Over the past couple of years, much has been made of the Parisian Quai Branly museum’s purported plans to return artwork looted from Benin to its country of origin. Of course, this narrative has been championed and much-reported by supporters of the plan’s anti-colonialist ambitions. However, a new report from the New York Times illustrates precisely what makes completing a task like this so difficult: endless bureaucracy, diplomatic miscommunication and a lack of funding all stand in the way of past historical wrongs being corrected. Nevertheless, where large institutions like the British Museum sometimes fail to implement change in a timely manner, impassioned individuals have had better luck.
After an educational 2004 trip to Nigeria with the British Police Expedition Society, officers Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awoyemi made it their mission to honor a message that had been handed to Dunstone in Nigeria that read, “Please help return the Benin Bronzes.” Eventually, the two received a message from a Welsh doctor named Mark Walker, who told them that he had two such items in his possession: a small bird sculpture and a bell. In his own time, Walker also came to realize that he had those items in his possession because his grandfather was likely one of the people who had personally looted from Benin City. In a 2014 ceremony, Walker returned the items he had in his possession to the Oba of Benin; Benin’s traditional ruler and the culture’s custodian.
In comparison to this small-scale but no less significant success, the British Museum has long drawn the ire of native Nigerians (the former Kingdom of Benin was located in what’s now Nigeria) for the institution’s perceived indifference, some of which can be traced back to an incident that took place in the 1970s. According to the Times, organizers of a festival in Lagos reached out to the British Museum and asked if they could borrow a 16th-century ceremonial mask for the duration of the event, but the British Museum allegedly denied this request due to the object’s fragility. Additionally, Nigerian media reported that the museum had asked for an insurance fee of $3 million, a sticker price that infuriated the organizers.
Ultimately, it’s clear that the repatriation of artistic artifacts is no simple process, but that personal conviction can sometimes outweigh institutional clout. In a political climate like ours, that’s a welcome message.