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Keeping Their Marbles: Should Our Museums Keep Their Stolen Artifacts?

Picture of Hazel Rowland
Updated: 18 October 2016
With collections unrivaled in size, diversity and prestige, it’s hardly surprising that the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan in New York and the Louvre in Paris are amongst the most visited museums in the world. The legitimacy of these collections has been challenged in recent times, however, with Greece demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles – hallmarks of the British Museum’s collection – being the most notorious case. For the writer and academic Tiffany Jenkins, the repatriation of cultural artifacts is not necessarily the right course of action. In her new book, Keeping Their Marbles: how the treasures of the past ended up in museums – and why they should stay there, she argues that sending back artifacts is not the solution to repairing wounds of the past.

Although Jenkins describes herself as a ‘repatriation skeptic’, Keeping Their Marbles nevertheless gives a balanced history of how museums acquired their artifacts. Indeed, she does not shy away from the dubious methods that many of today’s greatest museums originally procured their fabulous collections, as the following extract shows:

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In February 1897, regalia that included ivories and wood and brass sculptures were seized from the palace of Benin (now Nigeria), during an imperial rampage by the British in West Africa.

The city of Benin had been the head of a medieval African kingdom, founded in the tenth century. It was one of the earliest and longest-lasting participants in the European slave trade, and flourished with money from that – Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain all purchased large slave cargos here (Portugal being the first, arriving in 1472). In the sixteenth century, the Oba – the king of Benin – commissioned the Bronze Casters Guild (Igun Eronmwon) to make casts of significant events in the kingdom. These became the Benin Bronzes. Despite their names, they are made from brass, copper, and ivory. They skillfully depict life in the kingdom, aspects of life the king wanted to glorify: hunting, relations between people, animals, the army, battles, and court life – as well as himself.

The rise of Britain as an imperial power caused the downfall of Benin. After the abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century, British attention on the West African coast turned to supplying trade goods in return for raw materials. A land-grab of Africa followed, with the carve-up of the country into spheres of influence by the European powers. At the end of the nineteenth century the British Empire spanned a quarter of the world, including an established presence along the coast of present-day Nigeria, with certain areas administered directly from Whitehall and others under trading company control. As the British Empire grew, trading conditions set by Benin became less acceptable and a power tussle ensued. Benin refused the conditions of trade and taxation set by the British, who retaliated by demanding that Benin be taken by force and the treasures of the kingdom sold to pay for the expenses accrued. The king was obstructive, causing trouble. He had to go, as Lieutenant James Robert Phillips, acting consul, reasoned:

I am certain that there is only one remedy. That is to depose the King of Benin . . . I am convinced that pacific measures are now quite useless, and that the time has now come to remove the obstruction . . . I do not anticipate any serious resistance from the people of the country—there is every reason to believe that they would be glad to get rid of their King— but in order to obviate any danger, I wish to take up sufficient armed force . . . I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred.

The British mission met resistance; they were ambushed. But the attack gave them an excuse for war and they raised a punitive expedition to sack the city. Within six weeks the city of Benin fell, largely destroyed after much of it had been set alight and burnt to the ground. The Oba was exiled and the Benin Kingdom was incorporated into the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

Felix Roth was a medical officer with the expedition. He described the dramatic sight of the sculptures as they entered the king’s compound:

on a raised platform or altar, running the whole breadth of each, beautiful idols were found. All of them were caked over with human blood, and by giving them a slight tap, crusts of blood would, as it were, fly off. Lying about were big bronze heads, dozens in a row, with holes at the top, in which immense ivory tusks were fixed. One can form no idea of the impression it made on us. The whole place reeked of blood.

Outside, ‘all about the houses and streets are dead natives, some crucified and sacrificed on streets.’ It was a gruesome scene. Roth reflected: ‘I suppose there is not another place on the face of the globe so near civilization where such butcheries are carried on with impunity.’

The Illustrated London News recorded the destruction: ‘Benin is indeed a city of blood, each compound having its pit full of dead and dying; human sacrifices were strewn about on every hand, hardly a thing was without a red stain.’ The Times newspaper reported the battle as concluding positively: ‘No-one was injured,’ the paper stated, referring, of course, to the British army. The king was later captured, put on trial, and sent into exile.

Anthropologist and museum curator Henry Roth, brother to Felix, agreed with the general assessment that the war was justified. In Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors, published shortly afterwards in 1903, he wrote:

while we cannot avoid feelings of regret that an interesting old town and its old-world institutions should have been destroyed, the horrors which met the Punitive Expedition, when it entered the sacred precincts, showed that the little war we waged was justification beyond all expectation.

The collection of sculptures and plaques were gathered up by the British troops and given to the Foreign Office. As Phillips had suggested, they were auctioned by the Admiralty to help bear the expenses of the expedition.

The bronzes and plaques were sold off in London salesrooms and, later, in America. The Ethnological Museum in Berlin bought a great many, today holding what is considered to be the most comprehensive and finest collection of Benin art in the world. Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford holds about 100 artifacts from Benin – about a third taken by the chief of staff of the British Expedition, Captain George LeClerc Egerton, before his family loaned them to the museum via the Dumas Egerton Trust. Sculptures and plaques also went to the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, the Horniman Museum in London, the Stuttgart Museum in Germany, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum. The Seattle Art Museum also bought bronzes, and you can also see examples in the Chicago Art Institute and the National Museum of Scotland. There is a superb collection in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, donated by the collector Robert Owen Lehman. Only a handful remain in Nigeria. Two artifacts were returned to the Oba Erediauwa, the head of the traditional state of Benin, Nigeria, in 2014, by Mark Walker, the great-grandson of Captain Walker Philip – a principal figure in the British expedition in Benin.

When the sculptures first arrived in Europe, with time, they transformed the way people saw Africa. Europeans were surprised that Africans – a people whom they assumed to be backward – could make such refined artwork, as indicated by Charles Hercules Read, a curator from the British Museum, who secured the collection for the museum:

It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.

It was a revelation to the Europeans that craftsmanship of this quality had been achieved in sixteenth-century Africa. In turn, European artists including Picasso emulated images found in Benin art. When artifacts move to new locations, they have an influence beyond, and sometimes contrary to, that which is intended or expected.


Extracted from Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures ended up in museums – and why they should stay there, published by Oxford University Press.