What to Do With Your Loot: Renovating the Benin Displays at World Museum

25 October 2019 by Zachary

The artist Leo Asemota at World Museum 10 October 2019 looking at documents in the museum’s Benin archives.

If you have been following World Museum blogs or social media you will have seen that we are in the first stages of renovating our outdated World Cultures Gallery.

The project focuses on a few key display areas of the larger gallery, one of which is the Benin exhibit within the Africa displays. The project provides an opportunity to explore ways of re-thinking Benin’s history and culture as part of a wider global story to make it more relevant and responsive to contemporary audiences in Liverpool and beyond. New and engaging content for the renovated display will be developed around key questions in themed workshops with a small group of Liverpool residents with a particular interest in the past, present, and future implications of holding and displaying Benin collections in museums.. Workshops will be facilitated by Leo Asemota, an artist from Benin whose practice interrogates and links historical and cultural themes from both Britain and Benin City. A couple of weeks ago Leo came to Liverpool to explore the museum’s Benin-related archives in preparation for the workshops.

The museum’s archive includes photographs of Benin created by a Liverpool trader in the early 1890s, but Leo was also able to look through various other archival letters, newspaper articles, publications, and even hand-written accounts. Many of these related to the so-called British ‘punitive expedition’ sent to subjugate Benin City in February 1897, during which British forces looted thousands of royal artworks in bronze, brass and ivory from the palace complex. What really caught Leo’s eye, though, was something more contemporary; a newspaper article from 1981 cut from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The article profiles an up-market shoe designer boasting a clientele of international celebrities. It featured the image of a Benin queen mother’s head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes. Leo was instantly struck by this image and selected the cutting as an item of particular interest for the project.

As an example of cultural appropriation for commercial purposes, the 1981 image is especially shocking for the way that it thoughtlessly replicates the desecratory structure of much earlier photographs taken in Benin in February 1897.

British officers seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound Benin City, 1897.

Officers with the February 1897 British punitive expedition seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound. Benin City, 1897. Part of an image by an unidentified photographer displayed on a graphic panel in the Benin displays at World Museum Liverpool.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting showing Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting in the Karpinski archive at World Museum, taken from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The image shows Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Photograph of a replica Benin Queen Mother head made for sale from an original in the British Museum. World Museum collection.

In these photographs British officers with the punitive expedition are shown seated in triumph on looted brass altarpieces and other treasures stripped from the ancestral shrines in the royal palace and piled up in the palace courtyard. The image from 1981 represents a peculiar reincarnation of the photographs taken 84 years earlier in Benin. It activates a toxic colonial memory in order to urge wealthy customers to spend their ‘loot’ on zebra-striped shoes.

Museums, as theatres of memory-making and storehouses of ill-gotten colonial props, have much to do in helping to re-examine and counter the violently-fashioned memory-scapes of our colonial pasts. The workshops with Leo Asemota at World Museum are intended to play a key part in the process!

  1. jane Anderson says:

    I always enjoyed the World Cultures gallery, and thought it the best gallery in the museum.

    i appreciate the contemporary attempt to re-examine Britain’s colonial past, but also hope it can be done without a sledgehammer. Personally, don’t like too many interactive exhibits, as i just like and appreciate beautiful & interesting objects for their own sake, and always really enjoyed the presentation of the original world cultures gallery – as you were able to intuit the general culture and atmosphere of different places – just by looking at the artefacts they produced.

    • Zachary Kingdon says:

      Great to hear that you have enjoyed our World Cultures gallery and that you appreciate our attempts to re-examine Britain’s colonial past! The gallery is now 15 years old, and we feel it’s the right time to re-examine and update what we have on display. Our collections are very important for the stories they can tell about a wider, more global, history – they helps us to understand the complexities of our contemporary world. Of course, looking at any art work, or object, display etc. it is all very subjective and we bring our own preconceptions to the way things ‘speak’ to us. For example, in re-examining our Benin collections, we still want our visitors to be able to appreciate the remarkable artistry exhibited in the works that we display, but we also want to challenge received ideas, still partly shaped by the one-sided accounts of a by-gone era. We would like our visitors to think about why British museums hold so many looted royal altar pieces from Benin in their collections, and what the implications of this are for all of us – for now and in the future.

  2. Nikki says:

    I feel there is a balance that needs to be struck here between the past and future. I fully support the contextualisation of the museum’s collection and feel this could be part of other collections too. Provenance can be just as interesting as items themselves and are part of the story. Its easy to say where something is from but to put it in its space is far more interesting. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something comes from a temple, OK, what did the temple look like? How did it sit in the temple? What happened to the temple? How was it found? How did it get here?

    But there is also the future. Why are we displaying these items? We aren’t just doing it for the sake of it. I think we are beyond the Victorian curiosity in non western aesthetics. How do these exhibits relate to us today? What are we learning? I don’t think its about the crimes of the Imperial Elite for most people. They come to these places to appreciate and understand who made these things.

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