Object Labels at the Museum

Marabou wonders, if a museum has objects that have been acquired due to violence, war, and/or illegal means, is it the museum’s responsibility to explain this acquisition history to its visitors?

When visiting a museum, Marabou takes more time than the average visitor to read the museum label. You learn a lot from a label, the obvious stuff such as name of the object and artist (if known), materials, the country and/or culture of origin, and possibly how old the object is. Where most visitors stop reading, Marabou continues. They want to know the provenance of the object. Provenance is the history of the object, where it originally came from, and the record (if any) of who has owned it over the years.

Peruvian mask Lamayeque, Sican
Funerary Mask (1974.271.35) from 10th-12th century Peru, Lambayeque (Sicán) currently in the collection the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Funerary Mask Peru Lambayeque Sican
The earliest provenance recorded for this 10th-12th century funerary mask is as a gift from a donor in 1974. How did that person acquire the mask?

Provenance is especially important for museums and auction houses because it determines an object’s value and authenticity. For example, in 2016, Sotheby’s auctioned off two pieces of jewelry containing human hair, a ring that sold for $30,000 and a brooch that sold for $47,500. As you may have guessed, this wasn’t just any human hair, but George Washington’s hair, or supposedly his hair. The brooch brought the higher price because it had a stronger provenance and could be directly traced to Washington.

Benin Bronze Plaque Oba Horseback
Bronze plaque of Oba on Horseback (1978.412.309) from the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria, 16-17th century. Currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Benin Bronze Plaque Labels Provenance
The brass plaques that are currently on display at The Met have provenances that date to mid-twentieth century private collections or British institutions. By what means were they removed from the kingdom of Benin?

Marabou finds provenance interesting for purposes other than assigning monetary value. Provenance, in a museum setting, can raise more questions than provide answers. When reading museum labels, you’ll learn many objects come from private collectors, either donated to or purchased by the museum. What often goes unaddressed is how collectors acquired the objects. Marabou pays particular attention to objects coming from countries and cultures subjected to colonization and imperialism. Often the provenance of these objects is murky with incomplete documentation. Visitors should be curious about how magnificent gold pieces from indigenous Peruvian cultures come into the possession of private collectors. It’s important to ask, how have bronze plaques that used to adorn the walls of the Oba’s (king’s) palace in the kingdom of Benin been acquired by so many private collectors and museums around the world? It is known that many objects, sacred objects, have been spoils of war or simply pillaged and stolen. This type of provenance, composed of histories of brutality and subjugation, often goes unaddressed in museum cataloguing. If it is addressed the wording is very soft and does not express the violent actions that took place to remove the objects from their origins. For example, in the image below, The Met mentions the 1897 British Punitive Expedition on a plaque posted on the side of a glass case displaying bronze animal statues from the kingdom of Benin. The plaque says the 1897 British Punitive Expedition “devastated and conquered the kingdom’s capital. Thousands of artworks were confiscated from the palace and dispersed to museums and private collections throughout the world.” “Confiscated” implies the British took the objects with some type of authority when in reality these objects were stolen. If many of these objects are stolen and pillaged, why isn’t this more widely acknowledged on every object label? Why is this series of violent acts reduced to two sentences in a small plaque in a very unassuming location in the gallery?

Bronze Animal Figures Kingdom of Benin
In one of the galleries in the Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Marabou is searching for mention of how these bronze statues from the kingdom of Benin left their homes.
Met museum explanation of 1897 British Punitive Expedition
Marabou found a small plaque that mentions the 1897 British Punitive Expedition that “devastated and conquered the kingdom’s capital. Thousands of artworks were confiscated from the palace and dispersed to museums and private collections throughout the world.” Confiscated or stolen?

Marabou thinks it’s interesting that museum labels are sometimes referred to as “tombstones.” For some objects they are tombstones, stating what they once were, but are no longer because their significance changes dramatically in a museum setting. Once an object is in a museum, it lives on for eternity (or until the museum sells it or liquidates it.)