Alarm over criminalisation of Benin Bronze protester

Restitution campaigners have expressed alarm over the conviction of a man who staged a protest at the Museum of London in January 2020.

33-year-old Isaiah Ogundele took part in a demonstration at the Museum’s permanent ‘London, Sugar & Slavery’ gallery on 29 January 2020. The gallery explores London’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and contains two original Benin bronzes on long-term loan from the British Museum: a water container (1500s) and a brass plaque (1500s-1600s).

The ‘Benin Bronzes’ in the British Museum’s collection are a group of sculptures created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City. In 1897, British troops invaded Benin City and plundered the royal palace and other ceremonial sites. No systematic record was made of the looted objects, which were then distributed and sold across the world.

Ogundele protested at the Museum of London to call for the restitution of the Benin Bronzes to their country of origin. According to a spokeswoman for the Museum of London, Ogundele “became increasingly concerned about the objects on display”. He is reported to have knocked over several sculptures from their plinths in a bid to seize them and shouted at members of Museum of London staff. Police were called and Ogundele was arrested.

On 18 September, Stratford Magistrates’ Court convicted him in absentia after Ogundele failed to appear at court. According to The Art Newspaper, Ogundele, who has no fixed abode, may have been unaware of the date for the court hearing. He was found guilty of “threatening/abusive/insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm, or distress”. The offence may require Ogundele to serve a prison sentence of up to six months, a fine or both.

The incident marks the first time a UK museum has been involved in the criminalisation of a protest about the repatriation of African cultural heritage.

Campaigners for the restitution of stolen African artefacts and human remains in UK museums and cultural institutions reacted strongly to Ogundele’s arrest and conviction. Executive director of AFFORD (African Foundation for Development), Onyekachi Wambu, who attended the 18 September hearing, said “Judging by the evidence given in court, what the young man needed was additional support to help with his welfare, not criminalisation”.

Attempts to criminalise those participating in these campaigns should be avoided at all costs, not least when we consider the initial violent and murderous circumstances in which these collections were acquired. Criminalising the descendants of those original victims intensifies the original crimes”, Wambu added.

Director of arts and education charity Culture&, Errol Francis, expressed similar concerns. “While I would not support the damage of artefacts, I am concerned about what appears to be a criminalisation of protest in this case”, Francis said.

The Museum of London has temporarily removed the Benin Bronzes from display.

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