“insuring Cultural Artifacts: Protecting Europe’s Historical Treasures” – Visitors sit in front of an exhibition of controversial Benin plaques (more commonly known as the Benin Bronzes) at the British Museum in London, UK [File: David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

Today, the sleepy town of Chibok in northern Nigeria is famous for the kidnapping of 276 children by Boko Haram. But if we look back 115 years, this small farming community perched on top of a mountain is fighting one of the strongest resistances to British colonization.

“insuring Cultural Artifacts: Protecting Europe’s Historical Treasures”

In November 1906, around 170 British soldiers launched what the country’s parliament called a “punitive expedition” against the city for carrying out annual raids on British trade routes in Borno State.

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In defence, during the 11-day siege, residents of Chibok fired poison arrows at the soldiers from their hideouts in the hills.

The “little independent tribe of Chibbuk barbarians”, as described in a report submitted to the British Parliament in December 1907, became “the most determined fighters” to be found in Nigeria today. It took British troops another three months to annex Chibok, and only after they had found a natural source of water and “starved to death”, according to the report.

The arrows and spears used by the people of Chibok to fight the British were then collected and shipped to London and are now in storage. But a curator’s label available online at the British Museum’s collection – which contains some 73,000 African objects – makes no mention of how the spears got there, or of the city’s resistance to ‘punitive’ colonization. .

Locked in a warehouse, the arrow points to the wider conflict around objects looted from Africa during war and colonization and kept in Western museums.

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While many Western curators defend the collection as “universal”, representing world art however it was acquired, critics suggest it is not done well enough to accurately present the complex history of recovered objects.

The interior of the Benin King’s compound was set on fire during the siege of Benin City in 1897, with a bronze plaque in the foreground [Photograph: Reginald Granville/Wikimedia Commons]

Historian Max Siollun recounts the capture of Chibok in his book What the British Did to Nigeria, which examines Nigeria’s legacy of violent colonization in the context of a rapidly evolving modern crisis. He believes that historical accounts – mostly written by Europeans – are deeply flawed, neglecting “more interesting and deeper stories”.

“It is very dangerous to rely on the winning narrative as the only narrative in the story,” he said. “There’s a saying about it…a hunting story will be a hunter’s story until the lion learns the story.”

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“Museums should be tools that help shape colonialism, the history of conquest and the legitimacy of conquest,” said Ayisha Osori, director of the Senegal-based Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). . He leads a four-year, $15 million Open Society initiative to help countries recover cultural treasures from overseas.

“If we use the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin [Republic] and the Kingdom of Ashanti in Ghana, a lot of violence will be committed,” he said.

Sixty years after independence, African governments are actively seeking to recover stolen objects. Historically, European authorities have refused return requests because they were unable to determine who the original owner was. Another reason, according to Abba Isa Tijani, chief executive of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is fears that returned objects are not being properly managed.

The Nigerians therefore created in 2020 an independent body – the Heritage Restoration Trust – to act as an intermediary and manage negotiations with foreign museums. Tijani believes this is the best move and is aimed at bringing about change in Nigerian politics.

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Nigeria has started to proactively enter into return agreements with institutions in the United States, Germany, Ireland and Britain, including the University of Aberdeen, Church of England, Fowler Museum of Los Angeles, the National Museum of Ireland and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. .

As we spoke, Tijani was finalizing the return of three Nigerian objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, announced in June – two 16th-century Benin bronze plaques and a 14th-century Ife head. He hopes more museums with similar stolen Nigerian memorabilia will consider returning them.

But negotiations with the British Museum often fail. The UK government has recently adopted a ‘prevent and explain’ attitude towards state agencies, meaning that disputed monuments and objects will be preserved but contextualised. European state institutions need new legislation to produce collections. This has been implemented in France and Germany, but UK institutions are still hampered by the British Museum Act 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983. The UK government has no intention of changing these laws for their allow to return.


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