”I love the Benin bronzes”

“I think they properly reside in the British Museum…”

We might have been wrong about our MP. He might be a Culture Warrior after all.

(It seems odd to be writing about ancient art while the nation descends into chaos but the business of Parliament goes on and the former Culture Minister has been on his feet in the Commons).

When you’re a Minister on the way up you’re often required to earnestly throw yourself into supporting the most ridiculous policies. To stand in front of a camera with a straight face and endorse absolute rubbish as if it were your own very splendid idea and one you’d die for if called upon to do so.

Bracelet, Edo artist, 17th-18th century – Smithsonian

This is how I read Oliver Dowden’s resolute opposition to the return of stolen artworks, when he made the case during his time as Culture Secretary. It seemed obvious. To suggest that museums in Britain should retain works like the Parthenon friezes and the Benin bronzes, often stolen in the most brutal circumstances or by subterfuge is a logical and ethical solecism. Surely this was just a bit of populist cant for the friendly press?

The Benin bronzes, in particular, surely provide the ugliest case study. The circumstances of their theft, by British soldiers, the fact that essentially the whole legacy of the culture that produced them was removed by force and distributed to the capital cities of Europe and the USA. Keeping them here would be indefensible.

For over 120 years, the only way for a Nigerian to see this extraordinary evidence of their own history has been to travel to London or Berlin and visit the institutions complicit in its theft. It’s unsupportable.

The pressure for return is not new, of course. You might be old enough to remember that a campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens was begun over forty years ago by Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri. Calls from the Nigerian government for the return of the bronzes were made in the 1970s. Over the years UK governments have responded by introducing legislation that legally prevents institutions from returning looted treasures.

Some governments and institutions have begun to act. The Smithsonian in Washington DC has returned all 29 of the Benin artworks in its collection. The Horniman museum has agreed to return its collection of 72 bronzes, as have museums in Cambridge and Aberdeen. In Germany federal and state governments and museums have signed an ambitious agreement with the Nigerian government for the return of over 1,000 pieces. The pressure is building.

For the British government, though, in the era of chaotic populism and theatrical anti-wokery, return is still off the agenda. And the issue of ownership and return has been rolled up with the question of ‘contested heritage‘. For the Culture Warriors, tipping slavers’ statues into the harbour and changing colonial-era street names is basically the same as returning artworks to the places they were made. Unthinkable.

But what’s fascinating about this is that it looks like Dowden actually meant it. My assumption that his opposition to returning artefacts was just an eager minister doing his job was wrong. He actually opposes the return of the bronzes. We know this because he’s used his very first opportunity to stand up in the House of Commons in this session, as a free agent with no ministerial obligations, to raise the issue. There was a debate on the issue in the Lords. Dowden asks:

We are very blessed in this nation to have world-class museums. They are museums of the world, and the world comes to them. One of the bulwarks they have against constant claims of restitution is both the British Museum Act 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983, and I am aware that there will be a debate in the other place about changes to the 1983 Act. Can I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a debate in this place so that Members have an opportunity to express their support for that legislation? Otherwise, those institutions risk facing a barrage of claims for restitution, some of which may be encouraged by virtue signalling. I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if we allow this Pandora’s box to open, we will regret it for generations to come as we see such artefacts being removed to countries where they may be less safe.

(Dowden’s question: HC Deb, 13 October 2022, c275)

And, of course, with our current government – such as it is – he’s pushing at an open door. Even the profoundly demeaning and condescending construction “…removed to countries where they may be less safe” apparently elicited nods around the chamber and the approval of the current Minister Penny Mordaunt. She says the government has no plans to revisit the act.

Dowden’s specific fear, in raising the acts of Parliament, is that they represent the final line of defence for institutions like the British Museum, which holds over 900 Benin bronzes. When your museum is stocked so comprehensively with material that doesn’t belong to you, it’s vital to be able to point to the law of the land in your defence. For decades the British Museum has been able to refer to the 1963 British Museum act, for instance, in saying roughly “listen, guys, we’d love to send your stuff back but it’s out of our hands, we just can’t do it. It would be illegal.”

Any change to the law making it easier for claims to be considered would remove that blanket protection. Each request would have to be considered on its own merits. Looting, complicity in theft, trade in stolen goods – all would become prosecutable. Curators fear that their collections would evaporate over night, that they’d lose control over the process and be left custodians of halls full of plaster casts and empty plinths. You should have thought of that when you were filling your museums with loot, we find ourselves saying.

Justice, restitution, morality? Not on your nelly, says Oliver Dowden.

The clip at the top is an edit of Dowden’s Channel 4 News appearance from American satirical show ‘Last Week Tonight’. It’s revealing because presenter John Oliver, who calls Dowden “that offensively English man”, essentially regards Dowden’s perspective as indefensible, anachronistic, immoral. The government and Conservative legislators are evidently happy for Britain to become more and more isolated on this matter.