Invited to speak on a panel at a museum in Europe, ahead of the start I was given a guided tour of their display of African artefacts dating back centuries. One comment explaining that what I was seeing was only a fraction of what the institution had in their possession and that there was much more hidden away in their basement left me dumbfounded, then conflicted.
To be able to see examples of objects I had only read about or seen in books is to admire them for their significance, ingenuity, skills, and craftsmanship. On the other hand to look at these same objects behind glass is also to question an object’s provenance, what has taken place for them to be here? what peoples, culture, the country have these objects been ripped away from losing a part of their identity and history? It was an unsettling and upsetting experience and not the first.
While carrying out research for my book Contemporary Design Africa I visited the British Museum, home to some of the legendary Benin Bronzes among other important historical African artefacts. Artefacts that are now at the centre of increasing calls for them to be returned to their home countries. The repatriation of Africa’s looted artefacts is long overdue.
As a Zimbabwean, I am well aware of our national emblem the Zimbabwe Bird that proudly graces our flag, currency and many other national symbols. The Zimbabwe Birds are sacred stone sculptures that were looted over a century ago from the Great Zimbabwe ruins, an ancient national monument that offers an insight into our past histories. Zimbabwe when negotiating the terms of its independence petitioned for the return of these stone sculpture birds, and in an ongoing process it is said that all but one have been returned. Despite this many other artefacts not only Zimbabwean but belonging to other nations, and not just African are yet to be returned.
One high profile case is that of lawyer Amal Clooney proposing Greece formally request the return of the Elgin Marbles, a marble frieze whose ownership is contested. And now Nigeria is seeking the return of its previously mentioned Benin Bronzes, thousands of decorative plaques and treasured items of royal regalia that were stolen in the 19th century and are now held in predominately western museums and private collections.
The calls to return what was looted are getting louder, museums and other related institutions can no longer ignore what needs to be done. But there is some resistance. One of the reasons being given against restitution is that for some countries there is the question of whether they have the capacity to properly look after these artefacts themselves.
At the end of the day, it should be up to the countries these artefacts were taken from to decide how, when and where they should be displayed. And that means first formally acknowledging and returning what was stolen.
[Image credits: The image shown belongs to Michel Wal. If downloaded and used elsewhere please credit accordingly.]