Friday 20 July 2012

Controversy over Benin art gift: Boston museum says Oba of Benin was informed several months ahead of donations.

In response to a letter from Mr Toyin Agbetu – one of the commentators who posted on African Arts with Tajudeen Sowole – the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston has disclosed that the Oba of Benin was informed of the gift, earlier this year.

According to the letter dated July 12, 2012 and signed by Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund for the office of the Director, MFA, the Oba was informed "with the goal of cultivating a productive relationship with the court." 

All efforts to reach the spokesperson of the Benin monarch for response to MFA's claim was still on going shortly before this posting on Arts with Tajudeen Sowole.

One of the controversial art pieces
MFA stresses in the letter: "This important gift affords the unique possibility of sharing these extraordinary works of arts, previously in a private collection, with as many people as possible; over a million visitors of diverse backgrounds come to the MFA each year from around the globe. The gallery in which the collection is to be installed will discuss not only the history of the objects individually, but also the history and culture of the Benin Kingdom. The Museum's website will be equally thorough in its presentation of the material."

Mr Agbetu has posted on African Arts with Tajudeen Sowole challenging the claims of MFA. He said: "How dare the Boston museum management state that the 'gifts' meet all legal standard. It is clear that the artefacts are the proceeds of criminal activity and the only rightful course of action is to return them to the lawful owners."

The controversial artworks, which include 28 bronzes and six ivories were donated to the Boston museum by Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, a great-grandson of founder of Lehman Brothers. According to sources, the senior Lehman bought the works from dealers and at auctions from the 1950s through the ’70s.
Nigerian museum authority, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has challenged the legitimacy claims of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston U.S., which, few weeks ago received 32 works of Benin origin from the heir of one of the beneficiaries of the infamous 1897 Benin punitive expedition.
In his response, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman faulted Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for its claim that the donation met all legal standards.

Under the group, The Ligali Organisation, Agbetu wrote MFA:
 “Considering the violent, unauthorised and murderous circumstances that led to the theft of this property it would be ludicrous to suggest that they legitimately belong to anyone other than the people from who they were stolen. It is thus our position that the legal ownership of this property, therefore, resides with African people. It is in this context that we seek the repatriation of these objects for the benefit of the socio-cultural enrichment of African people many who are also direct descendents of the possessions creators.”

Here is a reproduced copy of the full text of Boston letter: 
Museum  of  Fine  Arts  Boston     
Office  of  the  Director  
Avenue  of  the  Arts   
465  Huntington  Avenue   Boston,  
Massachusetts  02115     617  369  3200  

12  July  2012  

Mr.  Toyin  Agbetu   
Head  of  Social  and  Education  Policy   
The  Ligali  Organization  

I  am  in  receipt  of  your  letter  of  3  July;;  thank  you  for  taking  the  time  to  share  your  thoughts  about  the  gift   of  Benin  Kingdom  bronzes  and  ivories  to  the  Museum  of  Fine  Arts,  Boston  (MFA).  
The  MFA  understands  and  recognizes  your  concerns  regarding  the  history  of  this  group  of  objects,  and  in   no  way  condones  the  events  surrounding  the  Punitive  Expedition  of  1897.  Yet,  many  works  of  art  in   museums,  including  the  MFA,  were  displaced  during  periods  of  conflict,  a  fact  which  need  not  prevent   their  acquisition  today.  Further,  applicable  law  does  not  compel  a  different  result  in  our  view.  
This  important  gift  affords  the  unique  possibility  of  sharing  these  extraordinary  works  of  arts,  previously  in  a   private  collection,  with  as  many  people  as  possible;;  over  a  million  visitors  of  diverse  backgrounds  come  to   the  MFA  each  year  from  around  the  globe.  The  gallery  in  which  the  collection  is  to  be  installed  will  discuss   not  only  the  history  of  the  objects  individually,  but  also  the  history  and  culture  of  the  Benin  Kingdom.  The   Museum's  website  will  be  equally  thorough  in  its  presentation  of  the  material.  
It  is  my  hope  that  this  gift  will  inaugurate  a  fruitful  dialogue  with  our  colleagues  both  locally  and  abroad,   and  will  further  opportunities  for  cultural  exchange.  To  that  end,  I  wrote  earlier  this  year  to  His  Majesty   Omo  N'Oba  N'Edo  Uku  Akpolokpolo,  Oba  of  Benin,  to  inform  him  of  the  gift,  with  the  goal  of  cultivating  a   productive  relationship  with  the  court.  
The  receipt  of  these  objects  allows  us  to  fulfill  the  important  objectives  of  an  encyclopedic  museum  to   provide  broad  access  to  our  collections  and  encourage  discussions  about  the  historical  past.  We  shall  do   so  according  to  the  highest  ethical  and  professional  standards,  demonstrating  the  esteem  in  which  we   hold  these  objects  and  the  culture  that  created  them.  

Malcolm  Rogers  
Ann  and  Graham  Gund  Director 

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