Returning of stolen Nigerian artifacts to spur museum visitation, revenue


June 28, 2018 | 4:27 pm
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Queen Idia ‘s ivory mask

With over 46.5 million annual visitors who pay at least £20 entry and exhibition fees at Top 15 Museums,the United Kingdom rakes millions of pounds from her museums, aside revenue from other commercial activities, grants and donations.

British Museum, which is the most popular tourist attraction in the UK, received 5.7 million visitors last year, while earning £39.7 million revenue and £13.9 million capital grant-in-aid from the government in 2016/17.

However, many Nigerian artifacts, which are locked up in UK museums are among the works visitors pay to visit, while the country of origin is neither mentioned nor receives part of the revenue earned from visitation of the artifacts.

For instance, The Queen Idia, the Benin queen mother ivory mask, which was the logo for FESTAC 77, is among the works that excite visitors at the British Museum, while other bronze works from Benin also woo visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Overtime, the sad development has resulted in several campaigns and calls for the return of many Nigerian artifacts in foreign museums, especially the over 3,000 bronze pieces and other artifacts stolen by the British Colonial administration during the Benin Expedition of 1897.

It is estimated that British soldiers took 3,000-6,000 bronze pieces when they sacked the city of Benin in 1897, and since then the items have been in the custody of museums, individuals and art collectors abroad.

The UK government, and particularly the museums, have often cited lack of maintenance and facilities to warehouse and showcase the artifacts as reasons for the not returning them, while many museums even in the US, claim they acquired some of the artifacts legitimately without prove of legitimacy.

Now that the Nigerian government is looking for other sustainable sources of revenue, there are further calls for the return of these stolen works, prove of legitimate acquisition from collectors and also efforts at building appropriate infrastructure to house the works when they are returned.

In response to the development, UK museums are offering to loan some of the works rather than outright return as demanded by the countries of origin of the works, not just Nigeria.

The loaning offer this month was an outrageous deal that has shocked many who are urging the Nigerian government not to accept anything less than an unconditional return of the works.

But Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo State, where most of plundering happened, wants the works back despite the conditions.

“Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations. In some cases it could be a permanent loan and in some cases it could just be for temporary display. In other cases it could be a return of works,” the governor said.

For now, the loaning is the only option for returning the works by UK museums. In The British Museum Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2017, Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the Trustees, British Museum, said in 2016/17, the British Museum loaned over 2,200 artifacts to 113 venues outside the UK, many of which supported special exhibitions organised by museums around the world.

But the intrigue for Amah Olota, a gallery owner and art promoter, is that in 1977, the Nigerian government offered to pay Britain £2 million to loan the Queen Idia ivory mask for the second pan-African Festival of Black & African Arts & Culture (FESTAC). “If the plea fell on deaf ears then despite the huge offer, why are they offering to loan it now without money. I think there is pressure on them to release the works and it should be returned outrightly and not on loan”, he said.

Bruce Onabrakpeya, a legendary Nigerian artist and professor of visual art, noted that the intension to return the work was good, but the government here should make more efforts at getting back all others works on permanent basis and not on loan and also provide appropriate facilities for both safeguarding and visitations by the public. “You cannot loan what does not belong to you”, he said.

Olumide Alawode, a former staff of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said returning of the works would encourage more public patronage of the arts because such great works are reasons millions visit the US and the UK, which lead the global art market in 2016 by market share with 29.5 percent and 24 percent respectively, while China followed with 18 percent.

But while Nigerians expect the works and their cultural heritage back home from the diaspora museums, the museums to house them should be ready, campaign for local patronage of arts should be intensified, and fears of the works being resold be allayed, most art stakeholders advised.

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June 28, 2018 | 4:27 pm
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

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