The artifact at the center of the controversy, the Lander Stool. courtesy Art Net News

Lander Stool raises questions of ethics in art preservation

Nigerian officials have asked for the return of the artifact, which is regarded as the first item stolen during colonization.

“Black Panther” antagonist Michael Killmonger is introduced in a poignant scene that takes place in a museum intended to resemble the British Museum. Killmonger corrects a museum official about the origins of a hammer, claiming that it was made in Wakanda. He assures the woman he would “take it off [her] hands.” She protests that the artifacts are not for sale. Killmonger asks her, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take them, like they took everything else?”

Although the Wakandan origin of this hammer is fictional, this issue of colonialism in museums is also relevant in contemporary situations. On Feb. 1, Nigerian officials requested that the British Museum return the Lander Stool to Nigeria. Steve Ayorinde, the cultural commissioner for the Lagos State, has said this is just the beginning of a larger conversation. They will continue to request Nigerian artifacts on a case-by-case basis from the British Museum and other European institutions. The Lander Stool is a symbolic first step, as it was believed to be the first object taken from Nigeria during colonization in 1830 and was named for the Englishman who removed it, Richard Lander.

Ayorinde requested this restitution in time for the opening of the John K. Randle Center for Yoruba Culture and History in the spring. This museum, which is funded by the Nigerian government, is being built in partnership with the British Museum. Here, Sean Oduwole, an architect for the project, claims the Yoruba people will have a place to “reclaim their heritage from a colonial narrative,” per The Art Newspaper, and have an opportunity to interact with and learn about their “lost history.”

The question of museum restitution policy is prevalent for many countries, and several issues arise out of debates about ownership. This generally centers on finding a balance between cultural heritage and protection of artifacts. With iconoclastic destruction executed by IS in countries like Iraq and Syria, western museums may be able to play a role in temporarily conserving art. However, the line between protection and theft of cultural achievements is often ignored.

In recent years, several African countries have worked toward reclaiming their histories by requesting loans or restitution of their artifacts from European museums. President Emmanuel Macron of France opened the door for this with his restitution of 26 artifacts, which French colonizers took by force, to Benin. Macron has called for an international conference to take place in early 2019 on the subject of restituting art taken without consent. In the same month, though, the British Museum loaned bronzes looted from Benin to the Benin Royal Museum, making a point of noting that Macron set the restitution precedent for France, not all of Europe.

Germany, too, has made strides to correct colonial thefts. German Minister of Culture Monika Grutters has released a code of conduct for museums in Germany to follow in an attempt to institute an effort to repatriate stolen art. Grutters’s statement said, “For many decades, colonial history in Germany has been a blind spot in the culture of memory,” according to Artnet, and the new initiative will aim to correct this.

She announced that the German Lost Art Foundation will allocate funds to public museums, allowing them to research the provenance of the works kept in their collections. The German Lost Art Foundation was originally created to investigate art stolen by the Nazis.

Widely publicized cases of restitution, like the release of the movie “Woman in Gold” chronicling the legal battle over the Nazi-looted Gustav Klimt portrait, have brought attention to questionable museum acquisition practices. However, the role of colonialism in museums necessitates continued conversations to ensure protection of a people’s rights to their cultural heritage.

Post Author: Piper Prolago