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Better Safe Than Sorry: American Museums Take Measures Mindful of Repatriation of African Art

The coffin of Nedjemankh (detail), which was returned to Egypt in early 2019.

KELLEN ANNA-MARIE

This past February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art ended an exhibition earlier than expected when the centerpiece of “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin”—after seven months on view with robust attendance figures nearing 450,000—was found to have been looted from Egypt. The museum had acquired the ornate golden coffin from the first century B.C. two years ago for €3.5 million (around $3.9 million) from Christophe Kunicki, a Parisian art dealer who supplied fake provenance records including a forged Egyptian export license dated 1971.

According to an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, however, it appeared that the coffin had been stolen from its homeland in 2011. In response to the finding, the Met agreed to turn the artifact over to the Egyptian government. But the question of how such a tainted treasure could work its way through the hallowed museum’s acquisition process remained.

“Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement at the time. Max Hollein, the Met director then just a few months on the job, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow.” Hollein vowed that the Met would learn from the incident and that he would personally be “leading a review” of the acquisition program in order “to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

The turnabout at the Met was not the first of its kind in the United States, and it won’t be the last. In fact, calls for repatriation of holdings in American museums may be about to get much more heated, as attention to the matter migrates beyond Europe and demands for closer scrutiny intensify across the globe.

“The Baltimore Museum of Art has been following the discussions and debates about repatriation very closely,” said Kevin Tervala, associate curator of African art at the BMA. The museum’s collection of African art was established in 1954 through a gift from Alan and Janet Wurtzburger and, in the years since, has grown to include more than 2,500 works ranging from ancient sculptures to contemporary paintings. The majority of these were donated by American collectors, with others purchased from dealers, galleries, or artists themselves.

Though it hasn’t encountered any repatriation requests from Africa, the Baltimore Museum is in the process of creating a Cultural Property Working Group responsible for assessing the museum’s current collection policies as well as recommending revisions to past procedures to ensure that the institution upholds “not only the letter but also the spirit of the law,” Tervala said. The institution’s provenance research at present is the responsibility of curators, but, due to the expensive and time-consuming nature of the process, such research extends only to accessions currently underway. “Barring a massive change in the way that art institutions are financed,” Tervala said, “it really is not feasible for institutions with significant collections of African art to conduct this sort of research on a collection-wide scale.” Though he said no amount of attention or care can make up for “mistakes of the past,” Tervala added that he hopes efforts of the kind he has undertaken can “reinforce the public trust in art museums as ethical and moral institutions.”

[See the Table of Contents for the Summer 2019 edition of ARTnews: “Reshaping the American Museum.”]

The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, took up the matter of public trust in 2014, when provenance problems arose over works of African art entering its collection. The museum had received the objects as part of a bequest from the late William E. Teel, who left the institution more than 300 African and Oceanic works, among other objects. The museum suspected that eight items had been removed illegally from Nigeria, however, and immediately contacted the country’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which regulates cultural exports. When the commission confirmed that export documents had been forged, the MFA returned the works in question.

“The area of provenance research has been changing since the 1990s,” said Victoria Reed, the museum’s curator for provenance—a position made permanent in 2010 and unique to the MFA. Reed attributed the change in part to rising interest in art stolen during the Nazi era, which led to higher demands on museums’ due diligence. And given that each museum is “unique in terms of its history, scope, governance, and mission,” she said, establishing professional standards for historical holdings is needed for the sake of “accountability and consistency.”

Kathryn Gunsch, the MFA’s curator for African and Oceanic art, said that part of setting standards is drawing a distinction between the past and the present. Given that many collections were “formed before notions of cultural patrimony existed,” she said, work brought in decades ago might have upheld the “standards of their time, and the standards that we apply today may not apply in ten years—which is why it’s important to keep track of our thought process.”

Commemorative Head of a King, Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 16th century, in the collection of MFA Boston.

ROBERT OWEN LEHMAN COLLECTION/COURTESY MFA BOSTON

Reconciling the present with the past is difficult but necessary. Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi—a Nigerian-born curator joining the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture in July after working as a curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College—said that relativism over past standards should not preclude museums from being “above reproach” with regard to their recent and historic holdings. “Given that the institutional history of the museum is fraught, a more ethical approach should stem from an acknowledgment that museums were part of the colonial ideology of conquest, domination, and attempts to hijack or re-write the narratives of so-called subject peoples to serve political, economic, and intellectual agendas,” Nzewi added. By recognizing realities of the past, museums will be better equipped to revisit and dissect their collections via “a well-thought-out and deliberate process of sifting through holdings and tracing the trajectories of individual objects.”

The Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles may offer a working example of how such research could be conducted going forward. UCLA purchased its first African art collection in 1961 and, after forming the Fowler Museum in 1963, acquired more. “We have received major donations from a number of important private collectors in Los Angeles, which was a strong locus of collecting African art from the 1960s to the 1980s,” Fowler Museum director Marla C. Berns, chief curator Matthew H. Robb, and associate curator of African arts Erica P. Jones wrote to ARTnews in an email.

The museum received a 30,000-object gift in 1965 from the Wellcome Trust in London, including 7,000 African artifacts collected by the English tycoon Sir Henry Wellcome. Though the museum’s policy is to request all available provenance information, such information tends to be limited, vague, or difficult to verify. Acquisitions from decades past, the museum officials wrote, “may not have had very much collection information beyond the donors and the dealers they acquired them from, if that. Coupled with the fact that many dealers were and are reluctant to reveal their sources or asked too few questions themselves, the result is a trail that often goes completely cold in a search for an object’s provenance.”

A partial solution presented itself to the Fowler earlier this year in the form of a $600,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study its Wellcome holdings from Africa. For a 40-month project initiated in February, the museum is dedicating two full-time fellows to work with curatorial staff to investigate the origin of 700 objects, with the intention, according to museum staff, to establish how much the “reconstruction of provenance can be enhanced by both comparative ethnographic research as well as scientific materials analysis.” Based on the success of their results, the Fowler will continue that approach while considering future steps such as “building connections to people in specific source communities to consider potential future actions around cultural patrimony and ownership, preservation and education, and possibilities for restitution.”

Ndubuisi C. Ezeluomba, a former Mellon Foundation research specialist and the New Orleans Museum of Art’s current curator of African art, has spent a lot of time considering the implications of restitution. “Countries are beginning to clamor for these objects, but they never left any country—they left cultures,” he said of distinctions among national identities that don’t always match up with the origins of historical objects that predate certain borders. “Are they bringing it back to the culture or the country?”

Ezeluomba illustrated his point with the example of his birthplace: Benin City, a remnant of the once-powerful Benin Kingdom that is now part of Nigeria. Of the many works removed from there at the turn of the 19th century, he asked, “Will you return [the work] back to the nation of Nigeria, which [didn’t exist] when those things were removed? It is complex.”

Even more complexity attends how such artifacts were originally used. “Are they going to continue serving the function or purpose for which they were removed?” Ezeluomba asked. “Most of this material was actually for religious use, and we know that when they leave their religious context, they are de-sacralized or de-consecrated. They’re not going back to serve that same function.”

The Brooklyn Museum confronted a scenario of just this sort after Kristen Windmuller-Luna joined as a curator of African art last year. New to the job—and after being greeted with controversy by some who decried the hiring of a white curator for her position—Windmuller-Luna set out to learn more about an African Yoruba masquerade costume known as the Egúngún mask, which entered the museum’s collection as a gift in 1998 and was being considered for an exhibition. After analyzing its materials, she established that the mask could not have been created earlier than 1920. When she traveled to Nigeria to learn more, she found herself among the descendants of the Lekewogbe family who had made the object and was told it had been stolen from a shrine in 1948.

As Windmuller-Luna recalled in an interview with the Art Newspaper, “I asked them: ‘Is this appropriate to be on view? Are you all right with this exhibition? Do you want the work back?’ ” To help answer her questions, the family and the curator communed in a divination ceremony through which gods were consulted and the mask was deemed no longer “spiritually empowered.” As a result, the mask went on view in February—with the family’s blessing—in the current Brooklyn Museum exhibition “One: Egúngún.”

Artist unknown (Yombe peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Power Figure, 18–19th century, part of the Fowler Museum’s collection donated through the Wellcome Trust.

DON COLE/COURTESY FOWLER MUSEUM

In 2012, two years before returning objects from its William E. Teel collection, the MFA, Boston was served with competing claims for the return of certain works issued by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria and the Oba Palace in Benin, the official seat of power for the culture whose works were in question. Unsure how to proceed, the museum turned to a member of its board of advisers, Arese Carrington—a granddaughter several generations removed from the Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, who reigned over the Benin Kingdom in 1897 at the time of the British invasion.

Carrington, who resides in Boston, traveled to Benin, where she met with the current Oba in the presence of the full court to make a case for how the work in question could be accessible to the local Beninese diaspora while it remained in Boston. The Oba agreed with Carrington on the condition that the museum and the Benin community work toward a list of goals to establish a sustained collaboration.

“The Oba wanted to make sure the community always had access to the collection,” said Gunsch, who since starting as curator at the MFA in 2014 has worked with Boston locals to ensure that the work on display respects the values and history of the Edo people. In addition, the museum has worked to make visitors aware of the items’ complex history through information provided alongside the work. Part of this process has involved working with the local diaspora to improve interpretations of the museum’s collection—in particular by promoting the learning of Edo, the primary language of Benin.

In the case of the Oba, communication was integral. But when certain communities cease to exist, how does an institution attribute ownership? “Given the accident of colonialism,” said Nzewi, the incoming MoMA curator, “if we accept that objects now come under the jurisdiction of national governments represented by the institution of the museum, how do we determine where to return objects that transcend national boundaries?” By way of example, he cited the so-called Senufo objects comprising intricate sculptural and textile work from West Africa, as well as others attributed to more than one culture, like Luba or Hemba objects originating from the area now governed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Cécile Fromont, an associate professor with a specialty in African art at Yale University, said an important distinction for museums to keep in mind is the separation between ideas of ownership and custodianship, as outlined in a groundbreaking 2018 report on repatriation prepared for the French government by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr. Citing that document, titled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics,” Fromont said, “One aspect of the report that is misunderstood is that they are really advocating for restitution, not necessarily repatriation.” The difference, she said, lies in the idea of “ownership of the object and not only location,” and distinguishing between who owns a work and where it is kept can allow for different ways of thinking about questions of cultural patrimony.

“It’s a controversial idea, and one that is maybe coming from more of an economics perspective,” Fromont said. “If the object’s ownership is transferred to African states, then they are able to participate in the international art world in a way that, without it, they are not able to. Once they have a stake, they can sit at the table.”

Ezeluomba, from the New Orleans Museum, raised a different question: “When push comes to shove, what is the average African’s perception? We are fighting at the top-most level, but how do they feel? What is the museum culture in Africa?” For the conversation to move forward, such matters need to be considered, Ezeluomba said. And on top of creating infrastructure and architecture, it’s important for institutions to consider how to “sustain that with our knowledge and understanding of maintenance culture.”

Nzewi called for the creation of an open-source database of “all objects in Western institutions, both public and private, and country by country.” Readily accessible information would allow institutions and independent researchers “to determine the trajectories of objects,” he said. And echoing Fromont, he added that objects of the kind he works with should be viewed as assets “in the same way Hollywood is an enormous economic resource for the United States and as most museums are for Western countries.” Adopting such a mind-set could lead to a number of scenarios, Nzewi said, including a prospective framework whereby Western institutions pay royalty fees—which could be drawn from entrance fees and image-usage fees—to the rightful owners of stolen artworks in their collections.

In instances when countries seek to repatriate objects without specific claims that can be made clear (as with the example in Benin), Nzewi suggested selling an object back to its country of origin at a “symbolic market value” to a public trust that could be created to ensure the object’s safekeeping and also allow for loans that could be used to invest in cultural endowments and to treat objects as national heritage.

“There is a burgeoning world of independent institutions in Africa that can benefit from such funds rather than the usual recourse to European foundations,” Nzewi said. “The funds would have well-respected juries that change every year, and people would have to apply for the money directly.” Nzewi envisions funds run professionally by management teams in a manner consistent with other endowments, perhaps taking the form of partnerships between various national ministries of culture with a body like UNESCO—to provide a “check and balance in managing the fund.”

Such a model could help develop cultural infrastructure in the absence of state involvement in certain African countries. “It will help to stem the absence of sustainability that plagues most of these initiatives and curtail the over-reliance on Western funding,” Nzewi said. “We must curb the African dependency syndrome, and this could be one way to do that, if there is transparency and sincerity.”

Since French President Emmanuel Macron pushed questions of restitution and repatriation to the fore in the West just two years ago, the conversation has intensified. But as Reed, the MFA Boston’s curator for provenance, pointed out, much of the debate has been centered in Europe, where museums are typically government-owned. In the United States, where most museums are privately run and funded, guidelines might need to come from outside bodies such as the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. “I would imagine that, for American museums, any guidance on this issue is going to come from one of these professional organizations and not necessarily on a museum-by-museum basis,” Reed said. “Not to let us off the hook, but I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point yet where we’re having those sorts of conversations.”

In the meantime, institutions such as the Fowler Museum are focusing internal efforts to establish guidelines for what they hold in their collections. Through their current Mellon-funded research initiative—which includes an advisory committee drawn from local and regional scholars as well as community stakeholders—the museum’s director and curators said they hope to continue learning and, in the process, help answer a question hanging heavy on their minds: “What does it mean to have a collection of sub-Saharan African art formed by a British industrialist in Los Angeles in the 21st century?”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 86 under the title “Better Safe Than Sorry.”

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