Return Scotland’s looted treasure and repatriate our own stolen items
Earlier this year, the administrators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan woke up to a huge institutional puzzle. A legal letter accused the museum of being involved in a theft of modern art. It was an accusation that brought a new dimension to the old story of colonialism and stolen art.
The Kingdom of Cambodia is pushing for an explanation for how the Met acquired dozens of Khmer Empire antiques that Cambodian officials say were looted during the country’s decades of war.
The charge is supported by a spreadsheet of 45 “highly significant” items that were allegedly stolen, before being sold to the museum. Cambodia’s claims update the centuries-old history of rich and powerful nations acquiring works of art from smaller nations.
Since Black Lives Matter swept the world, demands for restitution of the arts have skyrocketed. The arrival of a high-level Nigerian delegation, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, en route to COP26 in Glasgow has increased pressure on the museum sector to meet expectations for the return of looted Nigerian artefacts.
Museums and galleries that profited from colonialism and the massive theft of valuable cultural objects from colonized nations are now under intense pressure to give in. France will return three monumental sculptures, two royal thrones, carved doors, altars and sticks to Benin, a West African country in November. The 26 objects had been looted by French troops from the city of Abomey in 1892. Not everyone agrees and so far England and Portugal have been slow to the point of being belligerent as for the return of objects from Benin to Nigeria.
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In Scotland, the terrain has changed. We have seen a long-standing policy reversal at Edinburgh-based National Museums Scotland, which has now adopted “a procedure for considering requests for the permanent transfer of collectibles to non-UK claimants”.
The university community here and in the South reacted better. The University of Aberdeen was one of the first institutions to return a bronze artifact from Benin. The head of an Oba (king) in Edo State, Nigeria, who was looted during the siege of Benin City in 1897. Aberdeen’s decision echoed the now historic Kelvingrove Art Gallery decision to restore an important artifact of Native American culture, the Ghost Dance Shirt, a relic believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior killed in the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.
It is the Sculptures of Benin that have become the spark plugs of the restitution.
In 1897, British forces razed Benin City, destroyed its palace and looted its contents as “spoils of war”. More than 1000 bronzes are now exhibited in 160 museums and private collections around the world. The bronzes have become centerpieces in several Western museums and have also been passed down through the legacy of the super rich families, Ford, Rockefeller and Rothschilds.
But now the moral net is tightening and only the most myopic colonialists still claim that they have been fairly caught and honorably detained. The problem is not just colonialism. Many artifacts have been brought into museums by untrustworthy third parties, peddling old relics for cash, some of them known fraudsters.
A new exhibition space called the Edo Museum of West African Art is set to open in Benin City in 2025, putting an end once and for all to the argument that there is no suitable residence for bronzes and undermining the vanity that London is their natural home.
You will not be surprised to learn that the ruling Conservative Party in the UK is among the most reluctant to return bronzes in Benin. Currently, fantasizing that they are part of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ or more ridiculously getting into Empire 2.0, the right-wing charlatans in the country’s top seats are actually proud of Empire and don’t see no reason why the stolen loot should be returned.
Westminster favors a “remember and explain” policy that explains the origins of a work of art, how it got here.
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It would be simpler if there was a rule book, on ownership and who has the right to buy or sell valuables. But this is not the case. The Elgin Marbles, which have been in the British Museum in London since the early 19th century, have come under intense scrutiny since actor George Clooney expressed his support for the return of the marbles to Greece. Meanwhile, here at home, the status of the Lewis Chessmen is brewing.
There are many lessons for Scotland in this debate. First, we’re caught in a cultural bifurcation as a hero and a villain. Scotland and its people played a brutal role in the Empire, profiting from the invasion and colonization of less powerful nations, but we ourselves are a less powerful nation within the Union and must be more sure of our own historical artifacts.
Restitution and reparations are areas where I don’t want Scotland to hide or move in polite unison with England. We must think and act as an independent nation, acknowledging our past faults and the riches we have extracted from other nations, and be generous in our redress.
But we also need to be more assertive about the arts of our own past, especially those which can enrich Scotland’s international reputation. The Lewis Chessmen are a prime example.
Chessmen are 12th-century chess pieces, mostly carved from walrus ivory, discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis. Of the 93 objects found at Uig Bay, 82 are held by the British Museum in London, the remaining 11 at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Some parts are still missing and unlikely to be found. But six pieces have now found their way to the new Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle.
Like the Benin bronzes, the British Museum refused to return the full set to Scotland, where they could form the centerpiece of a world-class exhibition in Edinburgh. A second scenario would see all of the chess players return and end up where they were found on the Isle of Lewis, creating an unprecedented tourist attraction and a global center of medieval society.
A third scenario would be the one framed by the narration. The pieces were discovered in sand dunes by a certain Malcolm McLeod who was cleared from his land by a local landowner. Although discovered in Scotland, it is possible that the pieces were made in Iceland by Margert l’Adroit the famous medieval sculptor. Others claim that the chess pieces were made in Trondheim, Norway by craftsmen working for a former king or noble warrior, whose longboat was wrecked and the debris washed up on the west coast of Lewis.
It is a story rich in Nordic dramas from medieval warfare to clearings and one that should be known more widely.
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You may remember that Alex Salmond coined the phrase “arc of prosperity” to describe the group of small independent nations that arch north and west of Scotland, from Ireland to Denmark. He was often ridiculed by jubilant Unionists, when the economies of Ireland and Iceland trembled in the heat of the global financial crisis, but Salmond’s argument and the metaphor it sparked was correct.
The Lewis Chessmen are artefacts that tell the fascinating, little-studied and often disputed tale of the land and sea that now form an arch of prosperity around the north of Scotland.
We should host this story not in London and we should invite it to travel a lot, on a permanent rotational basis.
I would even lead a delegation to permanently share the Lewis Chessmen with our friends in Norway if they share their sovereign wealth fund with us.