The Significance of Benin Art and Artifacts Essay

1180 Words 5 Pages
The attitudes towards the display of Benin Art, adopted by European museums and galleries have dramatically changed over the 112 year period since their initial acquisition. This has been for a number of reasons including the societal transition from accepting colonialism to acknowledging cultural diversity, the gradual integration and cross-fertilisation across the academic fields of anthropology, ethnography and art history and the ongoing debate regarding provenance and repatriation.

The Benin artwork seen in museums around the world today was systematically plundered from Benin City by the British in 1897 as part of a punitive expedition in reprisal for the massacre of an overzealous Trade Delegation. The British acquired over 2400
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So much so that that extensive work was undertaken trying to attribute the artefacts to either earlier cultures such as the Gnostics or proof of an earlier link with Europe or even as an throwback to Ancient Egypt.

The objects were primarily displayed in all these institutions as ethnographic or anthropological finds. Their purpose was to both educate and excite the Victorian and Edwardian public about the advance of a culture from savage to civilised and the Benin artwork provided an “...unexpected phase of negro craftsmanship...”. (The Times (25th September 1897), Loftus and Wood (2008), p.80) Objects were at this time physically grouped by utility; cooking, hunting, clothing and large swathes of the globe came under a common heading. The production of art, for example the Benin Brass Plaques, were proof of the movement along the road to civilisation, not as aesthetic objects in their own right. This physical manifestation of collecting without any thought to context is still seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It has anachronistically became a “Museum Museum” as it retains the large display cabinets common a century ago and affords a glimpse at how the civilised west viewed the primitive Dark Continent.

During the late twentieth century the academic fields of anthropology and art history began to acknowledge a crossover of both materials and sources and a common challenge in how to engage the public. In France “...museums with ...

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