Outside looking in

July 22, 2018

Benin Bronzes on Loan and the Museums Dilemma (1)

Benin Bronzes on Loan and the Museums Dilemma (1)

•The Benin Ivory mask in the Metropolitan Museum New York

•The Benin Ivory mask in the Metropolitan Museum New York

By Denrele Animasaun

Recently, in all the media, there has been a lot of excitement on the proposed loan of the Benin Bronzes which many believe were taken, looted or stolen by the colonist from the Benin Palace by brutal force in 1897 what is now known as the Benin Massacre.

While many are excited some, (which include me), view this proposed loan of the Benin Bronzes from perhaps the British Museum and other Museums in Europe with curious interest. As numerous questions arise such as: Bring all these Bronzes to where?  The Benin Museum or Nigeria’s National Museum in its capital cities Lagos or Abuja? When they do arrive will they be shared for the knowledge and education of the nation?  Also what are the real reasons for loaning these works back to Nigeria/Benin to serve what purpose? Who really cares whether these Bronzes are on loan back to Nigeria or not except from the Benin Palace from which they were taken? These are the questions that perhaps need to be asked before accepting and agreeing to a tokenistic gesture without recourse.

The concept of a Museum as a vital cultural industry is only understood by a few in this great nation, Nigeria.  The actual “work” of a museum and that of museum professionals is also less understood. The profession of a museuologist, a museum educationalist, a curator and a conservator can appear alien and totally unrecognisable in this great nation. The Museum as a vital industry creating a culture capital and contributing to the economy simply hardly exists in Nigeria.

So to whom are these bronzes being loaned to in the nation? To a few elite individuals (like me) who understand their historic importance? To perhaps the great, great grandchildren, still living in Nigeria, of the colonist who massacred and took these works from Benin in 1897?  Or for the people of the nation, the average and perhaps not so average Nigerian citizen?

This brings me to the misconception of our collective histories and the cultural confusion most Nigerians are trapped in. Over the last 3 years when I set up the History Culture and Heritage Institute Nigeria (HCHIN) I have travelled to parts of the West, East, North and South of Nigeria on research of indigenous cultures, histories and heritages of Nigeria that were and are still not taught in schools and are not easily accessible (because of the lack of active museums).

It was on these trips that I found attitudes by the Nigerians I met towards their own histories and cultures, which did not really shock or surprise me but confirmed my fears and conviction.

In a quest to be ‘civilised’ the nation literally destroyed and to a large extent obliterated its histories  and heritages with the help of the colonial ‘masters’ who came to open ‘our eyes’ to the ‘path of truth and redemption’ etc… so evidence of a civilization were burnt and broken. Evidence of kingdoms, stories and folklore of centuries, tales of great myths and legends, systems of governance, religious understanding and tolerance.

The evidence of Nigeria’s heritages is seen through the works of art and artifacts such as the Benin Bronzes which many were encouraged to destroy after the massacre of 1897. The effects of that desecration, a sacrilege, are what the nation is suffering today. Ask the average ‘educated’ Nigerian, the secondary school pupils and the professional to view the Benin Bronzes away from the sentiments of ‘stolen’ and ‘looted’ to tell you what they really think about them and I promise you will hear words like, ‘Fetish’ ‘Evil’ Unchristian’ ‘Idol worshiping’ , ‘of the devil’, ‘uncivilised’ ‘primitive’ ‘rituals’ etc… etc.. These were some of the words of resistance I encountered when researching on traditional indigenous works of art and the lost kingdoms and palaces in Nigeria for HCHIN.  These are some of the very words the colonists used to describe Nigerian’s own great works of art in order to obliterate the history and heritage of a people so they can be left blank without memory and history for further exploitation beginning from slavery to colonization and now economic bondage (with the help of fellow Nigerians). Now the very Nigerians, whose cultures and heritages were condemned and destroyed, have now perfected these derogatory words and fiercely condemn the art, culture and heritages of their own forefathers and foremothers.

The great writer Chinua Achebe brilliantly wrote about the beginnings of this cultural psychological obliteration from chapter 16 in his book ‘Things Fall Apart’

Furthermore, I met hundreds of youths in Nigeria’s universities (famously called ‘school’), and asked them the meaning of their traditional ancestral names. A staggering 85% do not know the meaning of their names and a further 55% are actually ashamed of their names and language because it is ‘African’ and too ‘barbaric’, too ‘vulgar’, too ‘local’ etc….  Words of the students and some professionals I met in 2014-18 – 21st Century Nigeria. When a people are unable to revere, respect and see beauty in the creations and customs of their forebears then ‘Things’ have really fallen apart and the centre has indeed collapsed. For a people do not know the histories, heritages and cultures of the countries of their roots, it is inevitable they will be lost to their past, confused in their present and directionless for their future.

Again, for whom are these Benin Bronzes brought ‘home’ for? When most of those mentioned above do not go to museums, think museums are places where ‘idols’ are kept, ‘dead zones’ with pointless old things for ‘white people tourists’. Some professionals (like me) who can read works of art and make sense of certain symbols and styles of expression and impression in the histories of art and architecture can ‘read’ the meanings loaded in the Benin Bronzes and the power they represented in the Oba of Benin’s  Palace with the story, message and presence they conveyed then and now.

The visual literacy and philosophy in the ‘art’ of the Benin Bronzes could once be ‘read’ by the people and other sacred works of art could only be read by those who were entrusted to guard them. This is the same as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and other churches and temples whose works of art achieved their sacredness in art by articulating with the very essence of religion, myths, legends beliefs and recordings of the time through forms and much later words. (See Bacchus and Ariadne, painted by The Italian Artist Titian in 1523. Produced almost exactly in the same period the Benin Bronzes were being casted).These I know because it is my profession to read and study Art, Works of Art that were created centuries ago and the link with Art of the contemporary.

However the reasons I and others chose to be a professional in this area of study is not solely for my pleasure but the educational desire to preserve, conserve, protect , present and explain and educate the greatness of any nation expressed through their first language – Art, the creation of forms and imagery that tell a story for history. It is in this one vital creation that a nation and a people get a sense of self and a sense of history and purpose. And that is the job of a Museologist and Curator.

To be continued…

  • Mr Olaseni Matthew Gansallo. BA, BA, MA, MA, ML, DCA, FRSA, FMA, FSM.

Mr Gansallo is an Architect Designer specialising in Museum Architecture and a Museologist