Chicago museums weigh African artifacts controversy

The Art Institute's recently opened exhibit "Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria" has thrust Chicago into an international debate over the rightful ownership of African art held in western museums.
The Art Institute does not own any of the 220 objects on display as part of the exhibit, but does own 20 objects from Benin that a spokesman says it would consider returning to Nigeria if asked to do so.

The controversy has hovered in the background of the exhibit since its July 8 opening, attended by several dignitaries from Nigeria and the Kingdom of Benin, including Princess Theresa Erediauwa, daughter of the Oba - or king - of Benin, now part of Nigeria.

Although the objects in the exhibit are on loan from the Oba and Nigeria's Commission for Museums and Monuments, the subject has cast light on AIC director James Cuno's controversial assertions in his book "Who Owns Antiquity?"

Cuno defends such African art holdings, suggesting that antiquities are not national symbols but part of a global inheritance best displayed in "museums of ideas, not ideologies."

Cuno could not be reached for comment for this story.

AIC spokeswoman Erin Hogan says the book does not represent the Institute's position.

"Cuno's book is just that, his book," she says. "It represents his personal views. The Art Institute has always followed the recommendations set forth by the Association of Art Museum Directors."

The controversy has not been confined to the Art Institute.

Chicago's Field Museum owns 400 objects from Benin, most of which were taken in the "punitive expedition," a brutal 1897 attack by the British in which the ancient city was burned and looted of its artwork.

Most of the Field Museum's collection was donated by ethnologist A.W.F. Fuller and his wife in 1961, according to the museum.

Restitution advocates say the brutality of the expedition and the destruction of Benin is enough to question the legality of Western museums holding the objects.

Greg Borzo, the media manager for scientific affairs at the Field Museum and the Art Institute, said that if the Nigerian government or the Oba of Benin asked for the return of the antiquities, they would take the request seriously.

Restitution advocates like the British-based Africa Reparations Movement argue that such museums glorify plunder and celebrate imperialism's legacy of exploitation.

"The Benin artworks belong to a living culture that has deep historical and social value which goes far beyond the aesthetic and monetary value they hold in exile," the organization says on its website.

ARM draws parallels between its efforts to return to Nigeria objects taken during the punitive expedition to efforts by Greece and Egypt to have their antiquities returned.

Joel Okafor, a professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University and a fellow of the St. Clair Drake Center for African and African-American Studies at Roosevelt, said the exhibit shows the "ugly and lasting aftertaste of the impact of colonial rule and its enduring cultural legacies."

Okafor says the debate over the return of African antiquities to their native countries has produced limited results, but he is optimistic. "The world is finally demanding that human beings own  up to the excesses of the past."

Among other recent examples, Okafor cited Italy's decision in 2005 to return an Ethiopian obelisk taken by the colonial government of Mussolini in 1937 and a recent apology issued by  the U.S. Congress to the victims of slavery.


DR.KWAME OPOKU, 08-09-2008


Finally, the Art Institute of Chicago has reached the conclusion which others have reached long time ago, that the position and the views Cuno and his followers have been propagating over a long period, are not conducive to good and friendly relations. The view that the strong can take the artefacts of the weak and keep them has never been morally acceptable, no matter what James Cuno, Director, Art, Institute of Chicago, Neil Macgregor, Director British Museum, Phillipe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, may say to the contrary. That there has been so far no strong resistance to the activities of the Western museums should not be taken as evidence that they are on the right path.

If the various museums in Chicago have finally seen the light of the day, we would expect them to act soon and swiftly. They should rest assured that they have the support of most of the intellectuals in the West, they can rely on the moral support and approval of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania in their efforts to clean up their museums and return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin as, the UNESCO and the United Nations have been asking over the last thirty decades.

The museums in Chicago should know that by showing respect to the African peoples and their artefacts, they are also showing respect to their African American population who can never feel completely free when they know that the cultural and religious symbols of their ancestors have been detained in museums across the USA. They cannot feel at ease in a country which insists on treating the valuable and cherished religious and cultural symbols of their ancestors as mere museum pieces which can be forcibly taken away from their societies of origin and placed in other societies which treat them as war trophies or objects for aesthetic contemplation.

The US museums are not responsible for the atrocities of the British in 1897 but they should not condone criminal and illegal acts by remaining silent and

dealing with stolen objects as if they had been legitimately acquired. The ignoble acts of the 19th and 20th century need not be perpetuated by conferring on them any semblance of legality and legitimacy.

Should the Chicago museums remain steadfast and sweep their museums clean of any vestiges of colonialism and imperialism, they would make an inestimable contribution to improving relations to peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.

We congratulate the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago on their first step in the right direction. They can count on our unfailing support in this endeavour.

The Trustees should also take a serious look at the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums which embodies the ideas of Cuno and his supporters, such as Philippe de Montebello and Neil MacGregor. By this Declaration the Western holders of artefacts illegally and illegitimately acquired from Africa and elsewhere declared their intention of not returning these stolen artefacts which were declared as part of Western culture:

“Over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or partage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them”

This Declaration and its further elaboration by Cuno and his allies has had the effect of making more acrimonious the debate on restitution of cultural property. The abrasive language of Cuno and the arrogance displayed in the writings of supporters of retention of stolen cultural objects and their insensitivity ion have done incalculable damage to the relationship between the Western countries and African and Asian countries. The colonial and 19th century imperialist pomposity which runs through the whole Declaration has engendered resistance to Western hegemonial tendencies.

The Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago should, in contact with the American signatories of the infamous document, endeavour to find ways of counterbalancing the damage done by that document and, if possible issue a clear statement defining their own approach to the question of restitution of stolen/looted African cultural objects. A general approach should be worked out to provide a solution to this general question. The infamous Declaration envisaged a case by case approach but given that there are thousand of these objects in Western museums, it could take ages to solve a problem which should not take so long to solve,if there is genuine goodwill.

The world has serious problems of poverty and hunger to resolve and we should not let a few museum directors create problems where there should be none.

Those interested in following the arguments and controversies surrounding the views of Cuno and related issues may wish to consult:






Kwame Opoku. August 08, 2008

Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums

The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged. We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.

Over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or partage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.

The universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artifacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums. Indeed, the sculpture of classical Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent

illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting. The centuries

long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity, was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole

and its enduring value for the contemporary world. Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilizations.

Calls to repatriate objects that have belonged to museum collections for many years have become an important issue for museums. Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation. Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. Each object contributes to that process. To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all


Signed by the Directors of:

The Art Institute of Chicago

Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek,

Neue Pinakothek)

State Museums, Berlin

Cleveland Museum of Art

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Louvre Museum, Paris

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Prado Museum, Madrid

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

# # #