Usually a major donation to a museum is cause for celebration, but the recently announcement that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts had received a gift of 34 West African artworks from Robert Owen Lehman is provoking as much criticism as enthusiasm. The cause is the century-old act of colonial aggression that brought the works into western hands, and the simmering political dispute highlights the thorny issues of provenance that still haunt museums everywhere.
Thirty-two of the Lehman pieces are from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria and were looted by the British after a destructive expedition in 1897. This bloody provenance, which is acknowledged by the museum, has provoked vociferous calls in Nigeria for the works to be repatriated.
“The collections, which form part of the exploits of the British expedition, were taken out illegally on the pretext of spoils of war,” Yusuf Abdallah Usman, director of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, declared in a recent statement on the Lehman gift, going on to demand that “objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in this case the people of Nigeria.”
Despite the strong words, it is not clear whether Nigeria has any actionable claim on the items. MFA spokesperson Karen Frascona told ARTINFO in an email that Nigeria has not contacted the museum with this request and that the Lehman donation meets all legal standards. “Based on a careful legal analysis, we are confidant that the MFA can take clear title to these objects and that they meet the AAMD guidelines,” Frascona said. “The MFA accepted this gift knowing the circumstances surrounding their removal from Benin in 1897, with the intention of presenting the history of the kingdom and these works.”
The museum intends to put the collection on display in late 2013 in a new gallery dedicated to the arts of Benin. Benin artisans were known for their bronzes, and the Lehman collection includes several such sculptures, including heads of kings, freestanding figures, and high-relief plaques that once adorned the palace courtyards. The works, which span the 15th to the 19th centuries, were acquired by Lehman from auction houses and dealers from the 1950s through the 1970s.
While Usman's objections to the donation have not been expressed to the museum directly, they have drawn some attention in the blogosphere. “Dealers and auction houses are usually very proud to inform potential purchasers that their Benin objects came from the invasion of 1897,” blogger Kwame Opoku writes. “Can anyone therefore argue honestly that they were not aware of the illegality and illegitimacy attached to the objects they were about to purchase?” Opoku went on to suggest that the National Commission on Museums and Monuments set up a restitution committee and avail itself of the experience of other African states, as well as Greece, Italy, Peru, and Turkey, in such matters.
Reacting to the news of the donation, Huffington Post blogger Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote that “it is unquestionably to the benefit of Benin art scholarship and enthusiasts that the Lehman collection, which has more or less been off the radar, will now be accessible to students and scholars — excluding of course those from Africa who would never get travel visas to visit the MFA, or any other American museum for that matter.”