By Jonah SiegelAugust 10, 2023
It is inconceivable, of course, that the Queen’s collection, which has now passed to Charles III, should be expropriated by the British state and removed from royal control, perhaps placed in the National Gallery to be seen at no cost in a central location, or in the British Museum, or even in an excellent museum in Paris, if we decide they order these things better in France. It is inconceivable, sure. But no less is it to be regretted that these works, which are at this point not objects of personal delectation and enjoyment (neither acquired by the Queen herself nor her son, nor viewed by her or any member of her family on a regular basis), should be so hard for the rest of the world to see.
What would happen to the ideas of property by which we live were the Queen’s things to be taken? What would happen if they were taken simply because it would make whatever good the experience of those things does for people more accessible to more of the world? But of course, this is a silly, even criminal, thought experiment … Except that it was more than a thought when the experiment was tried at the founding of the Louvre.
The Louvre was, by many standards, the first modern museum. Still, the notions of the good we live by these days tend in quite the opposite direction to the ones I have been briefly entertaining here. We know the Queen’s collection is safe, because the rights of personal property are so much clearer in our minds than any concept of the common good that might involve expropriation, and much clearer than the benefits of the museum more broadly understood. Still, in debates over cultural property and restitution, the support of individual property rights ought to be recognized as a relatively novel development that separates the modern Left from its past values. I won’t embarrass my readers or myself by stopping to point out that the word communism puts the alienation of private property at the center of that movement’s political philosophy, nor that the idea that property is theft is a tenet of anarchism that hearkens back to the very roots of progressive thought. It may be easier to just say that the concept of cultural property itself seems to work against the notion of individual ownership, given that the adjective identifies a thing the ownership of which matters to a whole set of people, to a culture.
In the notorious case of the works looted from Benin in the course of a particularly brutal episode of imperial plundering, we have seen a remarkably complicated play between individual or family restitution and national restitution. And that topic has been in the news recently, as it appears that the outgoing leader of the country of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, has declared that the royal family of Benin shall take possession of the objects that European museums are planning to send that nation, thinking that possession of these objects by anyone else is illegitimate, and that an act we like to call return will go some way towards righting the wrong by which these objects were removed from their original location. The president’s plan, which has been widely reported, is of course the most perfect manifestation of the concept of restitution, in the sense that it returns objects to members of the very family to which they had once belonged. And yet, the decision has raised alarm, as has the nature of the royal claim. Arguments are being advanced in the European press, and have begun to be reported here, about the unsavory history of that royal family. It is not hard to make out the specter of a condescending postcolonial fear of the actions of capricious despots in the Global South that has been evoked by the uncertainty into which the fate of these significant objects has been placed. It is possible, however, that what may trouble proponents of restitution in this case is the way that Buhari’s planned action overbalances a question that is typically finessed.
When one reads about processes of restitution, one half of the topic is quite often left a little vague (when it is not angrily rebuffed: what right does the thief have to comment on where his ill-gotten goods end up when he returns them!). In the case of Benin, somehow those works might be thought of as being restored to a family (a royal family), to a people, and to a state—though a state that did not exist when the works were stolen, and though the nation to which we tell ourselves those objects belonged saw them even less frequently than the majority of British people see the Canalettos at Hampton Court.
The challenging nature of a return in which the specific recipient is unclear is generally fudged in the usual way culture does these things, by hiding the problem in plain sight. For example, at a meeting at Jesus College, Cambridge, a few years ago, during which a bronze cockerel was, as it is said, restored to the nation from which it was stolen, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, was in attendance, as was His Royal Highness Prince Aghatise Erediauwa. The 2019 determination of the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party was cited at the event: the cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin.”
How are we to gloss that claim and relate it to the political and institutional conditions assumed in all the substantives in the title “Director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments”? What is the link between such modern concepts as “museums” and “monuments”—or even the bureaucratic title of “director,” the modern concept of “nation,” and of Nigeria itself—and the older concept of a “court” and the inherited privilege of a monarch? “Belongs” in the phrase I have cited is not meant to identify property rights but something far less transferable. It is not akin to a phrase such as “this book belongs to me because I bought it,” so much as to “the child belongs with her mother,” and so, it is not about property in a limited sense. Indeed, the report of the Legacy of Slavery Working Party at Jesus College calls the piece a “royal ancestral heirloom,” a term with acquisition through right of birth written into it (no heirlooms without heirs, after all). Nevertheless, the wide range of stakeholders invited to restitution ceremonies is an indication of the unresolved nature of what we call restitution.
Language can only go so far in its descriptions of complex events, but there is something striking about the use of a particularly simple term to describe these complicated occasions: “the handover.” For example, journalists write of the moment when the University of Aberdeen “handed over a Benin Bronze to Nigeria after over 100 years since it was looted by British forces.” It strikes me that “handover” is in fact a tendentiously straightforward turn of phrase in this context, suggesting both ease (all it requires is an action of your hands to return this thing) and changed volition (what is being asked for or done is a manifestation of nothing more elaborate than an altered disposition, a willingness to no longer retain). It is a simple act, the transfer of a thing from the hand of someone who realizes the need to surrender an object, to the hand ready to receive it. And yet, the events at which handovers occur typically include long lists of names, too many hands. The hands that received what was handed over in Aberdeen belong to people included in the following awkward pair of sentences:
The handover ceremony took place on Thursday in Scotland with Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the younger brother of the current Benin monarch; Chief Charles Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, the Obasuyi of Benin; Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments; Babatunde Adebiyi, the Legal Adviser of National Commission for Museums and Monuments; and Abdul Mohammed Gimba, Director, Museums, National Commission for Museums and Monuments present to receive the artefact.
They were also accompanied by Prince Isa Bayero, a Prince of the Kano Emirates; His Excellency, Suleiman Sani, Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria in UK; and Mrs Edith Ekunke, Retired Director of the National Museum, Lagos.”
As we see all the hands reaching for the statuette at Jesus College, in a widely distributed image, we may think they amount to a great deal of support, or we may be moved to reflect on the baby whose mother Solomon was called upon to identify. As I gathered the illustrations for a presentation on restitution I was working on a while back, I was more saddened by the speed than shocked by the fact that the same photograph of hands laid on the object that had illustrated the handover in Cambridge had been repurposed to tell what appears to be a different tale, one in which the interests of the entities those hands represent are recognized to differ widely.
The turn the story took could only be unexpected if one ignores most of what one knows about politics, bureaucracy, and the nature of property. More interesting for my purposes than this reminder of such obvious things is the way we may take the illustration as a twinned object lesson: first, in how little objects—including photographs—speak for themselves, and second, in how unlikely it is that restitution will ever amount to a simple act of return that settles the destiny of an object. In a great many cases, the handover is a gesture that says more about how little we want to think about property and what we own and what we owe each other, and possibly even what we owe the things that have come to us as property, than it says about what we do value. Or, to put it another way, the gesture suggests that we have decided that we want to stop thinking, stop taking care, that we want to divest ourselves of the emblems of a past that we have convinced ourselves it is easier to condemn than to fully face up to.
The story of what we call the return of the bronze cockerel is ultimately strikingly limited in its implications. After generations of undergraduates had walked by the piece for decades, with no response that has left its mark on the history of its possession, one of them translated the Latin inscription that accompanied it and realized it was war booty (not that the language would have been a barrier to comprehension to most students and faculty who walked by the piece in an earlier era). A committee was put together and decided with unimpeachable moral certainty that continued possession of the object would be an ethical failure. And so, the need emerged to hand the thing over. What hands were to receive the piece was, as the photograph indicates, both obvious and not so clear. A beautiful ceremony was invented, distinguished guests brought to the college, and the object that had been neglected for nearly a century since its theft got to shine as an emblem of correct action for that one moment of ethical apotheosis.
Hands reaching for a treasure may be motivated by a greedy desire to possess, or their goal may be to protect and hold safe. Hands that surrender a thing may be driven to do so by a variety of motivations. We know who was the first to let go when Solomon was brought in to adjudicate a tricky question of possession, but washing one’s hands of something is hardly the act of someone who cares; it can be the ultimate manifestation of performative indifference on the part of an imperial agent. For all its extraordinarily moving nature—and the video of the event at Jesus College is truly lovely—the handover is an action typical of the impoverished cultural politics of our day: it constrains moral action to a very narrow range; it limits moral reflection to the imagined correction of the errors of others in the past; and it neglects, or hides in its glorious apparent clarity, some of the more painful continuities between a brutal history and a troubling present. For what it’s worth—and I am really not sure it is worth much to anyone at this point, so I mention it more as a historical curiosity than in a polemical vein—it amounts to a celebration of an utter reversal of the projects of the Left in the past, given that it endorses in absolute and unreflected-upon terms property rights, national borders, and—as in the case of Benin—the rights of kings.
Jonah Siegel is the author, most recently, of Overlooking Damage: Art, Display, and Loss in Times of Crisis (2022). His essay “Killmonger in the Museum: Fantasy, History, Restitution” is forthcoming in Raritan this month.
Featured image: Edo peoples. Plaque: Equestrian Oba and Attendants, 1550–1680. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965. Photo: The Met. metmuseum.org, Public Domain, cropped. Accessed August 8, 2023.
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