Elginism can be defined as an act of cultural vandalism. A term derived following the destructive actions of Lord Elgin who illegally transported the Parthenon Marbles from Greece to London between 1801 and 1805. The term now applies to other cultural objects including artefacts taken from developed to advanced nations. As a result, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) put in place international laws to curb Elginism by protecting monuments and preventing illicit traffic. Article 11 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on cultural objects declares as illicit, the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power.
Drawing from its provenance, the historical facts and its existing domicile, unequivocally the Queen Idia mask is a looted cultural object. More than a decade ago I wrote about a lingering dispute – spanning 11years – between a Nigerian indigenous firm and the British Museum. Under an interpretation of copyright law, the indigenous firm successfully challenged an illegality denying Nigeria the right to revenue from the use of images of known looted cultural artefacts.
The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 are the current UK copyright law. It grants the creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works the right to control the ways in which their materials may be used. The rights cover broadcast, public performance, copying, adapting, issuing, renting and lending copies to the public. In many cases, the creator will retain the right to be identified as the author, as well as object to distortions of his/her work.
Copyright becomes intrinsic when an individual or organisation creates a work. This applies to a work if regarded as original and exhibits a degree of labour, skill or judgement. Interpretation reflects the independent creation rather than the idea behind the creation. For example, an idea for a book would not itself be protected, but the actual content of a book you write is. In other words, someone else is entitled to write their own book around the same idea as long as they do not directly copy or adapt yours.
Names, titles, short phrases and colours are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered, but creation such as a logo combining these elements may be. Generally, the individual or collective behind the work will exclusively own the rights. However, if a work is produced as part of employment, normally the work belongs to the person or company who hired the individual. For freelance or commissioned work, rights will usually belong to the author of the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary i.e. in a contract for service.
For the benefit of those who may not know, King Esigie was a ruler of the Benin Kingdom. He established the office of Queen Mother. Archives show that his mother Queen Idia helped to end a civil war at the beginning of his reign. Respectively, around 1520 a Queen Idia mask was commissioned – carved from ivory, 25cm in height. Archives show that Esigie wore the mask on his hip, to commemorate his mother during royal memorial ceremonies.
On 9 February 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson led the Benin Punitive Expedition. Field commanders were issued with orders to burn down towns, villages, and upon capture hang the king. Monuments, and the palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted and destroyed including the king’s palace, which was set ablaze. More than 2500 religious artefacts, visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England. Sir Ralph Moore, Counsel General of the Niger Coast Protectorate took one of two near identical Queen Idia masks to Britain. To date, variants of Queen Idia masks are in the British Museum collection.
Until returned, the Benin Bronzes will remain symbols of colonialism and exploitation. Since the early 1960s, the Nigerian government and authorities have pressed for restitution – Princeton University professor, Chika Okeke-Agulu, “And all through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, these claims have not abated.” Over decades, museums have offered a long list of excuses why they can not return the bronzes. In the ’70s and ’80s, museum officials argued African museums do not have the resources to care for the artefacts. Some institutions went as far as arguing that a legal framework for returning looted artefacts did not exist.
Put at more than 3,000, actual figures on looted cultural artefacts from Nigeria’s Benin Kingdom remain sketchy. Whilst the single largest collection of Benin bronzes is held by the British Museum, about 1,100 artefacts ended up in German museums. Berlin's Ethnologisches museum has more than 500 of these artefacts, most bronzes. Moreover, a number exceeding 900 of these artefacts are housed in the British Museum.
The good news is Germany – home to the second-largest collection of Benin Bronzes – has agreed to return 1,130 looted artefacts. Repatriation is marked to commence in 2022. In a statement by the German culture minister, Monika Grütters – We are facing the historical and moral responsibility to bring Germany’s colonial past to light and to come to terms with it. Dealing with the Benin Bronzes is a touchstone, the culture minister remarked.
The Federal Government of Nigeria has demanded a full and unconditional return of the Benin Bronzes. To this effect, on Wednesday 07.07.201 a high-level Nigerian delegation including the Information and Culture Minster, Lai Mohammed made the demand in Berlin, Germany. Members of the delegation were Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monument (NCMM), Abba Tijani, the Crown Prince of Benin, His Royal Highness (HRH) Ezelekhae Ewuare, and the Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki who said a “transformational” museum is being built in Benin city to house the artefacts upon their return. Also present, Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Tuggar said repatriation of the Benin Bronzes is an opportunity to take the cooperation between Nigeria and Germany to greater heights.