AS Nigeria hosts some representatives of holders of the country’s looted cultural objects as part of efforts towards the return of the controversial artefatcs, the country’s dialogue or diplomatic approach is once again on the spot.
Scheduled to hold next week, significantly, in Benin, Edo State, where the largest looting of Africa’s cultural objects took place in 1897, the meeting would be the third of its kind between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and some museums in Europe.
In 2010 and 2011, the NCMM had engaged a number of major museums in similar meeting held in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany. The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke had hinted about the scheduled Benin meeting during the repossession ceremony of some stolen Nok pieces from French Embassy, held in Abuja, few weeks ago.
Unspecified volumes of pre-19th century artefacts of Nigerian origin are currently in illegal possession of museums and individuals across Europe and the U.S. Among the most important cultural objects in this context are the two Queen Idia masks, each in the British Museum, U.K and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S.
In recent years, other works of perhaps similar values had been brought into the public glare. For example, in 2010, Sotheby’s attempt at auctioning six pieces of Benin origin, including a pendant mask of Queen Idia from the descendants of Lionel Galway – the British colonial army who led the 1897 expedition – was stopped by formal protest from a Nigerian group in the Diaspora, Kayode Ogundamisi-led Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF).
More recent in the restitution issue came last June when Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, U.S received donation of 28 bronzes and six ivories from Mr. Robert Owen Lehman who is the heir to the vast collection of a famous American banker and collector, Philip Lehman. The late banker and great-grand father of Robert, according to sources, was one of the immediate beneficiaries of the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition.
And as the donation also generated heated reactions from Nigerians, home and the Diaspora, NCMM sent a protest letter to MFA. The museum’s’s Associate Director of Public Relations, Karen Frascona, via email chat over Nigeria’s protest relayed the response of the museum: “Director, Malcolm Rogers responded to Mr. Usman (on August 30, 2012), that after careful deliberation, the Museum decided to accept the gift as a way of sharing this private collection, giving access to these long-hidden objects to our more than one million annual visitors.”
Rogers, according to Frascona, “conveyed his desire that the gift inaugurates fruitful dialogue with colleagues locally and abroad, and further opportunities for cultural exchange.”
Although, as at press time, it was unclear if MFA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum were listed among the participants for the Benin dialogue, but the NCMM’s past romance with some museums seemed not to be yielding much progress in returning Nigeria’s priceless artefacts. For example, the British Museum has been involved in the retraining programme of NCMM’s staffs while Museum of African Art, New York offered similar trainings during the tour of a collaborative exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria.
Although the return to Nigeria, by France, of the stolen and intercepted Nok pieces was a laudable one, but the ultimate restitution, which Nigerians look forward to eagerly, in the return of the Idia masks, currently under incarceration in the U.K and U.S. And as NCMM keeps going into these collaborations, observers noted that the real issue of restitution has been beclouded. It has also been noted that such collaborations gives strength to the holders of Nigerian artefacts to maintain the status quo.
While the Director-General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman insisted that Nigeria’s “diplomatic approach” may not be on the table forever, he had argued that if Nigeria’s agitation for return of its stolen artefacts must enjoy consideration of the holders, it is important to demonstrate to the rest of the world that whenever the looted works are repatriated “we would share” with other people across the world.
It is of note that under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the prohibition of illicit trade in Cultural property as well as the 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law otherwise known as UNIDROIT Convention on unauthorised exportation of cultural objects, positive gestures have been coming from some countries. Before France’s return of Nok pieces few weks ago, the Homeland Security investigation (HSI) of U.S, had in July last year, returned some Nok terracotta to Nigeria’s Consulate. It was reported that the U.S. authority had been on the trail of the objects since 2011 after French customs officers spotted the statues during a routine inspection at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
It has been observed that the UNESCO convention’s covert silence on the pre-1970 dispute artefacts could make the return of major and contentious works such as the Idia masks difficult.
The Director-General of NCMM categorized the illegal movements of Nigerian artefcats into three categories: the colonial period of invading forces by imperial Britain and other western anthropologists who carried out field work in various parts of the country; collections in the 1960s and 1970s when the civil war provoked large exodus artefacts outside Nigeria; the post-civil war and current movements of work through the porous borders.
“Within the last three years the Commission has embarked on several sensitization programme involving law enforcement agencies, media, local communities and traditional rulers at Abuja and Kaduna and also in the rural areas especially at Nok and Janjala,” Usman said.
The NCMM, he argued, has been consistent in protecting the endangered areas where artefacts are prone to illegal exportation. He disclosed that “Six hundred security personnel and craftsmen to police our heritage sites is awaiting cash backing from the Budget office.” What he described “a special repatriation Unit to handle issues of illicit trafficking, repatriation and restitution,” he added, has been approved by the government.
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