thefts.
This issue of transparency is brought into focus with the strange news that during the royal verification process of the laws known as Queen’s consent, it was revealed that Her Majesty’s private properties were exempt from the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Act of 2017. This new law is not very controversial. Represents UK ratification of 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its protocols, more than half a century after they were adopted by UNESCO. The law criminalizes the purchase or receipt as a donation or loan of illegally exported cultural property. no matter what the date is of that export. The idea of the police searching the queen’s private estates at Balmoral and Sandringham for stolen property may seem unlikely (although a picture of the Dutch royal collection was published in 2015). identified as Nazi loot). But like museums, the British royal family is also clearly at risk of receiving loans or gifts of illicit antiquities, works of art stolen during the Holocaust or colonial loot. Due diligence and transparency are, of course, an ethical responsibility in both cases. And then there is the question of the Royal Collections.
Consider the gold tiger head with rock crystal eyes and teeth gouged from the throne of Tipu Sultan of Mysore during the assault on Seringapatam in 1799, in which the sultan was assassinated, handed over to William IV by officials of the East India Company in 1831. The ” krobonkye “antelope leather cap said to have belonged to Kofi Karikari, the Asantehene (King) of the Asante kingdom, with crocodile-shaped hammered gold strips, embossed notch suggesting his scaly skin. The cap was taken when he was deposed by British troops in the Ashanti War of 1874 and Sir Garnet Wolseley oversaw the looting of the royal palaces in Kumasi. Carving wooden slit drum of Emir Wad Bishara – taken after his defeat in the bloody Battle of Omdurman in 1898 when British Maxim machine guns killed 12,000 people and wounded 13,000 more. It was presented as a trophy to Queen Victoria by Major General Herbert Kitchener, the “Sirdar” (commander-in-chief) of the Egyptian army. The pair of carved ivory leopards, his spots on copper, given to Queen Victoria in 1897 by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson after he looted and sacked the city of Benin, Nigeria in 1897, eliminating the Oba (king) Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and sending him into exile.
Queen Victoria even had a specially designed display for such items stolen in the violent dethronement of rival monarchs. On Friday June 18, 1897, Victoria’s ten-day “Queen’s Week” celebration of the Diamond Jubilee began with the opening of a new permanent exhibit of stolen artifacts. Ten polished oak cabinets with electric lighting were installed in the Great Hall of Windsor Castle, creating what was advertised at the time as “a museum of relics of sovereigns past.” From India to Ghana, from Sudan to Nigeria and throughout the British Empire, objects removed in the deposition process of kings, emirs and sultans were removed from the warehouse and installed in the part of the state apartments used to receive international visitors . Victoria even received a dog named Looty – a Pekingese taken from Empress Dowager Cixi in the destruction of the Beijing Summer Palace in 1860 and sent to Balmoral.
The screens of the Grand Vestibule are still there today. And the royal collections keep growing. An example discussed in my new book. The gross museums illustrates the importance of transparency, as gifts to the monarch often have complex stories, a Bronze head of Benin looted in the 1897 attack and bought at auction by Nigeria for the National Museum in Lagos in the 1950s. It was subsequently returned to London by General Yakubu Gowon, fully legally, as a gift to the Queen from General Yakubu Gowon during a 1973 state visit. Should this royal treasure be returned to Nigeria a second time? The answer is not found in the Royal Collection Trust website, where the Windsor exhibits are still euphemistically described as illustrating “the complex ways in which British monarchs have interacted with peoples around the world.”
How to connect the dots between the predicament of enduring colonialism in Victorian museums and the predicament of enduring feudalism, still with us in late capitalism in the form of the monarchy? In both anachronistic realms, the public deserves to know when cultural property is derived from theft. What is at stake here is how we define sovereignty in the third decade of the 21st century.
In the colonial era, British royal power commemorated dispossession as a source of legitimacy. In today’s very different world, cultural legitimacy requires that theft is not triumphantly displayed, hidden or covered up, but rather made visible so that people can judge for themselves.
Ahdaf Soueif’s 2019 resignation from the British Museum’s board of trustees was an early indication that demands for the return of colonial loot, such as protests over sponsorship of oil for theaters, museums and galleries, are part of a larger sentiment. broader and growing than social networks. justice and climate justice must go hand in hand with “cultural justice”. The transparency policy must also be a policy of inclusion. How to break with the unilateral processes dictated by those who hold the stolen loot? How to give plaintiffs a position of respect? From our nation’s museum membership records to what hangs on the Sandringham House picture hooks, the British public and the world deserve openness when it comes to theft issues.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism