Friday, 9 September 2011

British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM)

A Yoruba, nigerian origin artefact, one the museums collections
Commonwealth museum embroil in unethical sales
By Tajudeen Sowole
 Friday, 09 September 2011 00:00
 CONTROVERSIAL acquisition, on which most of the museums in Europe are built, may have started haunting nine-year old British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) as a dispute over missing 150 objects is now a subject of embarrassment for the UK.
The museum closed its Bristol base in 2008, preparatory to relocating to London.
Earlier, this year, the trustees of the museum had dismissed the director, Dr Gareth Griffiths, over the missing exhibits. Surprisingly, Griffiths argued that the management of the museum was aware of the sales of these works to art dealer, Douglass Barrett.
The Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police was reportedly prompted into investigating the controversial sale after receiving information from Commonwealth Education Trust Institute, a major donor of the museum. Investigation, according to the Met Police, last week, showed that “Barrett paid £115, 000 for some of the objects.”
The drama continued as the chairman of the trustee, Sir Neil Cossons was quoted as saying the sales were unauthorised.
According to another source monitored from Lagos, the police report revealed that “Barrett was informed by Griffiths that the items were owned by the museum, but had been given by the Commonwealth Institute. Griffiths further told Barrett that as the museum was a private charity they were entitled to sell them.”
The report continued. “Griffiths told Barrett that he was not to tell anyone about the provenance of the pieces as it could be politically embarrassing that the museum was selling the items”.
An artefact of Caribbean origin in the museum
And in their curiousity to know the whereabouts of the money involved in the transaction, the Metropolitan police reported that Cossons initially told them that no cheques had been received for the sale of any objects. However he (Cossons) revised his statement later, saying, “a contractual agreement was in place giving BECM title over the pieces and confirming the museum had received £115, 000 from the sale of some objects”.
As a representative of the trustees, Cossons reiterated that the disposals were unauthorised. He explained that the “museum’s trustees only approved the sale of items of low value from the museum’s handling collection (mainly surplus educational material) to Barrett, not from the core, accessioned collection.”
IN 2007, the museum made headlines across the world when it organised Breaking The Chains, a £1m Heritage Lottery Funded exhibition to mark the 200-year anniversary of the 1807 Act that abolished the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The exhibition included artefacts, film, music, video and personal testimonies to provide visitors with an incredible multi-sensory experience. It was dedicated to telling the story of the Trans-atlantic trade in enslaved people, and the means by which this brutal transportation was brought to an end.
The exhibition had six galleries, a film theatre space and video response booth.
Opened in Bristol by HRH and ended in 2009, the exhibition also focused slavery that continues around the world today and noted the efforts of modern heroes, including James Aguer, who has spent 20 years working against slavery in Sudan.
The story of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, which includes more than 300 artefacts from all over the world, was also highlighted. It paid tribute to the resilience and courage of those who were enslaved and the consequences today.
About 24 million Africans were recorded as having been captured during the slave trade, and up to 12 million may have perished in the process. Slaves were packed into ships like cargo and exhibition visitors can get a taste of the feeling of darkness and claustrophobia.
Breaking the Chains also highlighted the history, culture and different communities of West Africa and the arts and crafts created by its people.
With the ongoing allegation of “unauthorized sales” of artefacts at the BECM, some of these African objects of great importance are in danger of illegal acquisition across the borders.
Already some these objects allegedly sold have been found at auctions. It was reported that a carved item was spotted in a Dunbar Sloane auction catalogue last year.
Also, some statuettes was allegedly sold for £7, 200 with buyer’s premium at Bonhams London auction in 2008 “with no provenance.” Bonhams, however, said that virtually all bronzes of this sort are produced in large editions and that they had no link with the BECM collection.

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