How you gonna loan something that doesn’t belong to you in the first place? Peak caucasity
A lot of people who are reblogging and commenting on this don’t understand what’s happening here. The term “loan” in museum parlance doesn’t mean what you think it does. As someone who’s worked in museums on repatriation (giving stuff back) projects, let me demonstrate why this isn’t audacious caucasity, but is actually going to be highly beneficial for the Nigerian museum in the long run and will probably lead to more looted objects given back to their African countries of origin.
This is going to be a long post, but it’s important because this is the kind of thing that really needs public support. It’s not “oh, let’s compromise! we’ll share! ;).” It’s the first step in a multi-step process that is going to likely end in total repatriation for most (if not all- Britain, as per usual when it comes to artifacts, is being a shit) of the looted bronzes.
So. Why short-term loans and not just giving stuff back? Well, the first thing you need to realize is that this going to set a multinational legal precedent. This can’t be a quick process because that leaves more room for error in favor of the European institutions- which we know can happen because that is what happened with some of the repatriation laws in the US. When NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, was passed in 1990, museums were given five years to inventory their collections and identify which of the federally recognized tribes objects originated from. As a result of this short timeline, massive quantities of Native American artifacts were labeled as being culturally unidentifiable and as such technically immune to repatriation. That means a lot of Native American artifacts and even remains, despite being federally required to go back, have been loopholed into staying in museums. It essentially created a legal way for museums to ignore the law, and some museums have really abused the hell out of this loophole. This needs to not happen with the European repatriation practices. If repatriation is going to happen in the best way, you have to take careful steps.
The loan agreements are best summed up by this quote from the Benin Dialogue Group: “This event occurs within a wider context and does not imply that Nigerian partners have waived claims for the eventual return of works of art removed from the Royal Court of Benin, nor have the European museums excluded the possibility of such returns.”
People are missing this, I think, because they don’t understand what repatriation actually is and how it works. There’s a lot of moving parts! Museum repatriation isn’t just “hey we took these, now here you go.” Repatriation takes into account fragility of the artifacts- if we ship them back now, will we be handing their actual owners a pile of dust?- as well as who actually has the best claim to them. That doesn’t mean “which European museum claims them,” it means “hey, Europe and America REALLY FCKED UP AFRICAN SOCIOPOLITICAL GROUPS due to chattel slavery and the way the Scramble for Africa divided the continent.” But more on that in a sec. First, there’s something really important to understand about European museums.
In many European countries, there’s not actually a protocol in place for giving stuff back. There should be, but there isn’t- and as such, this is something that’s very new for a lot of museums. In fact, in some cases, it’s illegal for museums to divest their collections, which is not a fair set of laws- but it means that loans are a way around this. Isn’t the most important thing getting the objects back in their place of origin so that the artists’ descent communities have access to them? (I personally think that’s the most important thing. Possession is nine tenths of the law, so once the bronzes are home, then we can argue the law.)
This also isn’t a case of giving something back to an individual- it’s giving something back to a country and the culture from whence it came. You can’t just go to the Nigerian embassy and hand the first staffer you see a bunch of art and artifacts- museum people have to be very careful about the transfer. This is true on both sides of the equation. Repatriation also has to take into account who the stuff should belong to.
For instance: Why are the Benin bronzes going back to Nigeria, when Benin the country is still extant? Because they were looted from Benin City, which is in modern-day Nigeria, which happened because African national borders are also relics of colonialism. Country lines were, by and large, not decided by African peoples; they were settled by Europeans during their pillaging of the continent for resources. Loans mean that these items can be displayed in Africa, for African people, while the details of permanent homing are figured out.
That leads us to the next thing people aren’t getting: These loans aren’t like borrowing a book from the library. Items aren’t being loaned to an individual, and there’s not a due date. In many cases, loans are actually more convenient than artifact transfers. There’s a lot of big-picture stuff to look at here, and for a brand new institution that’s not even built yet, loans make so much more sense than an actual transference of ownership for the first couple of years. Why? Logistics.
The Nigerian museum will be brand new, and as such, will be in the process of establishing its collection protocols, including rules about preservation (how will they store and care for the artifacts that aren’t on display? if you’re a new museum, you gotta decide that for yourself!), cataloging, and information coherence. Part of the point of museums is to keep information together. Every museum has its own system for this, and if they just straight-up adopted a European database system, they’d be using systems of categorization are based on colonial ideas of classification and hierarchy, using ethnic/social affiliations decided by European colonizers and largely bare of the language that African peoples describe themselves with. (I’ve seen these databases. It’s not pretty.) So they’ll adapt their own system, and then that’s where we get to the data entry part- which can take literal years for even a small collection. See, once something enters a museum collection, data’s attached to it- who put it there, where they got it- and as it continues to exist in a museum collection, data accumulates. “Loaning” stuff back for a short period actually takes some of the burden off the Nigerian museum because the stuff will remain in the European museums’ system while the Nigerian museum builds up its database. Give the Nigerian museum some time- as they grow physically and develop their systems, they’ll be better equipped to permanently house these artifacts. Which they will.
And this really is literal, I can’t stress that enough. This isn’t a “Oh, the African museum won’t have the resources, we’d better hold on to the stuff for them” patronizing thing, this is a “literally this museum is not finished yet, decisions about cataloging and storage have not yet been made” thing.
Physical storage is another Big Deal for why the European museums are agreeing to loans rather than outright repatriation. There is a TON OF LOOTED STUFF. The three-year rotating loan system means that for the first time, the looted artifacts will be able to be seen at home. But the looted artifacts aren’t going to be the only thing in this museum! Nigerian art didn’t stop happening after the 1800s- this museum is going to be a celebration of modern African art as well, and pre-1800s art. Loans mean that while the museum is building that storage space, they can display different objects without worrying about where to put them when they want to cycle in new bronzes. Museum buildings don’t spring out of the ground overnight. Safe, climate-controlled storage doesn’t blossom with the dew. Like, give them some time. These loans are a two-way street. If the Nigerian art museum didn’t like the terms and conditions, they wouldn’t have agreed to them. France was willing to give more- hell, the French side of the consortium has put new legislation in place to sidestep French laws about museums not being allowed to divest their collections so that they could just give things to Nigeria instead of doing loans. But the new Nigerian museum had agency and made decisions, too. They want these loans.
And then another thing: Different European museums and countries have different opinions about cooperation. This is one of the most complex repatriation cases to ever exist because we have multiple international governments who all contributed to the looting, and all of whom have different ideas about what they’re responsible for. France is leading the charge here- both their government and the French museum world considers it a major priority to permanently return West African artifacts. On the other hand, the British Museum and the V and A don’t treat repatriation as something worth doing, let alone a priority. Is this fair? Nope. It’s another miserable piece of the British Empire’s legacy, but realistically speaking- who can make them give stuff back? It took substantial public outcry to get the British museum on board with this, because colonizers are the ones who make the rules about what they do with the stuff they took. Germany, too, is agreeing to permanent loans, but there’s a definite sense of colonial expectations and arbitrary standards for what African museums “”“”“”“deserve”“”“”“” to have artifacts back. The idea of loans makes true repatriation more palatable to these old institutions- which I know a lot of people think don’t deserve to exist- but they do. They do exist, and they need to be held accountable for what they’ve done and what they’re doing. Even if you don’t like the term loan, this is an incredible step towards returning looted objects to their places of origin permanently. If the three-year rotating loan system works, it will be proof of concept that European museums can give things back in an equitable way. Loans of this nature are new and unprecedented, and are more than just borrowing things or patronizingly pretending to return items- but really, they’re still the colonizers’. These loans are the first step forward towards equitable looting restitutions. Even though the language- just the term “loan”- is upsetting to some, these loans have the potential and likelihood to turn into something permanent and quite wonderful.