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A curator's museum is filled with looted African art. Now he wants it returned

December 2, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Dan Hicks presides over one of the world's largest collections of Benin Bronzes, which were looted from Africa in the 19th century. His new book calls for radical change.

Within months the "Benin Bronzes" were on display at the British Museum in London.

As a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, Dan Hicks presides over one of the world's largest collections of artifacts looted from Benin.

Hicks quotes one British Museum curator saying that he was "puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous as were the Bini," referring to the ethnic group -- also known as the Edo people -- that founded the Kingdom of Benin.

Hicks' book focuses on the Benin Bronzes, as he believes they represent an indisputable case for restitution, which Nigeria has sought since its independence from the British Empire in 1960.

But Hicks cites a curator at the British Museum who later admitted much of the take was "shared out carefully among the officers. " A museum catalog revealed that bronzes were acquired "via the liquidation of estates of old soldiers. "

While Benin's experience may have been exceptional for the scale of destruction and the heritage lost, Hicks situates it within the routine practice of colonial pillaging during the "scramble for Africa," as imperial powers carved up the continent into separate spheres of influence from the late 19th century to the breakout of World War I.

Throughout this period, many prized African artifacts arrived in Western museums via violent conquest, from sculptures taken by France in the sacking of Abomey, to the gold looted by British soldiers from the Asante Empire.

European museums have offered loans rather than permanent returns, while Nigeria's government has resorted to buying Benin Bronzes at a premium from auctions.

Arguments against restitution have evolved since 1981, when the British Museum reportedly claimed the Benin Bronzes were acquired legally as "the British were the legitimate authority. "

In 2003, the British Museum's director made a case against returns on the basis that artifacts should be "housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched, exhibited and made available to the widest possible public. "

Concerns have been raised about the standard of facilities to house the bronzes -- although the British Museum has recently helped secure funding for a new museum in Benin City, Nigeria.

The priority for European curators should be to enable African scholars to study African heritage, he said, arguing that the progress of museums across the continent, from Dakar to Benin City, is a trend to be supported rather than obstructed.

"The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution," published by Pluto Press, is available now.

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