What do you do when you find that artwork in your collection was possibly looted? Do you dig deeper to find the truth or blissfully ignore the revelation? Would you return the work if you discovered it was stolen? These were questions Dr Kristen Windmuller-Luna grappled with when she happened upon eleven Djenné copper alloy bracelets in the storage rooms of the Brooklyn Museum.
The then Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Art (now Curator of African Arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art) uncovered that the bracelets were gifted to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and labelled, ‘museum property’—a category in which the works were not formally accessioned to the collection. Dated to between 200-1000 CE, the works had never been exhibited. Through considered inquiry and research, Windmuller-Luna identified the eleven works as “likely looted, given the history of the site of Djenné, Africa’s oldest continually occupied sub-Saharan city and a UNESCO cultural heritage site.”
What followed was the “right choice both legally and ethically” to repatriate the bracelets to the National Museum of Mali. Below, Windmuller-Luna provides a detailed timeline of the events that ultimately led to the return of the works.
It wasn't just one work, there were eleven—eleven copper alloy bangles and bracelets from Djenné dated to between 200 to 1000 CE. Some of them are plain, some of them are made of twisted metal, some are twisted metal with beautiful curlicues at the end. They are gorgeous—small, delicate and with a beautiful, aged patina. You could imagine the size of whoever's wrists they would have been on.
This was the first time the Brooklyn Museum had repatriated art to an African nation. They had been doing repatriations to Native American nations for decades, even before the advent of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act], but this was something new.
"I believe in radical transparency."
They arrived in 1999 under the late curator of African and Pacific Arts, Bill [William] Siegmann. They were gifts from a pair of collectors; what's interesting about these bracelets is that they were labelled as something called ‘museum property’. This is a special category that I don't know if a lot of people are familiar with. It was new to me, as it’s not something that's used often now. [note: other museums refer to this category as ‘apparatus’]
'Museum property' meant that the title of the works was transferred to the museum but the bracelets weren't formally accessioned to the museum’s collection. They had numbers, but they did not include a credit line saying ‘collection of the museum.' Especially in the nineties, collectors would often give gifts with the intent that the museum can sell the works and use the proceeds to buy additional objects or art. It was relatively easy to determine that the bracelets were ‘museum property’ because there was a different way of tagging them with a unique identification number. The Brooklyn Museum had a different set of letters appended to the front of museum property.
I remember walking through the Brooklyn Museum storerooms, seeing the bracelets and thinking, “I don't remember seeing these online [on the website].” And it turned out to be because they were this whole other category of ‘museum property’ objects in the Arts of Africa, which at that point had not been posted online. I was able to put things that were ‘museum property’ onto the website, a matter of changing tick boxes [in the internal database that feeds into the public website].
I believe in radical transparency. I don't think it's particularly useful to hide what's in the collection, especially in this case because we had legal title to it and it was in our care. If you have a website, if the work is digitised, and if it's not culturally sensitive, then it shouldn't be visually restricted.
Transparency is important in telling that life story, in thinking about where these objects came from and why they came from. In the US, we tend to hide behind the argument of, “you all [Europeans] did the colonialism thing. We bought these works on an open market and that absolves us.” Today, there are still cases of looting on the African continent that do continue to affect works of cultural heritage. We have to think about the role museums play in promoting those illicit markets. If we essentially condoned that, then we are perpetuating the problem. The ethics of collecting are important.
It might be helpful to backtrack a little and talk about my curatorial practice. As a curator at an American institution who is responsible for collections of African arts, it's both my honour and my responsibility to research these collections as fully as possible. It’s also my responsibility to put forward the information that we have. It’s about ensuring that conversations are centred around respect—respect for the works themselves, respect for the people whose cultures they came from, respect for the artists that created the works, and in knowing that there are calls for transparency and repatriation, respecting those too.
Upholding high, ethical and legal standards and thinking about art and museums from both decolonial and post-colonial standards is something I've been referring to in my practice as ethical curating. That idea of inclusivity and respect applies to collecting too—not just considering what we can legally and ethically collect but ensuring that we're not collecting looted objects. This also includes ensuring that we go beyond that early canon that was defined in the colonial era because it's so narrow. We must get rid of that old 19th-century racist scholarship that divided the Continent in two.
So bringing it back to the bracelets, this is a straightforward case because essentially, everything from Djenné outside of Mali was looted or illegally excavated in the eighties or nineties. Mali ratified UNESCO 1970 [Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property] in 1987. In 1985, they ratified their cultural patrimony legislation, which meant that you would have had to get an export license to take anything out of the country. Uniquely for laws with an African nation, the US also had an emergency order with Mali in 1993, and then a bilateral agreement with them in 1997, which has since been extended multiple times, most recently in 2017. It essentially protects against the import of archaeological material without a valid export certificate. The bracelets were explicitly on that list [of object types] in that bilateral agreement.
Taking into consideration the date of ratification of UNESCO 1970 and Mali’s cultural heritage laws, when the legitimate excavations at Djenné were done by the McIntoshes [Susan Keech McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh], things that were excavated then stayed in Mali. It's the looting and the illegitimate archaeology that was done in the eighties and nineties that are the major problem.
In the case of the bracelets that were at Brooklyn, you essentially have the burden of evidence pointing to the fact that these works were looted and illegally exported: you've got the 1985 laws coming from Mali; the 1997 US-Mali bilateral agreement being enforced; the bracelets entering the Brooklyn Museum in 1999; and a lack of export certificates.
At that point, I determined from my perspective that morally and legally, these should not be in the museum and that we shouldn't sell them as originally accepted for.
"Upholding high, ethical and legal standards and thinking about art and museums from both decolonial and post-colonial standards is something I've been referring to in my practice as ethical curating."
This case was straightforward and went relatively quickly from when I first identified the bracelets [in July 2019] to when we repatriated them [in January 2020]. The laws were so clear on both the Malian side and on the American side and it certainly speaks to where having legal guidelines does make things a lot easier.
I had identified these bracelets as very likely being looted or candidates for repatriation in July 2019. I contacted the museum's registrar to get some clarification on who the donors were and to see if there was any additional information on the bracelets. I didn't have any paperwork in my curatorial files except for a note stating that they were gifts along with a little thank you note—none of these would have made the bracelets acceptable, no export licenses, no documents, no communications, nothing coming from the Malian government, nothing to indicate where these things had come from and that they were legally exported out of Mali. Following additional research on the legal perspective from the museum’s in-house counsel, I received approval to begin the repatriation process in September 2019.
Moving on to October, there was the restitution debate symposium at Columbia University. Dr Daouda Keïta, who is the director of Musée National du Mali, Bamako was one of the speakers at the symposium. After the talk, I ran up to him and said, “I am the curator of African arts at the Brooklyn Museum and I think we have something you may want back. Can we talk?” His response was kind of like, "what?"
As it turned out, he was going to be in the US for just a couple more days after the symposium. So I gave him my card, we exchanged numbers and he came out to the museum that Monday! A lot of it was good fortune. Our chief of curatorial affairs, the museum's director, and I hosted him at the museum. We offered the bracelets, he reviewed them, and he said, yes! We chose to offer it to the Musée National du Mali because from my research, we identified that it was the major museum in Mali.
Anytime a museum deaccessions something from its collection they have to go through official channels, so a lot of the next months—, November, December—were spent documenting and gathering paperwork for official approvals. This involved a lot of collaboration between myself, the registrar, and the counsel. I was the only one fluent in French so I was doing all the translating too.
In addition, whenever you deaccession something [and transfer it] to another institution, you have to get paperwork from them stating that this is the right institution for the piece. Dr Keïta helped coordinate from the Malian end, including a consultation with the Malian Ministry of Culture. They officially approved the Musée National du Mali, Bamako as the correct repository. Following this, we [the Brooklyn Museum] completed all the paperwork for the transfer of the legal title and the works, and the paperwork required for Dr Keïta to securely get through the airport with the bracelets. We had our conservation team and our brilliant art preparators make a custom box for the bracelets to ensure their safety in their travels back to Mali.
I would have wanted to deliver the bracelets in person, but because of some things that were going on with Mali, it was against museum policy to travel to the region [note: the policy covered all US State Department Level 4 Travel Advisory regions]. But I knew Dr Keïta would be coming as an honoured guest of the Sahel exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). So then I also coordinated with my wonderful MET colleagues to have a little bit of Dr Keïta's time to host a ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum.
At this point, however, I was also coordinating a cross-country move to start my new role at the Cleveland Museum of Art. And so as I started my job at Cleveland on January 6th, I was also coordinating all of these last-minute points: all the official details for the ceremony; who'll be in attendance; who will speak in what order and doing translations of the speeches.
I flew back to New York and on the 27th of January 2020, we held a private ceremony [in the museum’s board room]. David Berliner, President and COO of the Brooklyn Museum, gave a short speech followed by my remarks in French. This was followed by remarks by Dr Keïta. I think Dr Keïta was pleased with the fact that this was something that was a willing act on the part of the museum. It echoes what the Minister of Culture, Madame N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, wrote to us in a letter. It confirmed that this was a collaborative spirit, a spirit that Dr Keïta and I hope will continue.
The ceremony was wonderful. A really special and exciting day, one that I look back on with even more fondness now that our ability to safely travel has changed so much.
Repatriation, for many institutions, can be a scary term but it's fundamentally about respect. You often read comments in the press such as, "It will all go back and we'll have these empty halls". Think about how museums work: you only have so many rooms. To put it in other terms, think of it as your closet and wardrobe. You've only got one body, you can only wear one outfit at a time. Repatriation and understanding provenance can also take many different forms, and doesn’t always involve return. The exhibition around the Lekewọgbẹ family egúngún that I did at Brooklyn in 2019 demonstrated that.
We need to also think about the culture of loans. What does repatriation open up? Good relationships and respect. The Cleveland Museum of Art has historically repatriated some objects to Cambodia and because of those very good relations [and a Memorandum of Understanding for cultural practises generated by the connection], we now have an incredible upcoming show on Krishna sculptures with many works loaned from Cambodia. It's about relationships. We're all talking about and focusing on art, but it is a lot about people.
Something that Dr Keïta emphasised in our first conversation in storage was that he appreciated my and the institution being proactive about this; Mali didn’t have to ask, we offered. This was something that he reiterated in his remarks as well as in our continuing conversations. With this, we can cultivate a spirit of goodwill, and reciprocity. As I am at the Cleveland Museum of Art now, it is a relationship I will nurture here.
First things first, whenever you're buying now, document everything and hold on to that documentation. As a collector––especially if you're a collector who's interested in giving to a museum––work at collating that documentation because any museum will be looking for that research. And it takes time. We watch things on TV with these glorious montages of someone walking down a hall in an archive and they pick the right file and––there it is! That's not how it is in reality, it can take a lot of time and resources to properly research a piece. You would take time to research anything you're looking to make a big investment in. For example, you wouldn't buy a house without getting a home inspection. It's the same thing with a piece of art if you're a collector. You wouldn't check that that the paperwork isn't in order.
But know that your documentation may not be full; there are many things in our own lives that we don't have full provenance for, of course. But in terms of conducting that due diligence, if you can, always try to back it up yourself. I've seen some auction records or appraisals where comparables have been placed in a way that looked like provenance. Buyer beware. As museum professionals, curators have strict legal and professional guidelines that we adhere to when it comes to what we can and cannot acquire, and documentation in its many forms is key to following those guidelines.
Know too that artists are still creating; brass casters are still working in Benin City, so there are many ways to still support and love work from this region that are undisputed. Avoid work that may be looted, that may be 1897 Benin loot, for example. If you love work made by artists from Benin City, go buy from them; the artists working there are the inheritors of that centuries-old practice. Things that are new now, do become historical. As I look at some of the early collections here at Cleveland, we opened our doors in 1916 but the collection started around 1914 and some of the earliest gifts of African art were from people who were travelling at the time. The work donated to the museum were new at the time but now, over a hundred to 120 years later, the art is historical. It's a reorientation of mindset.
We need to think beyond the 'canon'. The canon is beautiful and should be appreciated but there is so much creativity on the Continent, past and present. Work beyond the canon is no less expressive, no less creative, no less devoid of technical skill and beauty.
For some curators—and perhaps for some institutions—I think there's still an old-fashioned idea that provenance is not interesting to visitors. In my experience, as a professor, as a curator, and as a museum educator, people are interested in provenance. Think about how much people are interested in genealogy and ancestry now, learning about where they came from; provenance is that kind of thing too, but for works of art.
We should also think about how we can expand that kind of storytelling, it is an asset in every way. You are expanding your ability to look into history, to think about how art lived in history. We must think about every person as an individual, every work of art as individual, and looking for that life story. I think it combats the myth too, that there is nothing to learn about historical objects and collections. You can learn so much more.
And I don't think you can care about Black cultures without caring about Black people and the communities the works come from and respecting those cultures. Thinking about the legal and ethical implications of your acquisitions is part of that care.
Repatriation is a conversation and it's not always necessary for the institution to say, "you should have this." I think it's our responsibility to research, put that information forward, and to make it available. But ultimately the decision is a conversation.
For curators (and their institutions), thinking about provenance takes a tremendous amount of collaboration both within your institution and with other institutions. I'm fortunate to have supportive colleagues in the field of African arts. In doing provenance research for an upcoming installation for CMA on the works we hold from the Benin Kingdom, I've been able to work with colleagues at several other different institutions who have shared information, even offering to look through files that I can’t travel to review myself. With COVID, we're researching in such different ways now. It's astonishing and wonderful, as isolated as we are, the collaboration that's taking place and being able to take advantage of those connections.
I think there's an old-fashioned idea that curators move things from A to B and maybe occasionally, dust objects while having a sherry. Maybe that was something that happened once upon a time. You also have the word “curate” used for almost everything in the world, used as a synonym for “selecting.” But for me, and I think for a lot of people in my generation, being a museum curator is about being a public scholar. While being a professor at a university is one way to share information, college is very exclusive in the US; only about 34% of Americans receive four-year college degrees. Working as a museum curator allows you to reach a larger scope of people. It's about creating access and sharing the things that you love.
In terms of technically what being a curator is, I often use two metaphors—one is about being a curator in a museum and the other is about the actual job of a curator. Curators do not work in isolation—I see us as just one star in the constellation of the museum; we all have to shine to make the visitor view that whole constellation. As I tell you more about the repatriation of the Djenné bracelets, you'll see how many departments were involved.
In terms of actually being a curator: I sometimes describe myself as being like a Swiss Army knife. You do so many things—you are a scholarly researcher, you are a diplomat, you are sometimes a designer, you are a mentor, you are an educator, and you are sometimes pulling boxes off of shelves.
Back in the B.C. [Before Coronavirus] era, when you saw people in person, you can have days where you would be in the storeroom and then having the lunch with the donors soon after. It's such varied work, but I'd say at its centre, it is that idea of public scholarship, of sharing art and information with a wide audience. And for me, that's particularly important. I'm a first-gen college student. My dad was a welder until he retired just this spring. My mom had been an administrative assistant until she had me in the eighties, and neither went to college.
The fact that I am [working] in a museum, that I have a PhD, is so different and I always think about my parents and making sure that when they come to my talks or show them around the collections, they're just as excited as I am about the material. I learn so much from their perspectives as well; my father and I just had a great conversation about lighting the surface of alabaster to show off different aspects of its surface and his past experience with using different lighting when painting cars.
I initially thought I would go to art school, I was looking at Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. Then I thought, if this artist thing doesn't work out, I'm not sure I'd have gotten the rest of the education I might need. Museums weren’t a career path I was aware of when I was entering college.
I always loved art and history, and I had an elementary school art teacher who gave us old-school art history slideshows in second grade—shout out to Mrs Lebo—I was probably the only kid who liked it. I ended up going into undergrad thinking I'd be a French major and an art major and then discovering that there was this thing called Art History where I could use both! That was exciting, something that I didn't know was an option.
[During graduate school, as well as when I worked at the Princeton University Art Museum and when I worked part-time at the Brooklyn Museum] I worked as an educator for six years doing public tours at the MET. Having that opportunity to interface with the public regularly was an amazing learning experience that complemented my curatorial work. As a curator, you have to think about teaching, communicating and storytelling in many ways. In the case of looking at provenance, it's thinking about storytelling, it's thinking about life history. What are the life histories of the art, whose lives did they touch? There is the horrendous in the history of a lot of African art, but also many other stories to tell, including triumphant ones: to make it only about the former is also to deny people agency, that's a real flattening of the complexity of history and the power of artists and their communities. History is complex—as are people—and it is our job as art historians and curators to acknowledge and share that complexity, as well as the beauty of art and the lives of those it touched.
African arts were not included in my undergraduate “intro to art history course;” the museum was my classroom. Now, as a curator and public scholar, I can pay that forward, and help make African arts a part of everyone’s art history, from our youngest museum visitors up. I can also use my platform to amplify the voices of others, build collaborations, and support important changes in institutional culture.