Restitution and the legacy of empire

2 November 2022

Review: Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press), and Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich (Princeton University Press)


Should European and North American museums return to their places of origin those artworks, artifacts, and other cultural items in their collections that originated in former European colonies? This is the “restitution question,” a question Western museum directors and officials face increasingly today. It is a question enmeshed in the broader debate over how European states should reckon with the legacies of imperialism and what former colonial powers might owe to the descendants of those they once colonized. Two recent books shed needed light on the restitution question: Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution; and Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, originally in German and ably translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich. Although approaching the question from entirely different angles, the two authors reach identical conclusions:  restitution is a moral imperative, a step that former colonial states need to take to acknowledge and make amends for the racism, exploitation, and violence that underlay colonialism. As Savoy writes, “Restitution, decolonization, social justice and the question of racism go hand in hand.”


Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and curator at Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, focuses on a single episode, the British invasion in February 1897 of the City of Benin, located in today’s Nigeria. In what was officially called a “punitive expedition,” British soldiers leveled the city in retaliation for the killing of as many as nine British officials the previous month. They and their commanding officers took with them more than 10,000 items that have come to be known as the “Benin Bronzes,” a treasure trove of sculptures, plaques and cultural items, ivory as well as bronze. Hicks estimates that works taken from Benin City in 1897 can now be found in 161 museums, galleries and private collections across Europe and North America.


Savoy, professor of Art History at the University of Berlin and former professor at the College de France in Paris, details the formative years of the restitution debate, the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when newly independent sub-Saharan African states began requesting that former European colonial powers return African artworks. These restitution requests attracted some sympathetic reaction in Europe but also precipitated fierce resistance, with West German museums in particular stridently opposing restitution. By the mid-1980s, the restitution debate had gone into hibernation with little tangible progress – hence Savoy’s subtitle History of a Colonial Defeat – only to be revived in almost identical form in the second decade of the 21st century. “Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened 40 years ago,” she writes.


By Hicks’ own admission, his passionately written account is “self-consciously ‘anglo-specific,’” concentrated almost exclusively on Great Britain and the Benin Bronzes. Museums that retain and display artworks and artifacts taken from formerly colonized communities, he argues, remain complicit in and perpetrate the original injustice, making them the “brutish museums” of his title.  Their display of stolen goods is enduring damage that is “renewed every day that the museum doors are unlocked, and these trophies are displayed to the public.”


Savoy focuses primarily on the restitution debate in West Germany during the Cold War, although Britain and the Benin Bronzes also figure in her analysis. Her prose is generally less fiery and more measured, but she echoes Hicks when she describes museums with non-European art in the heart of Europe as “walk-in show cases of colonial approbation practices. There is no way around it.”


The 1897 Punitive Expedition and Its Afterlife  

The Brutish Museums places the 1897 punitive expedition in the broader context of late 19th century British colonialism, from roughly the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers sought to set the terms for what was famously termed the “scramble for Africa,” until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. During this period, he argues, widespread looting of artworks and cultural artifacts became common practice, one aspect of the appalling violence European powers unleashed while claiming to advance what are sometimes termed the “3 Cs,” civilization, Christianity, and commerce.


The official justification for the 1897 punitive expedition was as a retaliation for the killing of nine ambushed British officials who had tried to meet with the Oba (king) of Benin City to negotiate more favorable trade terms. Britain further claimed that the mission had been designed to help suppress slavery, the slave trade, cannibalism, and other forms of ‘barbarism’. Hicks demonstrates convincingly that these justifications were pretextual.  The attack on Benin City had been “planned for years,” he argues, part of a “wholly new phase of colonial violence” in which large-scale, high-profile British military interventions in Africa focused on regime change and the “active removal of long-standing powerful kings” who posed unacceptable impediments to trade.


For Hicks, the ‘smoking gun’ providing the most convincing proof that regime change for more favorable trade terms was the driving force behind the punitive expedition, is a letter of mid-November 1896 from the Acting Counsel of the Niger Coast Protectorate to the British Foreign Office calling explicitly for the King of Benin to be deposed. “I am convinced,” the Acting Counsel wrote, that “pacific measures are now quite useless.” He therefore asked permission to “depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place and to take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require.” The Foreign Office approved the request in December 1896, two months before the punitive expedition.


The punitive expedition unleashed not just pillaging and looting but also the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, including women and children, through the “bombardment of towns and villages from the air and thus […] across the whole of the Benin Kingdom, scorching the earth with rockets, fire and mines.” Tellingly, in the aftermath of the attack, no official or informational reports were compiled on matters such as prisoners of war, injured African casualties, the spread and effect of diseases, or any hospital operations for Africans. Contrary to its fabricated humanitarian justifications, Hicks argues, the 1897 mission was an “act of vandalism and cultural destruction” which possessed “no logic of salvage, or of saving culture for the world,”, rising to the level of a “crime against humanity” as that term would be defined just two years later in the 1899 Hague Convention.


Pillaging and looting of artworks in late 19th century colonialism should not be dismissed as merely an unfortunate “side effect of empire,” he argues. Yet, in the century and a quarter since 1897, the scale of British violence and the loss of native life have too often been minimized, “as if these misrepresentations were themselves a sacred and delicate artifact demanding our conservation.” Indeed, the minimization of this violence underpins one of the primary arguments against restitution, that items were taken in accordance with the values of the time, thereby rendering present ownership legitimate. The violence endures, Hicks counters: it is not some past relic to be “revisited on the curator’s own terms.”


Recently, institutions like the British Museum have contended that they are “world culture museums,” tasked with caring for a “universal, supranational material heritage […] for the people of every nation.”  But this notion, which Savoy terms a “generalized form of Eurocentrism,” is for Hicks another form of license permitting us to “pretend that this violence and loss is in the past,” and avoid the reality that it is “here in front of us in debts that need to be paid for things that were taken.” Resistance to restitution also relies upon arguments that Africans do not have the capacity to care for their own cultural items, thus endangering them, and that claims for such items are themselves “political.”


Going forward, Hicks hopes to see museums in Britain use their status as “unique public spaces” to “change the stories that we tell ourselves about the British Empire, while taking action in support of communities across the Global South in building museums on a totally new kind of model.” Such reconfigured museums should bring “other ways of seeing, knowing, living and making into the Euro-American consciousness, including an awareness of the universal importance of material cultural in human lives.” But they can fulfill this function only when nothing on display is present “against the will of others.”


The Restitution Debate of the 1970s and Early 1980s

Savoy’s work is derived in large measure from documentation she uncovered while co-authoring a highly acclaimed report, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics” with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr. That report was commissioned by French President Emanuel Macron in connection with his ground-breaking address at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, in which he acknowledged that many if not most African artworks and cultural artifacts held in French museums had been stolen during France’s colonial period and should be returned to their places of origin.


The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage consists of 16 short chapters, each using a year as its title. Most are centered on an event that occurred in the particular year, such as a speech, conference, published paper, or film.  Collectively, the chapters reveal a stark dichotomy which emerged during the 1970s as increased calls, for restitution, particularly from newly independent African nations, were met with efforts by administrators at influential museums to prevent the return of looted artefacts.


Especially in West Germany and secondarily in Great Britain, key museum administrators deliberated behind closed doors to oppose restitution of cultural objects and stifle public debate.  The West German opposition, Savoy reveals, included some former members of the National Socialist party, who had moved seamlessly into influential positions in post-war West Germany.


Intense closed-door deliberations began in West Germany in 1972 after the Government of Nigeria asked the West German Foreign Office for a “permanent loan” of some of the Benin Bronzes held in West Berlin’s Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbeseitz (SPK, the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage), the world’s second largest collection of the bronzes after the British Museum in London. Desiring good relations with Nigeria and other recently independent African countries, the Foreign Office looked favorably upon the request, which it passed to SPK senior management. SPK had an altogether different view, as set forth in an extensive letter from SPK Director-General Hans-Georg Wormit to Carl Gussone, head of the West German Ministry of Interior’s Matters of Cultural Conservation who had played a key role in the founding of SPK in 1957.


Wormit described the request as “dangerous” and “facile,” stressing how, in the Cold War world of the 1970s, the SPK was competing for rank and reputation not only with its counterparts in London and Paris, but also with East German museums. German museums, he argued, had suffered enough from World War II, and could not afford to return anything from their collections. The strategy of delay that he advocated worked: the German public “never heard anything about this [Nigerian] request and its outcome,” Savoy writes. Wormit and Gussone, she notes, were among those high-level West German officials who had been members and fervent supporters of the Nazi party during its time in power. Was their hardline resistance to restitution related to the racist thinking of the Nazi period? While hazarding no direct answer, Savoy notes that this is a “legitimate question.”


If Wormit and Gussone were able to circumvent the restitution issue  in 1972, it came to the attention of the German public and the world at large the following year, when Zaire’s President Sese Seko Mobutu placed restitution on the global agenda through an address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The address, which Savoy characterizes as a “legendary full-frontal attack on the Western industrial nations,” articulated the moral basis for restitution:

During the colonial period we suffered not only from colonialism; slavery, economic exploitation, but also and above all from the barbarous, systematic pillaging of all our works of art. In this way the rich countries appropriated our best, our unique works of art, and we are therefore poor not only economically but also culturally. Those works of art, which are to be found in the museums of the rich countries are […] the finished products of our ancestors. Those works, which were acquired for nothing, have increased in value so much that none of our countries has the material means to recover them.

Later that year, the UNGA adopted Resolution 3187, “Restitution of Works of Art to Countries Victims of Expropriation,” with 113 countries voting in favor.


Mobutu’s address prompted enough interest in Germany that the West German Foreign Office asked leading museums to present their views on restitution, giving rise to another round of opposition to restitution claims that Savoy characterizes as “fundamental and harsh, both in tone and in content.” She focuses on the response of Stephan Waetzoldt, Director General of Staatlich Museen zu Berlin (Berlin State Museum), who wrote that he had difficulty understanding the rationale for what he described as the “absurd demand for the return of practically the entire collection holdings which come from the Third World and are now in Western museums.” Waetzoldt cited the “appalling condition” of “Third World” museums, which were incapable of preserving their own heritage. Cosmopolitan West German collections, he argued, constituted the “main reason why the German public was interested in foreign cultures at all.”  Waetzoldt thus recommended that West German museums treat the Foreign Office request “as dilatorily as possible.”


But by the mid-1970s, a pro-restitution voice had surfaced in the West German museum microworld, that of Herbert Ganslmayr, Director-General of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen,  Born in 1937 and belonging to a younger generation than Wormit, Gussone and Waetzoldt, Ganslmayr came to public attention through a 1976 article in the American newspaper Christian Science Monitor entitled “German Debate: Should Art Return to Former Colonies?” The article quoted Ganslmayr as arguing that Germany had both a legal and moral obligation to “hand things back.” Full enjoyment of cultural heritage was “for each people an indispensable condition for its self-realization.”


Later that year, Ganslmayr presented a paper, entitled “Return of Cultural Property,” which inspired a journalist from Bremen to produce a hard-hitting radio documentary on restitution which probed museum officials on what they meant when they contended that African artworks in their possession had been “acquired correctly.” The radio program attracted the attention of leading West German museum officials, who formed what Savoy describes as a “clear front” against Ganslmayr, conspicuously excluding him from further meetings and agreements. Moreover, she notes, Ganslmayr, also received threatening letters.  Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, this clear front remained “smug” and “uncompromising” in their assertions of ownership of cultural assets from former colonized countries.


Savoy also identifies what she terms an “almost unbearable institutional smugness” in the way the British Museum systematically rejected restitution requests in the same time frame. She zeroes in on Nigeria’s request that the museum release one of its most highly valued Benin Bronzes, the Queen Idia mask, in connection with the renowned 1977 Pan-African World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.  Known simply as “Festac ’77,” the month-long festival took place in Lagos, Nigeria and is now regarded as “one of the greatest cultural events of the twentieth century on the African continent.” The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), like its counterpart in West Germany, wanted to cultivate good relations with Nigeria and supported the request for the return of the mask and the other items requested.


But without any indication of overt collaboration between British Museum principals and their hardline West German counterparts, the museum raised strikingly similar arguments in response to the request. An FCO official who met with British Museum officials noted that they “do not entirely trust the Nigerians to return [the mask].” They anticipated that the Nigerians “would not treat it with the care it demands, especially since the Nigerians would tend to think of it as their own property.” That the Nigerians might dare to think of the mask as “their own property,” and therefore neglect to care for it, Savoy wryly observes, “speaks volumes about the self-perception of Western institutions.”


Savoy documents a spell of restitution-fatigue in the aftermath of Festac ’77, with African elites losing faith in the “capability of the ‘possessing’ countries to recognize the cultural needs of poorer nations.” By 1982, she writes, the first postcolonial restitution debate was “long over” from an African perspective, even though the tide seemed to have turned in most of Europe in favor of restitution. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy all took positions favoring restitution at a UNESCO-sponsored “World Conference on Cultural Policies,” held in Mexico City in 1982, which represented the “peak of the restitution debate of the 1970s and ‘80s.” Only West Germany and Great Britain adhered to their hardline positions.


Further attention was drawn to the conference by the Greek actress and future culture minister Melina Mercouri when she pled for return of the famous Elgin Marbles from Great Britain to Greece, a call, supported for a time by the then Oxford Union President Boris Johnson. The restitution issue, which “until then had been publicly perceived mainly as an issue for ‘undeveloped’ countries – and for that reason often dismissed – now touched the Parthenon at the heart of Europe.” It remains an open question, however, whether Mercouri rekindled the restitution flame or simply refocused the question away from Africa and on Greece. Either way, Mercouri’s plea marked the “final end of European solidarity against restitution claims from the “‘Third World,’” Savoy writes.  Sometime thereafter, the restitution debate “fizzled,” only to resurface with renewed intensity within the last ten years.


No Time for Complacency

Both Savoy and Hicks acknowledge that restitutions have taken place with increasing frequency in recent years. Restitution claims nonetheless continue to trigger “compulsive instances of institutional defense,” Savoy cautions, “as if the search for an equitable approach to collections created in an inequitable contest was one of the greatest threats to European cultural heritage.” The time is now ripe, she concludes, to “assume responsibility and to finish the work that museums directors and culture officials of the 1970s and ’80s deliberately left undone: a sincere and swift restitution of objects bought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during colonial occupation.” Hicks for his part exhorts his readers to “stand up from their chair[s], walk out of the door, and take action to make the 2020s a decade of restitution.” Although presenting compelling cases for restitution in their complementary works, both authors thus foresee additional battles ahead. Neither is ready to declare victory.


Image Credits: Benin Bronzes, British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

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