Monday, May 28, 2012

Queen-Mother 'Oo?

"Ya what?"
are probably the three most common answers you'd get from people exiting the British Museum to the simple question posed by Kwame Opoku's most recent article on the topic of the Benin loot kept there ('Do They Know Queen-Mother Idia?' May 27th 2012).
A recent visit to the British Museum confirmed what we have observed in previous years: many Western visitors to the museum have no specific interest in any particular Benin object, even if they visit the Sainsbury Gallery and look at the Benin Bronzes. They are mostly unaware of the looted Queen-Mother-Idia(“Iyoba”) ivory mask. Have the hundred years of illegal retention of this mask had any effect on the knowledge and interest of the average Western visitor to the museum? It seems hardly any European visitor is even aware that the mask represents an important personality in Benin history. Most Western visitors are certainly unaware of her important and decisive role and influence in stabilizing the Kingdom of Benin during the civil war at the end of the 15th Century, a crucial period in Benin history. 
He goes on:
Contrary to the propaganda of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, Benin culture has not become part of European heritage and culture even though Benin artefacts have been [...] detained in Western museums for more than hundred years. [...]  Queen-Mother Idia clearly plays no role in the culture, imagination and thinking of Westerners. So why keep her captive in London when she would be a subject of veneration and reverence in her homeland Benin, Nigeria? Why do the British Museum and the British Government still insist on keeping in Britain cultural artefacts of others, against the will of the owners? So far, we have not come across any reasonable justification for such an attitude.
 Opoku concludes that the only real reason that the Brits hang on to stuff like this is to cling to the relics of their own imperial 'glory'. Meanwhile another part of the Post-Enlightenment British Museum:

 Greek tragedy in the British Museum (Portableantiquities photostream on Flickr)

As ian Richardson reports, apparently approvingly ('Medieval Late at the British Museum), the Post-Enlightemnent today relies on edutaining gimmicks:
The Mausoleum of Halikarnassos gallery (Room 2) with its two specially-lit colossal statues formed the stage for a young acting troupe’s twist on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was seen by an overflowing crowd of onlookers. Even a presentation on the art of medieval hairdressing for film and theatre was given a dramatic location in front of the Nereid Monument in Room 17.
So I suppose this is the cultural mix-and-match of the Universal Museum in practice. Most "enlightening" I am sure. Was this what these sculted stones were transported across an entire continent to London for? To provide a "cultcheral-innit" backdrop to some tomfoolery that could have been done equally artistically in a shopping mall? What does the bloke with a cycling helmet on his head add to anyone's appreciation of the statues from Halicarnassus. That is Bodrum, Turkey. Maybe they should go back too to where they might be subjected to fewer indignities than they do in the BM's peculiar brand of dumb-down "outreach".

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