Cultural ‘Matrimony’ as a New Approach to Heritage Disputes

Posted on: November 29, 2018 by

The Benin Dialogue Group has recently announced plans to construct a new Royal Museum in Nigeria to display objects looted from the country that are now in European collections. This is an excellent example of what I call cultural ‘matrimony’, a new approach that can be used to resolve heritage disputes. This solution is in line with an art-historical viewpoint of culture as shared rather than owned by one culture. I am writing as an art historian, not as a seller or acquirer of artworks, nor as a litigator involved in disputes.

The Getty Bronze (courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program).

In a recent article in The Art Newspaper, I showed that, for various reasons, works of art often live on in different countries long after they were made. Among the examples I gave was the so-called ‘Getty Bronze’, created in Greece in 300–100 BC, found in international waters by Italian fisherman in 1964, and resident at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, for nearly half a century. In my article I suggested that we needed to rethink our perceptions of an artist or a cultural object as having a single, unified or homogenous identity or nationality. Rather than patrimony, cultural ‘matrimony’ would be a more useful notion.

The word patrimony goes back to ‘pater’, father in Latin, and refers historically to the property of the church or the spiritual legacy of Christ, from the Latin ‘patrimonium’, an inheritance from a male ancestor. In a marriage, patrimony is defined as that which is inherited. Patrimony gives a sense of belonging and strives not to be dispersed; it is a concept that protects but also limits culture.

‘Matrimony’ relates to ‘matrem’ or the mother, suggesting something brought into a marriage, such as the gift of a dowry or the gift of life. A matrimonial approach would emphasise a shared cultural heritage that enables objects to be part of transnational relationships, in a manner that respects the mobile identities of artists and their works. A matrimonial approach opens up fertile new potential for trust and synergy among diverse entities where previously it may have been lacking. I believe that a change of mindset may lead to new laws and agreements through which disputed works of art can be shared among countries.

Another term that is commonly used today is cultural ‘property’. Legal scholars have recently recognised that ‘property’ is ‘too limited to encompass the range of possible elements – both tangible and intangible – which can comprise the cultural elements being described’. Property speaks to the aspect of art that is related to market commodities and exchanges or ownership of goods. It also refers to a sense of belonging, power and control. This is only part of the identity of an artwork.

Likewise, cultural ‘heritage’ gives only a partial definition, for it assumes an artwork’s importance for only one culture’s identity. Art historians have shown that artworks can have many different values and meanings for people across cultures, whether for aesthetic pleasure and marvel, employment in religious rituals or a heightening of spiritual awareness. They are also meaningful for intellectual stimulation and learning about economic, social and political aspects of a culture, creating new ideas or gaining practical know-how, for understanding oneself and one’s own culture, or discovering another culture and finding similarities and differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Think, for example, of Picasso’s and Brancusi’s transformative contact with African art seen in Paris.

The Benin Bronzes currently held at the British Museum: these and others may be the subject of upcoming loans and exchanges with Nigeria (photo: A Herman 2018).

The Benin Royal Museum in Nigeria provides an excellent model of cultural ‘matrimony’. In this case, the afterlife of the works is related to colonialism and a very painful act of appropriation of artefacts taken by the British from Benin City (now in present-day Nigeria) in 1897. These are artefacts that are important religiously and culturally to the people of Nigeria. The Benin Royal Museum will be constructed to exhibit on a rotating basis the bronze sculptures that were looted and are now scattered among public collections around Europe.

In bringing together the various factions, the Benin Dialogue Group created a space for negotiation rather than a litigious property battle. Nigerian officials sat alongside museum officials from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

A time-frame for implementing a solution was agreed upon, avoiding a dispute that could have potentially carried on for years with no satisfactory resolution. In this case, three years were given for resolving the problem.

In the first place, the group sought and was able to arrive at a common goal, which was defined as ‘access to heritage’. An agreement was reached among all members of the group that museums would contribute artworks on a rotating basis, allowing the artworks to escape a frustrating limbo. While repatriating the works would have satisfied the local culture, most valuable for the resolution was the agreement to put off this difficult and painful discussion. The solution of circulating the works exposes them to a larger world audience and widens their circle of influence, creating a sharing of knowledge.

A further constructive dialogue is exemplified by the group’s agreement to share knowledge and expertise. European museums consented to assist the Nigerian museum by promising to provide advice, upon request, about best practices in constructing the building in which the art would be housed and in creating and implementing exhibition designs.

In a noteworthy additional cooperative step, a partnership was created to involve museum staff members on all sides (these could range from curators, conservators, educators, and fundraisers), with a goal of developing training, funding and a legal structure for the display of the works in the new museum. Indeed, lawyers will have a new role, which is to create these frameworks of ‘sharing’. One question that seems important for lawyers to consider is which country’s laws will be applied when structuring these agreements.

Ultimately, this agreement shifts the attention from the people and institutions involved to the objects and their possible functions in the world. Mine vs. yours becomes ‘ours’. This solution opens up a broader sense of ‘culture’.

The Benin case leaves open many questions: for example, who will insure the works and how will conservation be handled? What about questions of immunity from seizure once the works are shown in the country of origin? How will this idea of sharing change the discourse of cultural heritage? My hope is that new questions and possibly new answers will be generated by the discussion that emerges from this blog.

Sharon Hecker is an art historian and curator. Learn more about her work at