The ongoing dispute about the ownership and location of Benin art remains a controversy over whether it should be returned to its place of origin. It is vital to observe the “encounter” between (Woods, 2008, ‘THE ART OF BENIN’, p.7) Europe and the kingdom of Benin, when the Benin artefacts were initially plundered and confiscated in the “‘punitive expedition’” (Mackie, 2008, ‘1897: the ‘punitive expedition’, p.23). The British opinion of the Benin people as a “savage and brutal” (Loftus, 2008, The British Museum and the Benin ‘antiquities’, p.52), race led them to question how an “entirely barbarous” (Read and Dalton, 1898, ‘Antiquities from the City of Benin...’, in Reading 2.6: ‘Works of art from Benin City’, Loftus and Wood, ‘The Art of Benin...’, p.84) civilisation could produce such “sophisticated works of art” (Loftus, 2008, The British Museum and the Benin ‘antiquities’, p.52). The British also questioned whether these Benin bronzes were “‘relics’ of a lost African civilisation” (Coombes, 1994a, ‘Reinventing Africa...’, in Loftus, 2008, p.52) that has subsequently reverted back to a more primitive society. The present location of these artefacts is the result of the biased British perception of Benin society. The British intention was to be “benevolent educators” (Coombes, 1994a, ‘Reinventing Africa...’, in Loftus, 2008, p. 53) on the Benin bronzes, controversially claiming altruistic motives of becoming “the civilised keepers” (Coombes, 1994a, in Loftus, 2008, p. 53) of the artefacts, defending their aforementioned “benevolent” ownership despite their pecuniary interests.
Seized out of Benin, the artefacts were considered “war booty” (Mackie, 2008, Looting the art of Benin, p.30) and their ownership remains controversial because they were considered “‘the only things of value’” (Mackie, 2008, p.30) that could be taken back to Britain to be sold. They therefore translated into their “‘aesthetic’ value”, closely linked to their “mere economic” worth (Wood, 2008, The Benin Bronzes And Modern Art, p.58-59). Their ownership remains controversial due to the irony of the British devaluation of the very people, who produced these works of art. Readily and conveniently relegating any notion of the Benin people as civilised, this view may have been acceptable under an imperial world order but remains contentious in a modern context, possibly because of the development of post-colonial ideology and independent government.
Chris Spring, representing the British Museum, believes that the Benin Bronzes should remain in the possession of the museum, as returning them will not “right old wrongs” (Spring, AA100 DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin’ 01.mp3). In his view, making Benin art available to everyone is crucial for educating people about African culture, arguing that if Benin art was returned to Africa, then people of all nationalities could not learn about African culture(Spring, AA100 DVD Rom ‘The Art of Benin’ 05.mp3). Stating that it is vital that Benin art remains in its current location “alongside all the great cultures of the world” (Spring, AA100 DVD Rom ‘The Art of Benin’ 02.mp3), Spring promotes “reparation through education” (Spring, AA100 ‘The Art of Benin’ 05.mp3) to alleviate racism and ignorance towards Africans. Suggesting that a “great work of art” (spring, AA100 DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin 03.mp3), such as the Benin bronzes, belongs to all “humankind” (Spring, AA100 DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin’ 03.mp3), Spring encourages viewing it in a universal context rather than losing everything it can reveal about the Benin culture if it was returned to Africa. He further argues that Britain will subsequently lose access to the beauty and rich culture of Benin. Spring also believes that British Museums can successfully share their “expertise” (Spring, AA100 DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin’ 05.mp3) with their African contemporaries. Although well-meaning, Spring’s suggestions that the Benin bronzes are currently...
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