Recently, I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see a brass plaque that was made in what is now Nigeria some four hundred years ago. It depicts an Oba, or king, of the Kingdom of Benin, founded a thousand years ago. The king is on horseback, facing us, surrounded by attendants. The figures are arranged symmetrically, but on top of this symmetrical foundation, asymmetrical details of costume and accoutrement dance and rhyme. Each figure floats in space, as if they are levitating. At the same time, the figures seem to be caught at a moment of becoming, erupting from the flat plane of the flat, patterned background, as if they are jumping out of the past and into the time and space of the beholder. The effect is mesmerizing and unsettling, like that of any masterpiece. I am confronted with eight sets of unblinking eyes. What, I wonder, have these eyes seen? And what, I ask myself, do they demand of me?

Plaque: Equestrian Oba and Attendants. 1550-1680. Nigeria, Court of Benin. Brass. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965. Met Accession no. 1978.412.309. Currently on view in Gallery 352.

This plaque is one of hundreds of others that collectively record the history and events of the Edo people. These plaques were fastened to the wooden interiors of the palaces located in Benin City, the capitol of the kingdom, a cosmopolitan center which had prospered through trade with Europeans, mainly Portuguese, from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century. The Europeans bought ivory, pepper, and palm oil with guns and manillas, horseshoe shaped bronze or copper bracelets that functioned as money in West Africa throughout the colonial period and up until the 1940s. These manillas were melted down by members of the Edo metalworking guild, and cast into magnificent plaques and sculptures.

The Met’s audioguide invites me to imagine hundreds these plaques, covering the interior of a palace, “glowing in an intense, rich, reddish tone.” I try to do so, but I see something else altogether, because I now know their true history, a history The Met can’t bring itself to tell us.

There is no explanatory text, no contextualizing information that might explain how this plaque came to be here. In fact, the only text that accompanies this object implies that it, along with hundreds of other plaques, moldered in some tribal archive until some unmentioned force transported it to The Met, so that it might be saved from oblivion, properly cared for, and displayed for the enlightenment and pleasure of all, forever.

The curatorial information accompanying the Benin plaques in Gallery 352 of The Met. There is no mention of the Punitive Expedition, and the assertion that these plaques were “placed in storage” is a fiction contradicted by the accounts of the British raiders themselves.

The unmentioned force that transported this object, along with countless others now on display in our great museums, is, of course, murder and theft on the grandest scale. These plaques, along with ivory, sculptures, and anything else of value in Benin City, were carried off by the British military during an infamous episode of colonial history known as the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. This plaque was looted in a military operation meant to destroy the culture that made it.

By the late nineteenth century, as the colonial powers of Europe were scrambling for control of Africa, the British set their sights on the Kingdom of Benin. They wanted control of the trade, the land and the people. The market for rubber, a necessary commodity of the industrial West, exploded in the 1890s because of the popularity of the modern bicycle, and its rubber pneumatic tires. The Victorian “bicycle craze” drove a colonial rubber trade in Africa now infamous for its brutality, forced labor, and gruesome atrocities. The British thought the Edo lands would be perfect for rubber production, and the Edo people a perfectly subduable work force. A one-sided treaty was drawn up in 1892, and allegedly signed by the Oba, handing the Edo territory over to Queen Victoria. This colonialist “diplomacy” proved to be ineffective, the Edo simply ignored the treaty’s terms. By 1897, British patience had worn thin. In early January, 1897, a small group of Englishmen, accompanied by an armed force of 250 Africans, was sent to either to talk some sense into the king, or provoke him into shooting first. He did, and seven British men were killed.

When this news reached England, the nation was outraged. The survivors of what was named the “Benin Massacre” told stories of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and capricious public executions that painted the Edo people as savage and bloodthirsty, led by a tyrannical monster. The British would justify their reaction as a humanitarian obligation, not simple revenge. The British would free the Edo people from their despotic king, and bring them the gift of civilization.

More importantly, the Kingdom of Benin was an obstacle to British desires of territorial and trade expansion. One way or another, the king needed to be removed, and his territory put to good, colonial use.

By early February, 1897, the British raised a force of 1,200 soldiers and armed them with the latest in military hardware. Captain Norman Burrows, District Commissioner of the Niger River Protectorate Force, was assigned to command one of 14 Maxims, a perfected machine gun capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.

The British set out for Benin City, traveling upriver until their boats grounded. After that, they hacked their way through dense jungle, fighting Edo soldiers and burning villages along the way. They reached Benin City on the 18th, and the looting began. They took everything they could lay their hands on. One officer describes his colleague “wandering round with a chisel and hammer, knocking off brass figures and collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot.”1Otzen, Ellen. The Man Who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Art. BBC News Magazine, 26 February, 2015. Online. Retrieved 24 January, 2017. Over 2000 major art objects were collected, and as historian Robert Home writes, “as booty in one of the main compounds, and the members of the expedition were photographed amongst them, apparently bemused by the bizarre association of fine art with barbarity.”2Home, Robert. City of Blood Revisited: A new look at the Benin expedition of 1897. Collings: London. 1982. 88. The looting was so complete that today, any art from Benin that cannot be traced to this event is assumed to be a modern copy.3Reiderer, Josef. “The Composition of Brass Object from Benin” in Original-Copy-Fake: Examining the Authenticity of Ancient Works of Art Focusing on African and Asian Bronzes and Terracottas. Collected papers presented at an international symposium at Rhur-University, Bochum, Feb. 17-18th, 2007. Mainz: Philippe von Zaben. 148.

Benin Expedition 1897. Group of six European men sitting surrounded by Benin objects. British Museum. Af,A79.13.

On February 21st, as the city was being systematically dynamited, an uncontrollable fire broke out. The wounded soldiers and the gunpowder were saved, as well as some of the loot, but just about everything else was lost, and the entire city was in ruins. What could be salvaged was packed up and sent to London to be auctioned off, and the cultural patrimony of the Edo people ended up scattered in museums across Europe.

Interior of King’s compound burnt during fire in the siege of Benin City, with three British officers of the Punitive Expedition [from left, Captain C.H.P. Carter 42nd, F.P. Hill, unknown], seated with bronzes laid out in foreground. Photographer: Reginald Kerr Granville. 1897.
Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1998.208.15.11

Captain Burrows, the machine-gunner, survived the expedition. Like some of the other officers, he was rewarded for his participation in the destruction of Benin City with a portion of the spoils. After the expedition, he returned home on leave with his Benin “curios.” In May, 1898, Captain Burrows sold what would become The Met’s plaque to noted ethnographic collector Augustus Pitt-Rivers for £25. Pitt-Rivers displayed it in his private museum in Dorset, England, where it remained until the museum was permanently closed in 1957. It then passed through several dealers hands until it was purchased by Nelson Rockefeller, who lent it to The Met in 1965. It entered The Met’s permanent collection in 1978.

Six European men and three African men standing in front of compound walls [in Benin]. (Captain Burrows is third from the left.) Photographer: Reginald Kerr Granville(?). 1897.
Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1998.335.3

Photograph of Captain Burrows at his home, Mellor Hall in Derbyshire. 1897-98?
From the plates section of Robert Home’s City of Blood Revisited. London: Rex Collins. 1982.

Look at the plaque again. The ragged, broken edges provide material proof of some anonymous soldier wrenching the plaque from its proper place. Its scorched surface testifies to Benin City’s final fiery destruction. As the audio guide invites me to, I imagine this object glowing – but glowing red in that fire.  This beautiful object, wrought so finely that the British raiders could not believe it was made by African hands, bears the scars of colonial madness. There is no mention of this history in The Met’s grand galleries. This object, and those eyes, demand something more than The Met is willing to provide: an account that approaches the truth, a history that does not reinscribe colonialist fiction.

The history of this object is no secret. Specialists are well aware of this brutal story, including those employed by The Met. It is a simple but difficult fact that the great collections of the great encyclopedic museums of the Western world would not exist without the insatiable lust for depredation that defines the colonial era. The “encyclopedic museum,” at its very core, is a monument to centuries of cultural theft on a global scale. Until recently, this was just the way things were, the museum was the benevolent arm of the colonial beast. It would collect and care for these precious stolen objects, let us look, but not too closely — as long as we express our wonder and gratitude, and don’t ask too many embarrassing questions.

Times have changed. “The Museum” has been under quiet academic critique for years and Western museums have finally begun to respond to these criticisms. In 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, received a major gift, 34 objects from Benin from Robert Owen Lehman, an heir to the family of prominent financiers. A dedicated gallery was built to display this gift, and the curators chose to contextualize the work with a description of their actual history. A full provenance — the all-important description of the descent of an art object from its creation to the present day, a list of hands through which the object has passed, a pedigree that carries with it institutional approval, and therefore institutional imprimatur, and from which not only cultural and social value is created, but monetary value as well — is provided for each piece, and each one dutifully includes the looting in 1897.4Two of the Benin objects at the MFA came from Captain Burrows’ share of the spoils. Link here and here.

The ethical dilemma these objects present is gently raised in a dry passage of museum-speak that can be found on the MFA website:

Today, the ethics of collecting and displaying works removed from their places of origin during periods of European colonialism is a subject of debate among museums, local and national governments, collectors, and the public. By exhibiting Benin bronzes at the MFA, we hope to spark conversation about past conflicts and their legacies in a global world, while offering visitors the opportunity to experience these magnificent works of art in a public collection where they can be seen by all.

–unattributed curatorial statement regarding the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of Western African Art ash the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The MFA has taken these steps toward transparency and yet it is difficult to applaud what amounts to a strained reach to meet a basic institutional obligation. Museums should tell the truth, not lie by omission. There is so much more that could be done. For example, the museum could not only “hope to spark discussion,” but actively promote, encourage and inform this discussion — and the public — about the museum’s role in global colonial history. The museum could reconsider the self-serving assertion that they have provided this collection of African art “to be seen by all,” when the descendants of the makers of these masterpieces, who may now reside in Nigeria, would have to obtain a visa, purchase airfare, travel for  24 to 30 hours, get on the Blue Line into town, find a hotel room, and then pay the $25 admission charge before they would be able to do so.

The stolen art could travel back to Africa. American museums could join the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of major cultural institutions such as the British Museum, museums at Oxford and Cambridge, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, among others. Formed in 2007, this group has been raising funds, creating goodwill, and negotiating with the Nigerian government to organize a series of ongoing loans that would bring some of these masterworks, at least temporarily, back to today’s Benin City and its residents. In this effort, American institutions are notable in their absence.

Museums could give the looted art back. Students at Jesus College in Cambridge have recently demanded just that for a brass cockerel from Benin that has been sitting on a shelf in a dining hall at the college for nearly nine decades. In 1930, a British Army captain named George Willan Neville, a participant in the Punitive Expedition, bequeathed to the college a sculpture of a cockerel he took from the spoils back in 1897. In 2016, students became aware of the statue’s true provenance and demanded its immediate return to Benin City. The college promptly removed the statue and as years pass, officials are still trying to decide what to do with it. Or they may be waiting for the outrage to subside, the students to graduate and move on, and for everyone to forget about this piece of Edo patrimony that now lies hidden away.

A brass cockerel from Benin watches over the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge. Photo credit: http://brunoclaessens.com

Encyclopedic museums are granted a special place in our Western world. They are revered institutions, drawing visitors by the millions. The museums of the world form a world of their own, and within that, the Met is granted an even greater status — it sits at, or very close to, this world’s zenith. But in order to achieve this position, The Met had to become a leader in the rapacious and shady markets for the prizes of colonial history. The Met, then, becomes a major force in the creation of a colonialist art history that, at the same time, it takes pains to erase, to cleanse, to whitewash. This contradiction has been present since The Met’s creation.

The Met’s first director was a colorful character named Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian expatriate who became, after many adventures, the United States’ Consul to Cyprus in the years after the Civil War. Seeing a financial opportunity in the flourishing market for antiquities, he, with a small army of workers, began digging. In all, he unearthed some sixty thousand graves, amassed a collection of some 35,000 objects, and got (almost) everything off the island before the Turkish authorities caught wind of what he was doing. He offered his collection to the museums of Europe, but found no takers. The fledgling Met, seeking a way to announce its new presence on the world stage, bought the collection for $50,000 and in 1879, gave Cesnola the position of Director, a position he kept until his death in 1904. The Met still celebrates the collection, noting that it put the museum on “par with the foremost museums in Europe,” and that it remains “by far the most important and comprehensive collection of Cypriot material in the Western Hemisphere.”5https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cesn/hd_cesn.htm What remains of Cesnola’s collection are now displayed with updated wall labels that highlight the doubt surrounding details such as where each object was found.6Much of the Cesnola Collection has been sold off over the years because Cesnola’s dubious and imaginative restorations do not, and never did, comply with basic archeological practices. For example, Cesnola would construct “restored” sculptures out of broken, unrelated fragments, or remove all traces of paint from an object, or create fanciful stories of an object’s discovery or location. Cesnola’s lack of archeological rigor made many of his finds almost useless to later scholars. This infinitesimal step toward “understated candor” was praised by scholars as a first step toward honesty and transparency at The Met.

There is another point of view that one will not find on The Met’s wall labels. There are art historians, politicians, and citizens in Cyprus who see Cesnola’s grave-robbing as a cultural theft on par with Elgin Marbles. The Cypriots know, however, that repatriation of these objects is a lost cause. The unsurmountable argument is circular. Cyprus has no legal recourse because Cesnola, as with the British in the case of the Elgin Marbles or the Punitive Expedition, broke no colonial laws as they “amassed,” “collected,” or “acquired” the patrimony of their colonial victims. The thievery cannot be prosecuted or corrected because the thieves themselves wrote the laws. The beneficiaries of these thefts — the museums that hold the objects — still write the history of these objects, and it is only recently that some of these art histories at some museums include the embarrassing, shameful, and unbearable chapters.

In 2008, the New York Times published a column by Sharon Waxman, an investigative journalist who had just written a book on stolen antiquities. In the column, Ms. Waxman tells the true story of another stolen object, the magnificent marble column that graces the entrance to The Met’s Greek and Roman galleries.

Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. 300 BC. Currently on view at The Met in Gallery 160.

This column was excavated by American archeologists during a bitter war between the Greeks and Turks that broke out in the wake of World War I and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Millions died in war atrocities perpetrated by all sides in what is called by Turks the “War of Turkish Independence,” and by the Greeks as the “Asia Minor Catastrophe.” This column, with many other antique treasures, found its way to the port of what is now Izmir, Turkey. In the midst of the conflict, the city was left without a government, and the Americans took the lack of state supervision as an opportunity to ship their finds to The Met. The arrival of this trove was front page news in New York, where it was hailed as a “Treasure Greatest Ever Taken from Asia Minor.”7The New York Times. Friday, March 2, 1923. p.1. When the dust settled, and Turkish officials demanded the repatriation of the antiquities, The Met decided to fight to keep them, causing an international incident, that was eventually settled. The Turkish government gave up the column in exchange for the return of 53 cases of antiquities, that had also, as Ms. Waxman writes, been “stolen from Sardis.”8Waxman, Sharon. “How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?”. Dec. 1, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/opinion/01waxman.html

Ms. Waxman wrote this column after The Met had announced the successor to Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Met, who was retiring after thirty years in that position. She urged that successor, Thomas Campbell, to change the institution’s culture, to become more transparent and truthful, to stop the institutional lies of omission. She writes, “Such omissions are shameful for an institution dedicated to preserving history. […] By publicly acknowledging the controversial or otherwise dubious histories of some artifacts and by making the recent past as much a part of the artifacts’ stories as the ancient past, Mr. Campbell can set an example for all museums and build new bridges of respect and cooperation.”9Waxman.

Ms. Waxman’s argument fell, apparently, on deaf ears. But The Met finds itself in another interregnum moment. Max Hollein, the new director recently began his job, and with new leadership there is new hope that The Met might, finally, address its congenital, institutional, and ethical blindness. By hiding the true histories of its objects from the public, encyclopedic museums, such as The Met, still engage in a tacit complicity with colonialism. At some point, this will have to change, and it is changing, elsewhere, slowly. Museums around the world are coming to terms with their own histories. The Met could be a leader in this effort, but now stands as a most prominent example of institutional obstinance. How long should it take for The Met to catch up with history? To catch up with its history?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Otzen, Ellen. The Man Who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Art. BBC News Magazine, 26 February, 2015. Online. Retrieved 24 January, 2017.
2. Home, Robert. City of Blood Revisited: A new look at the Benin expedition of 1897. Collings: London. 1982. 88.
3. Reiderer, Josef. “The Composition of Brass Object from Benin” in Original-Copy-Fake: Examining the Authenticity of Ancient Works of Art Focusing on African and Asian Bronzes and Terracottas. Collected papers presented at an international symposium at Rhur-University, Bochum, Feb. 17-18th, 2007. Mainz: Philippe von Zaben. 148.
4. Two of the Benin objects at the MFA came from Captain Burrows’ share of the spoils. Link here and here.
5. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cesn/hd_cesn.htm
6. Much of the Cesnola Collection has been sold off over the years because Cesnola’s dubious and imaginative restorations do not, and never did, comply with basic archeological practices. For example, Cesnola would construct “restored” sculptures out of broken, unrelated fragments, or remove all traces of paint from an object, or create fanciful stories of an object’s discovery or location. Cesnola’s lack of archeological rigor made many of his finds almost useless to later scholars.
7. The New York Times. Friday, March 2, 1923. p.1.
8. Waxman, Sharon. “How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?”. Dec. 1, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/opinion/01waxman.html
9. Waxman.