[ 11. Jun 2007 ]

Benin exhibition in Vienna - The debate continues

benin sculptures

Director of Museum für Völkerkunde Wien rejects again all claims for return of stolen artworks actually exhibited in his museum. - Article from


In an astonishing article in a recent issue of the Austrian weekly, FALTER (NR.22/07, P.6) of 1st June 2007, entitled "Tücke des Objekts", the Director of the Museum fur Völkerkunde, Wien rejects once more any claim for the return of the stolen Benin art works which are in his museum.

In this article, the Professor refers to the interest in the question of restitution of stolen art objects which has been generated by the current exhibition on Benin in the Museum für Vőlkerkunde, Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. The professor declares that a straight forward exposition of a single case for example, Benin bronzes, does not help the understanding of a specific case nor the general issue.

The author refers to the colonial and imperialist expansion overseas and the resulting presence of several artworks in the museums of Western Europe. He cites the example of the "Montezuma’s Crown" which is the State symbol of Mexico. Mexico has been claiming the return from Austria of this crown for years without success. The professor states that the loudest claim comes from a single person who has no legitimate basis and has been playing with the sense of justice of the Indians and the love of the Viennese for the Indians! ("die Indianerliebe der Wiener") The demand was, according to the professor, made by communist emigrants who had returned to Mexico and was also supported by the SPO and the Greens.

The author adds that most of the stolen Benin objects, including those in Vienna were the result of the British punitive expedition of 1897 and mentions the killing of the British delegation. The professor does not explain what the British delegation was doing there. He does not explain that the Oba of Benin had told the British that he was not ready to receive them and that the time they proposed to visit Benin was not appropriate since it was a period in which certain traditional rites were to be performed and therefore not advisable for foreigners to visit his country.

The professor then refers to the restoration of Nazi stolen goods and says that it was the atrocity of the Nazi regime which led to an attempt at restitution "Die Monstrosität der Nazi-Verbrechen hat zum Versuch einer Wiedergutmachung geführt". He then asks whether one is going to correct all injustices of the past: "Can one restore America to the Indians? (Kann man Amerika den Indianern zurückgeben?) Is slavery reversible? (Ist die Sklaverei reversibel?)" The professor ends his exposition with a declaration that we could as well request compensation for the oldest stealing in history "Wiedergutmachung des ältesten Diebstahls der (biblischen) Geschichte".

This article by the Director of the Völkerkunde Museum is remarkable in many aspects.

Contrary to the position of the infamous Declaration on Universal Museums that each claim of restitution should be examined on its own merit, the professor states that it would be unhelpful to examine each case on its own. So you should not examine Benin’s demand in isolation but in a context where you deal with Montezuma’s Crown, the return of America to the Native Americans, compensation for the Nazi stolen goods and the original crime or sin by Adam and Eve. So instead of clear claims, you deal with an incredible amalgam of issues of entirely different qualities and dimensions. Is it legitimate to compare a precise historical fact of modern times, the looting and invasion of Benin by the British in 1897 with a mythological fact of trillions of years, or even before reckoning of time started, the creation of the universe and the world? Must we really deal with Adam and Eve when we ask for the return of the Benin artworks from Vienna?

With this method, you can kill all demands. Do we dare compare the stealing of the Benin bronzes with the alleged crime of Eve in eating an apple and giving some to Adam? (Is gender discrimination at work here? Incidentally, in the version of the myth of Adam and Eve that I know, it was the snake who gave Eve the apple and thus the primary culprit. Moreover, the myth is, as far as I know, usually used to explain the idea of original sin from which we, the sons and daughters of the original sinful couple cannot escape as much as we try. Our lustful/curious progenitors had partaken of the tree of knowledge and as consequence were expelled from Paradise. I have never seen it used to illustrate theft as opposed to sin). Is there not an obligation for intellectuals to clarify issues rather than confuse them? Does any one understand better the issue of the return of the Benin art works after he or she has been taken to the dizzy spheres of creation and the cosmos? What is amazing is the total absence of balance and a sense of proportion in making such comparisons?

Should intellectuals not understand and take into account the feelings of victims of aggression? Is it allowed that a Viennese ethnologist totally ignores the feelings and trauma of victims of aggression and thereby throws overboard the lessons of Sigmund Freud and the Viennese psychologists and psychoanalysts? How can the professor declare that the attempt to restore and compensate for property seized by the Nazis was due to the atrocities of the Fascists? Is he saying that without the atrocities there would have been no call or need for compensation for the property they seized? Is he telling the people of Benin that they should not place any hope in this example of restitution because there had been no atrocities in their case? Was the British invasion not an atrocity enough? The professor knows that the question of legality and legitimacy is not in anyway affected by the fact that the illegal dispossession of a person of his property was or was not accompanied by atrocities. Would the professor care to repeat his statement on the Nazi dispossession to victims or successors to victims of these illegalities?

During the International Symposium at the Hofburg, 9-10 May 2007, I strongly advised the professor that certain arguments should not be made in the presence or to the hearing of the victims of injustice. Apparently, this advice fell on deaf ears. The author declares in his article that in most societies it was not usual to keep old objects which were no longer used whilst in the Western museums and private collections these objects were attributed a value as documentation of foreign culture and as evidence of non-European culture. The implication here is that no values were attached to these objects before the Europeans started collecting them. This corresponds to the idea propounded in the catalogue of the Benin Exhibition and elsewhere that by being kept in the Western museums these objects have gained additional value as aesthetic objects. Such a statement is astounding when addressed to owners who are claiming the return of their property by those illegally keeping them. Besides, this statement is not true as far as Benin is concerned. Some of these art objects are documentary evidence of the history of Benin and as the Benin Royals stated during the International Symposium they are needed as records of their history.

Did anybody, anywhere ever ask for slavery to be reversed? Why does the professor throw in this unfounded demand? To create more confusion? What has slavery to do with the restitution of specific art objects in the museums and elsewhere? If he wants to talk about demands for restitution, why does he not state clearly the case for compensation for slavery and the demand for final removal of the vestiges of slavery and the arguments against such demands? Should intellectuals not contribute to enlightenment even if they do not share certain views?

The demand for the return of the stolen or looted art works will continue for a long time and will not go away. The nature of these works makes it impossible to ignore this question. You can place a Benin bronze anywhere you like and the question will always arise. Where did it come from and what is it for? Ironically, the argument for defending the anachronistic distinction between art from African countries, which is kept in Museums of Ethnology and European art which is kept in Art museums and galleries, is what makes the question of the origin a permanent feature of such collections.

Ethnologists and others have always argued that you cannot appreciate African artworks as purely aesthetic objects, concentrating on the craftsmanship and the elegance of the objects. That they are best understood in their religious and social context. It is this need to know the functions and significance of these objects that will keep alive the question of origin.

There is in the article a certain imprecision which leads to confusion, insinuations and misleading impressions. When the professor states that UNESCO recommendations were not observed, he does not mention that they were not observed by those Western countries holding illegally these art works and creates the impression that the International community does not pay much attention to UNESCO’s efforts.

It seems to me that the author speaks with two tongues. At the opening of the Benin Exhibition and at the International Symposium that followed, he spoke about the need for dialogue and co-operation. In this article in FALTER, this emphasis disappears and a clear line of refusal is discernible. The people of Benin will no doubt take note of this.

What is required in the question of restitution is a certain minimum sense of justice on the part of those in illegal possession of these art objects and a willingness to arrive at a reasonable solution which will enable the victims of imperialist aggression to continue with their history and traditions whilst permitting those fascinated by their culture to admire and study these works. The selfishness and obstinacy of the Western holders of these objects surpass all reasonable limits.

Kwame Opoku, Vienna. 6 June, 2007.

Der Artikel wurde zuerst auf am 9. Juni 2007 veröffentlicht.