A month ago, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland committed to repatriating to Nigeria its lone Benin Bronze, becoming the first Western institution to return any of the thousands of bronze sculptures looted from the Kingdom of Benin (part of present-day Nigeria) in 1897. This week, the government of Germany became the second, promising to return to Nigeria in 2022 all Benin Bronzes held by state-run museums. The Ethnological Museum in Berlin alone holds over 500 Bronzes.
The 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition stands as a monument to the greed and destruction of colonialism. At the behest of corporate interests looking to get ahold of new resources, James Phillips, the new Acting Consul General for the Royal Niger Company set out to overthrow the Oba, or King, of Benin. The Oba didn’t want to trade with the Brits, and forbade his people from doing so on punishment of death. Warned of Phillips and his party approaching, the Oba set an ambush. Only two of Phillips’s party escaped with their lives. Phillips wasn’t one of them.
To avenge their deaths, the British army sent a punitive expedition that razed Benin City and stole thousands of bronze sculptures from the kingdom. The sculptures have since been scattered throughout the world. Until now.
The Bronzes themselves became symbols of the argument, within the world of antiques and cultural heritage, about the ill-gotten gains of colonialism, and how best to protect the works of art involved, so that people can enjoy and learn from them. Some today argue Western museums can better protect the Bronzes, and that the Nigerian climate might damage the works. The harmattan is real, people.
And while the West might once have been able to claim that it better protected cultural works than less-developed countries, and might once have been able to claim it could better display cultural works, unfortunately, those claims are increasingly dubious.
Of course, Western museums are preeminent in the technology necessary to best protect works. And though there’s little danger of a disaster like the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas occurring anytime soon — our rioters prefer to loot sneaker stores rather than museums — the West has its own problems with cultural destruction.
“Song of the South” is an Academy Award-winning live action/animated hybrid musical produced by Walt Disney, based on the Uncle Remus stories and released in 1946. But because its racial imagery is controversial, with a too-sunny depiction of blacks in the American South during the Reconstruction era, the studio has withheld release of its film on home video and has not made it available for streaming on Disney+.
Disney actually found one of its films it refuses to convert into merchandise.
In the U.S., corporations withhold our cultural heritage for political reasons. That’s its own kind of cultural destruction.
The problem is, political winds change. Who’s to say only the wrong racial politics will be forbidden? Why stop there? Mao didn’t.
I might rather take my chances with the harmattan.