Wednesday, May 7, 2008

British Museum grants permission to use image of Benin mask as corporate logo


I see the Chicago Sun Times has just run a piece on Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno's eagerly awaited new book, Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.

The Sun Times piece (You Can't Have Your Stuff Back) quotes my critique of Cuno's thesis, (even though as a blogger I don't get name-checked or hyperlinked), but it has garnered one or two interesting comments, one in particular objecting to the "Cultural Property Nationalists" who constitute one of Cuno's main targets. "Under the auspices of UNESCO," writes Wayne Sayles, "they seek to control the flow of virtually anything made by mankind, anywhere, more than 100 years ago. The implications are mind boggling and the ideology is so myopic and fervent that it borders on cultism."

On current barometric readings, Cuno's book looks likely to be one of the most controversial publications to date in the previously genteel realm of museums and cultural heritage. Interesting that Mr Cuno and his fellow opponents of selective repatriation (that's all it is, despite what they'd have you believe) are applauded for their passion, while those arguing for a more constructive dialogue on this issue (which is in reality about nothing less than the future of museums) are accused of "zealotry" and "cultism".

But not every nation wants its "stuff" back. Many nations merely seek a more constructive relationship with museums that hold their cultural objects and would like to see a more open and forthright approach to revealing the true provenance of objects, warts and all.

I guess the ballyhoo confirms one thing - that the topic of cultural heritage just gets hotter and hotter, and not only in publishing.

This morning, I was interviewed by Mo Abudu (right), the host of Moments with Mo, the first pan-African chat show, which deals with African cultural, political and lifestyle issues. Mo has been looking into the case of a Benin ivory mask of Queen Idia (above left) in the British Museum.

In the mid-1990s, a Nigerian business group applied to the British Museum for permission to use an image of the mask in its corporate logo. The BM refused that permission. However, when the Nigerians then challenged the BM's good title to the mask (on the basis that it was among the many items looted from Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897), the BM finally capitulated. The logo is now duly registered as a trade mark (see website of the company, Markets and Investments, here).

Mo's researchers approached the British Museum for comment, but they declined. She wanted to know from me why the British Museum might have been reluctant to engage in a discussion for her TV programme on the issue. Not being a British Museum spokesperson I could only speculate that the whole matter might be a source of some embarrassment (which perhaps also explains why in its African galleries and its online Explore pages the BM still fails to give a full and honest account of how the Benin material entered its collections). I'm still intrigued, however, as to why, under pressure, the British Museum surrendered its previously held objection to the mask's corporate use. In doing so it appeared, by default, to be abdicating its rights to good title, although my knowledge of the legal ramifications is not so much shaky as wholly non-existent.

In fact, the Nigerians who are challenging the museum over its good title to copyright and licensing fees are not requesting that the mask be returned to Nigeria (although I know that Nigerian cultural groups would ultimately like to see progress on that issue). Instead they are seeking to explore, as a point of principle, the British Museum's claim to exclusive rights to commercial revenues generated through what they see as its illicit ownership of the object. Extrapolating from the fees they were charged by the museum for the logo-licensing rights, they estimate that some £300 million or more could have been generated by the Benin material dispersed through museums in Europe and North America since it was plundered in 1897 (and let's be clear, it was plundered).

Such thorny problems - a legal and ethical minefield to be sure - seem to emerge almost daily at present. Altogether it certainly provides a rich and fertile context for the appearance of Mr Cuno's book, which I look forward to with relish.