February was spent mapping out goals for the first half of the year. This set the tone for the activities we would do and served as a guide, with the goal to spring into action the following month.
In March, the team began collating information on requests and returns. The Benin Bronzes are seen to have better documentation of the requests for restitution, which is why they were used as a case study for creating a media framework. After the first iteration, we were able to ask 3 key questions:
- If an object is requested multiple times, how will the framework reflect that?
- Is it possible to structure the framework in a way that reflects whether the request is for a single object or when it’s a request for an entire collection?
- How do we reflect the complexities of a request through data?
These questions helped us understand and acknowledge that returns within collections do not happen artefact by artefact and that there is no method of how a restitution request is made. This makes it difficult to define an official request. The data we have put together is based on the details on the request – who made it, what was asked, and what institution was the request sent to? Our hope is that this helps us centre the framework around the data that matters to Africans.
In April, we were able to define 6 types of requests, and began populating the Benin Bronzes framework with online sources. The 6 types are:
- A request for return
- An offer from a museum or collector
- A request for a short term loan
- A request for a long term loan
- A request for a permanent loan
- A purchase of a Benin Bronze
In May, a new team member joined to support our research. She aided in the finetuning of the framework based on the questions that appeared from the analysis of the first data. At that point, we documented 17 requests made, most of which were to return collections that were expatriated to museums in Europe and America. We saw the return of 14, and 20 commitments to return, however, these numbers are a fraction of the requests and returns made.
In June, a new team member joined the team to support our communications efforts. The research team decided to take a new approach by shifting from Benin Bronzes to examining what data our framework reflects in other parts of the continent. We chose the Vigango of the Mijikenda people along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline in Tanga, a commemorative spirit maker. The online research unearthed 2 requests from American museums, and one of these has been returned after sitting in a port for several years. The second item has been in Nairobi’s JKIA airport for years due to an unpaid import tariff. This data shows that there is not a universal framework, and we have to adopt different frameworks created for the different regions we conduct research in. As we plan for fieldwork, we are thinking about the best possible ways to find relevant resources within the various communities so we can supply the necessary information to practitioners, interested parties and the general public.
This vital (albeit sparse) data on restitution requests from 2 regions of the continent serves as our raison d’etre.