Thursday, 24 January 2013

Tips, hope on restitution of looted cultural objects

By Tajudeen Sowole
From all indications, Nigeria's efforts to repossess its looted cultural objects from museums overseas may appear like a wild goose chase, but it is not an entirely hopeless situation, so suggests unfolding development between the parties in the dispute. 

In fact, the Director-General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman has argued that if Nigeria's agitation for return of its stolen and disputed 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.

The D-G's view has therefore restated reasons for the continuing joint exhibitions with some holders of the objects. Apparently, his hope of restitution may have been hinged on the continuous demand for Nigeria's participation in international exhibitions.

Official numerical details of Nigeria’s cultural objects illegally acquired by foreign museums are not exactly known. However, quite a large number of cultural objects of Nigerian origin from colonial to post-independence eras have been stolen and moved out of the country.  

Revisiting restitution of the controversial works during the presentation of some objects just returned from loan for a global show, Usman insisted that the posture of NCMM, which allows for joint shows with international museums, would yield positive results. For example he hinted that before the end of the year, Nigeria is expected to receive some of her stolen works from France.

Last year, eighth works from the NCMM joined other selected pieces across the world for the show titled Bronze, which was held at Royal Academy of Arts, London, U.K., from September 15 to December 9, 2012.  
The Bronze show featured over 5, 000 years of art history across several civilizations from three continents - Asia, Africa and Europe. Nigeria and Egypt represented Africa in the exhibition, which featured 150 works and was curated by Prof David Ekserdjian and Cecilia Treves.

And in assuring critics that every work taken out of Nigeria on loan to foreign museums for joint shows would be done transparently, Usman showed the works to a select audience at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. He stated that aside returning the works in good condition as they were taken out, "the image of our great country Nigeria has received a boost with the just-concluded exhibition." He also assured that "condition reports" carried out on the works after arriving in Lagos was satisfactory "and the adequate security measures were adhered to.”
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  In past collaborative shows, lack of transparency in transporting works outside the country for exhibitions was alleged in such joint outings as the one year European and U.S. tour of Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria as well as the Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Arts in Ancient Nigeria. It would be recalled that works on loan for the two shows were taken out of the country ‘secretly’ without adequately informing Nigerians of the details. The NCMM’s involvement in the Bronze show was a clear departure from the past as the works were presented before and on arrival. 

However, the NCMM would not stop incurring the dissatisfaction of critics over what has been described as ‘static’ process of getting looted Nigerian works returned home.

Observers wonder why some countries are succeeding in retrieving their stolen cultural objects and Nigeria is not.  It has also been noted that the NCMM's collaborative exhibitions was not really achieving any progress in the quest for restitution. Something more drastic or perhaps confrontational should have been applied, critics argued. For example, last year Turkey reviewed its subtle and diplomatic approach after being frustrated over the refusal of foreign museums to return its artefacts.  

Last year, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture had halted an agreement by the country’s museums to loan some artefacts to British Museum for the exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. Turkey’s sudden decision, which forced the British Museum to make a last minute alternative for the exhibition, it was reported, sanctioned holders of the country’s cultural objects. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, were affected by Turkey’s review.

In fact, late last year some Turkish lawyers threatened to take the British Museum to European Court of Human Rights on behalf of the original owners of the two marble statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The sculptures, created by Greek artists in 350 BC were moved from the town of Bodrum in Turkey to the U.K. in the mid 19 century. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

Short of giving details of the anticipated repossession of Nigerian artefacts from France, Usman insisted that diplomacy remained the "best and only option for now and we would change our strategy if it’s not working."

Aside the restitution issue, exhibition such as Bronze should have provided for academic or intellectual exchanges, particularly for better understanding of the provenance of the exhibits. Perhaps in revisiting the provenance at such international forum, illegal holders of similar works in foreign museums would appreciate the need to reunite the incarcerated pieces with their ‘cousins’ at home. Such forum, Usman responded, did not hold ‘formally’, but said interactions about the works among representatives of participating countries were most likely.

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