Western museums need to return stolen artifacts to 'get on the right side of history,' says art historian

Written by
Padraig Moran, CBC
Nov. 11, 2021

Returning artifacts to Benin, West Africa helps a dehumanized society heal: Chika Okeke-Agulu

After France returned 26 cultural artifacts to the West African nation of Benin this week, one art historian says institutions still holding on to colonial loot need to "get the memo" and return cultural treasures to their homelands.


"They cannot play the ostrich, they have to face up [to] the reality and be on the right side of history," said Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian art historian and African art professor at Princeton University.

The 26 items, including statues and a royal throne, were stolen by French forces in 1892, from the Kingdom of Dahomey in what is now the south of present-day Benin. The country's president Patrice Talon met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris Tuesday to mark the repatriation.

Experts estimate that thousands of African artworks and artifacts are still resting in museums and vaults far from their homelands — and there are growing calls for them to be returned. Germany has agreed to return hundreds of plaques and sculptures, known as the Benin bronzes, to Nigeria. 

WATCH | George the Poet performs a spoken-word piece about a Benin bronze

Okeke-Agulu spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about those calls, and why the return is so important. Here is part of their conversation.

The president of Benin described this as the return of "our soul." ... Give us a sense beyond that of the significance of these 26 items. 

These are some of the most important cultural heritage of the Benin people, that is the former Kingdom of Dahomey.

These objects, although they are physical objects, embody everything that that society imagined itself to be. Both in terms of its relation to the past, and the futures that it imagined for itself, of course, until the arrival of the European imperial machinery. 

Tell me more about that because again, there's the physical item, but beyond that, what do the items represent?

I think one way to gauge what these represent for the people is the incredible social and cultural enthusiasm among vast segments of the population in Benin today. [And] when they heard the news of the return, across the border ... in Nigeria, the same amazing flow of joy. And in some ways, gratitude for the return of these objects, because it's one way for a people who have been dehumanized for so long to begin to repair themselves. These societies that have been disfigured by the colonial encounter, and who had some of their most important cultural heritages in exile. 


A visitor walks past a 19th-century door of the king's palace at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, in Paris in 2018. The door and other artifacts were removed from what is now Benin during the colonial period. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

We will often hear museums around the world say that having pieces from around the world in their collections is a good thing because these pieces are accessible to all — that the world can see these pieces and learn more about their roots and the cultures that they came from. When you hear that justification, what goes through your mind? 

It's such a stupid argument. It's just incredible that, you know, reasonable people would make such claims.

And yet the claims are still made.

But that's why I have to call it what it is, right? The fact that they make them does make the claims less stupid and less arrogant. 

Think about what this is implying: that some kid from Nigeria can always go to the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum ... to look at Benin bronzes.

When people sit in Europe and America and talk about the access of these things to the world, they are talking [about] access to people from Europe and America, and maybe from some of the rich Asian countries. People hardly are able to travel from the African continent to go to Europe to see these objects, so just give me a break. Of course they have them, so they can afford to say, "Well, we keep them for the rest of the world." 

A visitor looks at a statue in brass representing a horn player during an exhibition focused on refined art in Benin, on Oct. 2, 2007, at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris. (AFP/Getty Images)

Just imagine the reverse. What if we emptied the Metropolitan Museum and moved all the objects to Lagos and said, "Well, let's keep them in Lagos for the rest of the world to come to Lagos and study and appreciate these cultural heritages of the world." I don't think any one of them is going to like that proposition. 

You mentioned the British Museum. You're Nigerian. Personally, what was it like for you when you first saw pieces from Nigeria's Benin Kingdom in a museum? 

Well, I was thrilled to begin with, to see these objects real life. For the most part in art school, in my art history studies back in Nigeria, you didn't have much access to the physical objects.

But coming to the British Museum to see these objects up close, you came to re-appreciate the incredible artistry, the amazing creativity of African artists in the past, right? So that was such an amazing encounter.

But of course, that soon shifted to rage, in fact, that I had to travel that far to come and see these objects. My colleagues at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka — at that point, none of them had seen these things.

It was pretty much looking at objects in exile, right? Trapped in these security locks and display cases. And that was when it occurred to me that sooner or later, I will have to join forces to call for the return of these objects. And that's where we are today.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.