Photographing priceless artifacts is exactly as hard as it sounds
At long last, cultural treasures are being returned to former colonies. Richard Barnes traveled the world to document their journeys home.
For the past three years, photographer Richard Barnes has been traveling the world to document a recent phenomenon in archaeology: a new generation of curators and artists who are calling for artifacts to be returned to their ancestral homes.
Barnes has journeyed to Carrara, Italy, where artists and researchers are carving replicas of ancient Greek marble statues to replace the originals standing in the British Museum. He’s also visited Benin City, Nigeria, where bronze casters still practice the centuries-old art form but have to travel to London to see their predecessors’ work.
We spoke to him about how he was able to capture the repatriation movement—and the artifacts that are finally making their way home—for National Geographic’s March issue.
What does this story mean to you?
This project was a perfect fit for Barnes, who is interested in how individual people define themselves through their art collections—and further, how entire cultures define themselves by their collections.
Going Home has been in the works for several years, says Barnes. The project calls attention to the colonial-era plunder of artifacts from primarily African countries, which were then put on display in what are often called “universal” or “encyclopedic” museums across Europe and the United States.
In the past five to 10 years this legacy has been reexamined and the floodgates have opened for those artifacts to be returned to Africa, he says.
Photographing the repatriation movement requires getting access to places you wouldn’t normally be able to enter—a common task for photographers. Barnes says it’s important to create dialogue with museum directors and curators as well as the people from whom objects were taken. All of them can be very reluctant to work with photographers.
“My entry point is to create a bond of trust that I’m not there to make them look bad,” he says. “That’s really important to me.”
Barnes hopes readers take away a new understanding of the history behind different objects featured in the March issue. The people whose ancestors created these items “can’t see their own culture unless they travel to a world capital, be it Paris, New York, Washington, D.C., or London.”
Returning these artifacts is critical to the preservation of their culture and history, he says.
What’s the story behind the feature?
Barnes’s images in the feature story are a mix of still lifes of the objects themselves and scenes of curators handling the collections and visitors viewing them.
Among the most contested artifacts in the debate over repatriation are the Benin Bronzes, a group of nearly 5,000 sculptures and decorated plaques that were stolen by British soldiers in an 1897 sack of Benin City, in modern-day Nigeria. The objects were then auctioned off and can now be seen in museums and private collections all over the world.
The items were named for the historical Kingdom of Benin, located now in Nigeria, but misnamed as “bronze,” given that they include pieces made of ivory, wood, and brass. A guild of bronze casters has worked in Benin City for nearly 400 years, Barnes says, and continues to craft sculptures as the original guild once did. The casters have also modernized their business and create pieces to sell to tourists and collectors.
But the casters can’t see their predecessors’ work without traveling to the British Museum in London, where most of the bronzes are housed. Barnes recalls the head of the guild, Phil Omodamwen, questioning why he should have to travel to another country to view his cultural heritage.
“The bronzes are part of the history of the Benin people, so why is it in the British Museum?” Barnes says.
The British Museum did not allow Barnes to photograph the Benin Bronzes in its collection, and it has become a global symbol for refusing to return objects. The reasoning? It wants to be an encyclopedic museum, Barnes says, and it has argued that items were obtained through valid-at-the-time treaties or other technicalities.
Barnes was also refused access for the cover story to the marble sculptures in the British Museum that once decorated the Parthenon in Athens. Britain obtained the sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, in 1816 when its ambassador, the Earl of Elgin, bartered for them with the Ottoman government that was occupying Greece at the time. Today Greece argues that the agreement was illegitimate.
The Acropolis Museum in Athens is holding empty spots in its displays as it awaits the return of the artifacts. In the meantime, however, a team of artists and researchers has been working to persuade the British Museum to relinquish the marbles by creating replicas. Using scanned images taken in the British Museum, they’re using a robotic arm to sculpt entire friezes and sculptures into slabs of Greek marble, Barnes says.
After the initial carving is done, artists then hand-carve any further detail, even replicating the wear and tear on the centuries-old artifacts. One of these carvings has been sent to London and is now showcased in the Freud Museum as a way to signal to the British authorities that replication and repatriation should be prioritized, Barnes says.
“It’s fascinating how we apply technology to a sculpture that has a history going back thousands of years,” Barnes says.
WHAT'S INSIDE THE ISSUE
• How the world looked in 1914, at the peak of colonialism
• Mountain hares are built for snow. That’s becoming a problem.
• Is Lebanon broken?
• What it’s like to kayak the most dangerous Great Lake
• A mesmerizing look at nature's eight-legged wonders
What’s next for the photographer?
Barnes became interested in the process of replication while photographing this story, and he plans to return to Carrara to photograph the process of replicating a horse’s head from the Parthenon marbles for his next project.