British Museum: A Twist to Stolen Artefacts
By Tajudeen Sowole (February 26, 2008)
VOLUMES have been written just as emotions poured out over Africa's agitation for the return of cultural objects carted away from various parts of the continent to Europe.
Adding a voice to this agitation with a recent intellectual property implication involving the British Museum is a documentary film, Crown Fraud, which is scheduled for release soon.
While revisiting the issue of cultural objects of African origin languishing in Museums across Europe, the film, according to the producers is a product of 11 years quest to add to existing evidence and exploitation of African cultural objects at the British Museum.
When released, the film would have put the British Government in a very awkward position, even as Britain remained adamant against UNESCO regulations guiding operations of museums.
Article 11 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on cultural objects taken across borders clearly defines "as illicit, the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power".
In February 1897, the British Empire waged war on the old Benin Kingdom. At the end of the battle, Benin City was burnt to ashes. The Oba of Benin was deposed, most of his chiefs murdered, numerous innocent lives were lost.
The war, apparently Obinali Egele, general manager of Markets and Investments, producers of Crown Fraud, said was punishment for the Benin people for not accepting the occupation of the white men who invaded their lands. The British invaders also looted over 3000 Benin artefacts of monumental cultural heritage, which held the secret to the events that shaped the history of Benin.
It has been established over the ages that the Benin artifacts tell a story of the people's history- a heritage that cannot be bought with any amount in the world: "they are like pages from the book of the Benin people's life history. Since 1897, there has been a void in the cultural records of Benin, a void which may never be filled unless some justice is achieved."
One of the stolen artefacts was the famous Queen Idia mask. This image was adopted as the face of FESTAC 77, Africa's largest ever celebration of arts and culture which took place in Nigeria in 1977.
This mask Obinali Egele, general manager of Markets and Investments, producers of Crown Fraud, said again became a subject of controversy 11 years ago when Markets and Investments walked into the British Museum seeking to use the image of the FESTAC mask as a logo for his company.
Revisiting the incident that led to the production of Crown Fraud, Egele recalled that the resulting confusion led his company to challenge the legitimacy of the copyright that the museum claimed for the reproduction of images like the FESTAC mask.
The documentary film, he said is due for release in June 2008.
"In November 2006 the UK intellectual property office accepted the application to register the mask as a trade mark. Details were published in the UK Trade Marks journal for three months to allow for any objections. The British Museum had every opportunity to oppose the application if they had rightful copyright. They did not oppose it. As a result, the trademark certificate was registered in the UK by Markets and Investments in June 2007.
"This certificate proves beyond any doubt that the British Museum has no legal claim to make money from reproducing images of Benin artefacts, in particular the FESTAC mask. It also confirms the mass fraud that has been taking place at the British Museum for decades."
He added that it is time the British Government is held responsible for all the monies made through false copyright claims in respect of the Benin artefacts.
Explaining the production company's experience in the course of producing the documentary, Egele disclosed that: "By all international standards, this is fraud. The British Museum charged inflated fees to reproduce any image. We paid £11.75 for a photo and were charged £250 for a license to use the image for 5 years. This amounts to over N65,000.00, and this is a single case. There are literally thousands of requests for images coming in all year round. The museum also maintains copyright for publications, loans for exhibitions, merchandising and much more. The figures generated by the British Museum for the Benin artefacts alone is conservatively estimated at around 100 Million Pounds, (N25, 000, 000, 000 trillion Naira), not a single penny has been given to the Oba."
The position of the British Museum during a UNESCO organised debate on new challenges facing museums indicated that the Britain was not ready to shift ground. In apparent deviation from UNESCO policy and decision of the General Conference at its 33rd session, the British Museum's view, during the debate in 2007 was that cultural objects were safer in developed countries and countries of origins could have access through digitized or digital images of the work.
To deny a people the only surviving proof of their origin is wrong. And to profit from that denial is evil".
In 1997, the International Council on Museums, ICOM has declared that the looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. ICOM noted that whole sections of African history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted.
"These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location."
Originally appeared in Guardian Nigeria.