Undated photo put out by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, shows a illegally smuggled, artifact repatriated from the United Kingdom
( Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina Vega this week and you're listening to The Takeaway. Last summer's global protest against white supremacy and systemic racism led to institutions from corporate America to municipal police, colleges and universities, philanthropies, and media organizations, all to take stock of how race and inequality manifest in their work.
This included museums. Now, some museums are reckoning with their past in very tangible ways. This April in a historic move Germany announced it would return stolen artifacts currently in its museums back to Nigeria, including the priceless Benin Bronzes of the then kingdom of Benin. In March, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to repatriate its Benin Bronze.
France also indicated similar plans this year, yet some museums, including the feigned British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have not committed to doing the same, despite having sizable collections of looted objects, including Benin Bronzes. For more on this, we're joined by Karen Attiah. She is global opinions editor at the Washington Post. Karen, always good to have you with us.
Karen Attiah: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa: Absolutely. Also with us is Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is professor at Princeton University in the Department of Art and Archeology and the Department of African-American studies. Chika also thank you for being with us.
Chika Okeke-Agulu: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Karen, let's just start with why some of these museums in Europe have announced that they're returning these artifacts. How have they been framing this decision?
Karen: Obviously the latest, as you mentioned in your intro, Germany has pledged to return its collections of the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria. The framing was basically almost of a moral obligation to do so. It's interesting that we're even talking about this right now when it comes to Germany's history and past in Africa. It also just over the past weekend has agreed to pay out some £1 billion to those that it colonized in Namibia but it's really this reckoning with the sourcing, with the history, with the violence of how these objects were stolen in these punitive violent raids in the kingdom of Benin. It's been really intriguing to see Germany really taking this lead.
We do have to note that it's also because Nigeria has basically agreed to, they're constructing a museum to be able to house these objects back in Benin city. Again, thousands of these objects exist outside of Benin. Now the arguments for so long have been that there aren't museums, there aren't institutions that can safely have them, that can safely carry them, but there are now mechanisms and institutions in place that will house these objects in Nigeria.
Melissa: Chika, I want to come to you on part of what Karen mentioned there around this question of the violent ways in which these objects end up in these European and American museums. Can you tell us a little bit about that history?
Chika: Sure. The history of the Benin artifacts is quite precise simply because it's probably one of the most well-documented art of colonial looting that took place in the winter of 1897, when the British Navy, under the pretext of what they call the punitive expedition to the kingdom of Benin, which was the most powerful kingdom in what was called the Oil Rivers that is today's Southern Nigeria. The attempt to seize control of the trade in the region from the kingdom made it necessary on the part of the British to vanquish the harbor of Benin.
They did that in a number of ways, signing bogus treaties and so forth but in 1896, one of their captains, British Captain Phillips took an entourage into Benin at a time when he was warned not to enter the kingdom. It was a holy period but he did anyway. He was attacked and some of his men were killed. The British then use that as an opportunity to invade, burn down and loot the palace but before they went on that expedition, they had already sent words to the foreign office in England, indicating that the palace had tremendous treasures, which if they were taken back to England and sold, could pay for the cost of the expedition.
In other words, they knew what they were going to do in the kingdom of Benin, which was to embark on the military expedition, actualize the goal of empire and still have the Benin people pay for it by virtue of seizing their treasures and selling them off to buyers, museums, and so forth in Europe in 1898, which was when the government of Britain organized the first auction sale just a year after the expedition. That's how these objects spread across Europe and eventually the United States.
Melissa: That history is so critical and valuable to know this idea that, that there was a clear understanding about what that choice was and the ways that it was connected to a particular kind of fiscal calculus. Karen, can you help us to then put that history into a contemporary context and say, why then does it matter for these objects to be returned?
Karen: I think it is a really important point that was brought up, just about this history that even museums and many of these institutions and Europe were part of the colonizing project, would send letters to militaries asking them to bring back these treasures and not just treasures for fiscal enrichment, but really, basically trophies of the conquest under the pretext that we the victors want to learn about those that we conquered.
Melissa: Chika, maybe I can come back to you here because I'm interested in whether or not there's any argument for keeping these items in museums. By museums I mean, museums that are not on the continent, how would these US museums or European museums justify not giving them back?
Chika: They've had really several arguments and excuses, all of them really terrible at best on tenable. The first is that they claim that these museums in the United States and Europe because they are well endowed, must keep the World's cultural heritage for humanity. This was the argument that some of the captains of the industry made in 2002 when they made a declaration arguing against the repatriation at the time of the Elgin Marbles, the so-called Elgin marbles from Parthenon that are presently at the British Museum.
They, of course, were defending the British museums to keep these objects for mankind or humankind. That was a major argument that they made. The second one was something that Karen mentioned earlier, which was that, you see these countries, these societies where these objects were taken from don't have the resources to keep them and so we might as well safeguard them in our fancy museums, but I've always thought that that argument sounded like someone stealing your fancy car and basically arguing that he could not possibly return it because your garage is so crappy and then demand that until you build a nice-looking garage for this fancy car, the car will not be returned.
I don't see a difference from the kind of argument that they've made. That's why I think, this point has to be made, the fact that the Nigerians are building a museum is not, and should not be the good reason for returning these objects, because it buys into this idea that poor countries don't deserve their stuff back. The principle is what is at issue. The Nigerians or the Africans can decide how they want to conserve their cultural heritage.
By the way, the Greeks built one of the best museums in the whole world, hoping that their Elgin Marbles would be returned for the Olympics some years ago, up till now they have not been returned. The argument about building new museums in Africa is really not what we should focus on.
Good for the Nigerians that are building their museum but that is not the reason why these European and American museums can now say, "Oh, well, now that they have good museums, we will return them." What of the other countries that don't have the resources to build fancy museums. That is the question.
Melissa: Oh, I so appreciate that analysis professor, and not only that it's a fancy car in the fancy garage, but also that it was stealing the fancy car that made building the fancy garage even possible in the first place. Karen, let me come to you on this, because there's this moment in 2018, where this breaks through in popular culture, in part through the film, The Black Panther, let's just take a listen for a quick second. Karen.
[start of playback]
Speaker 1: Tell me about this one.
Speaker 2: Also, from Benin, 7th century, Fula tribe, I believe. I beg your pardon?
Speaker 1: It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it's from Wakanda and it's made out of vibranium. Don't trip. I going to take it off your hands for you.
Speaker 2: These items aren't for sale.
Speaker 1: How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price or did they take it like they took everything else?
[end of playback]
Melissa: Karen, I have to say, I know a lot of people are Wakanda Forever. I'm actually Killmonger forever and this was one of those moments, but the very fact that this was in a 2018 film suggests that this has been in conversation long before the summer of 2020. Can you talk about what the long-term movement to repatriate these artifacts and treasures has been?
Karen: Absolutely. Yes, team Killmonger all the way, but especially with that scene. I think listening to that scene also brings up a really important and sore point for museums, which is that n that scene Killmonger who is Black and who is knowledgeable about the history and culture of, the fiction of Wakanda, but of Africa knows more than the white British curator who's presenting herself as the expert and the safe keeper of African culture and art.
I think this question about safety of objects, we do know that institutions here in the US, in particular, have come under a microscope when it comes to the fact that many museum staff, curators are very white and that Black and African curators are rarely afforded the opportunities to even be able to curate and present exhibits and make decisions about our own heritage and culture.
When I read about this, I just grappled with this question of when Western museums say, "things are safe", but yet not even giving the opportunity to diversify the space, to create spaces for poor Black people and Black community to even come and have this dialogue. For museums to say that they want to have these conversations, that they want to present these dialogues and all of humanity, and yet, they refuse to basically desegregate and basically include and empower Black people for us to talk about our own histories and art.
Melissa: Professor Okeke-Agulu, on our last moment here, or last-minute here, can you just build on Karen's point and say a bit about what US museums need to be doing in this moment around racial justice?
Chika: The US museums as I've said in some of the forum have been behaving like the ostrich. In other words, for them, this is not the problem of the United States, rather it's Europe's problem because the colonizing nations are in Europe, but the fact that Germany, which did not invade Benin decided this year, as you mentioned, to return the artifacts makes it necessary for US museums to step up and tell us what they are going to do about the looted Benin artifacts in their collections.
Melissa: Thank you so much to both of you for joining us today. Karen Attiah is the global opinions editor at the Washington Post, and Chika Okeke-Agulu is a professor at Princeton University in the Department of Art and Archeology and the Department of African-American Studies.
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