From an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to the Nigerian Benin Bronzes, thousands of looted artworks are finally making their way back home following increased pressure on western museums to repatriate artefacts previously stolen or ‘gifted’ during colonial rule.
In a piece for The New York Times, culture reporter Graham Bowley found that American critics had argued returning the artefacts meant museum collections “built over time by scholars and imbued by a sense of context were being randomly depleted.” And in such, US audiences were being deprived of access to iconic objects that they suggested “belong not to individual nations, but to humankind.”
Whereas, in the UK, those also opposed to the return scheme believe that keeping artefacts in relatively well-protected environments reduces the risk of theft or destruction. Both these arguments have been shunned for their “smacking of Western privilege,” as reported by The Guardian, but the question still remains. How should museums reset the balance?
Craig Stevens, 28, is a doctoral student at Northwestern University and researcher on the Back-to-Africa Heritage and Archaeology project in Liberia. The project, as stated on its website, works collaboratively with US-based researchers and Liberian partners in order to “find productive ways through which to pluralise conceptualisations of the Black/African Diaspora and consider broader processes of freedom making in the Atlantic world.”
In 2018, Stevens began incorporating 3D photogrammetry into his practice. With access to the world’s largest repository of Africana literature—found at the Herskovits library—and given his work at the National Museum of Liberia, Stevens strives to combat the deterioration of cultural heritage by using technology that grants people immersive experiences with ancient landscapes and objects.
Speaking with SCREENSHOT, the researcher explained that his role as an archaeologist is threefold: “In one way, I’m a technologist looking at ways to make the subject more relevant to the public, and more interesting to the communities they’re coming from. Each object is kind of like a different project.”
In the past year, Stevens and his team have been excavating objects from US sites to Providence Island and Liberia—the place of first arrival for black Americans when they came from the US in 1822—in an attempt to find ways of promoting a different narrative to the standard depiction of how their burial was created. This enables them to find ways to digitise the artefacts and hopefully grant the discoveries longevity.
“You can’t touch or view them because of how fragile and invaluable they are, so using these technologies allows people to interact with them. Therefore, creating a 3D rendering that people can have on their phones or computers makes archaeology more relatable and impactful for a viewer,” Stevens noted.
In 2003, non-profit organisation CyArk pioneered the application of 3D recording technologies by working with local partners in over 40 countries. One of them was Nigeria, in which they partnered up with online platform Google Arts and Culture and the Adunni Olorisha Trust in 2022 to launch the first and largest digital library of content showcasing the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove—a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Nigeria’s last remaining sacred groves which has recently been in danger of destruction due to flooding, heavy rain and climate change.
Another key example of how technology is working in the cultural sphere is the highly anticipated new database that listed the works of more than 5,000 looted Benin bronzes. Following the launch in November, The Art Newspaper stated that the catalogue “accelerated the restitution of the ancient African artefacts from institutions and collections worldwide.” For Scholars in Nigeria who have struggled to gain access to both the objects and archive material , the new database was a welcomed prospect.
Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Benin told the publication: “The looting was like a book being torn to pieces and then the pages were put in different places. Gathering them together in one place is great.”
Augmented Reality (AR) and other advanced technologies have aided in the restoration and digitalisation of tangible cultural heritage, but they can also work as tools for people to utilise or advance their working process.
During his time in Liberia, Stevens worked closely beside locals to showcase his efforts and see their reactions first-hand. “Anytime I do a demonstration [using a digital reconstruction of a photorealistic artefact or Virtual Reality (VR) to walk to a historic structure] people are immediately shocked at how real something feels,” he explained, adding, “.they don’t necessarily have the words or vision for the potential, but they can feel that this is something powerful.”
Despite all the groundwork happening and the museum’s best efforts, the question of framing and gaze will always arise. The ongoing debate continues, with questions circulating such as who should control the scope? And who justifies what is of heritage significance? While digital technology has the power to transform societies, figures show that only 60 per cent of the world’s population have access to the internet. Therefore, archaeologists are tackling the biggest questions behind closed doors: How accessible is this method for natives?
It’s undeniable that digital infrastructure still remains a barrier in some parts of the world. For archaeologists like Stevens, however, digitisation may be the saving grace in regard to documenting rapid disappearance and deterioration—especially in Africa. The researcher summarised: “We can’t save everything, but truthfully, a lot of the meaningful aspects of heritage are within people. But being able to take things out of one particular place and placing them on the internet helps offer perspective. I think that’s the power of heritage, not necessarily just the object on its own.”
The University of Cambridge has announced that it will return over 100 looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria—a move that comes as a surprise to many considering that calls demanding the UK to return artefacts stolen in Benin City (now southwest Nigeria) had been increasing since 2020.
A university spokesperson stated, “The Charity Commission has considered and approved the return of 116 historical objects, often referred to as the Benin bronzes, from the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) of Nigeria.”
They went on to explain that the university “is now working with the commission to finalise next steps” and will communicate these in due course. It should be noted however, that not all stolen artefacts will actually be physically returned—some will be transferred to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, as is required legally by the Republic of Nigeria, while others will remain in Cambridge on “extended loans.”
The artefacts, which are mainly made of brass but also include some ivory and wooden objects, were taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin in 1897, when the city’s palace was burned and its Oba (king) was exiled.
Thousands of brasses and other works—known collectively as the ‘Benin bronzes’—were taken and later sold off in London to recoup the hefty cost of the military mission. The artefacts ended up being scattered around the world in museums in the UK, Europe, and even the US, with claims for their restitution dating back to the mid-20th century.
In August 2022, London’s Horniman Museum announced that it would be handing over ownership of its 72 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. Since then, the floodgates for repatriation have well and truly opened.
For Nigeria however, this recent wave couldn’t have come soon enough. The country’s mission to reclaim the bronzes began in the 1930s, took hold with independence in 1960, and gathered pace in 2007 with the formation of the Benin Dialogue Group—a working party of representatives from Nigerian and European cultural institutions focused on bringing the artefacts together in Benin City.
Then in October, the country’s culture minister, Lai Mohammed, urged the British Museum to follow the example of the Smithsonian Institution, which returned ownership of 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. “It’s not if, it’s when,” Mohammed said at the time.
Earlier in December, it was also revealed that the chair of the British Museum, George Osborne, had held talks with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, regarding the possible return of the Parthenon marbles.