This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: ‘Tracking down Nigeria’s stolen artefacts’

Lulu Smyth
Hi, FT Weekend listeners. I’m Lulu Smyth, filling in for Lilah this week. Usually I’m a producer on the show and I’m based in London. That’s where this episode begins.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

London is home to one of the biggest collections of the Benin Bronzes, which are these sculptures and other ceremonial objects from west Africa. Most of them are housed at the British Museum, and the other day I went down to see them.

So I’m in the Sainsbury gallery in the British Museum and looking at the Benin Bronzes, which are amazing. They’re just so intricate and detailed.

The British Museum is full of artefacts from different historical civilisations. It’s enormous and kind of overwhelming, but the rooms are curated to be pretty specific. Like, there’s a room called “Greeks and Lycians 400-325 BC” or there’s one just focused on medieval astronomy in the Islamic world. But that just isn’t the case with the room that features the Benin Bronzes. These are housed in a large basement space just labelled “Africa”. No specific time period, no specific country. Which is strange because Benin’s culture still exists and the bronzes are still part of it.

Aanu Adeoye
These are still part of everyday culture. And they’re still used, like, when the new king before he, like, gets on his throne. There’s like huge ceremonies that go on for, like, days to celebrate, like, the emergence of a new Oba and these, like, artefacts, they play a huge role during, like, those processes.

Josh Spero
Can you imagine doing the coronation of King Charles III next year without the crown jewels?

Lulu Smyth
Yeah.

Aanu Adeoye
Exactly.

Lulu Smyth
That’s Aanu Adeoye, the FT’s west Africa correspondent, talking to Josh Spero, our associate arts editor. Aanu and Josh recently put together a big multimedia feature on the Benin Bronzes. One reason why they’re so interested in the Benin Bronzes is that, as you’ve probably guessed, they were looted from Benin. In fact, the majority of the artefacts that make up the legacy of the Benin kingdom are scattered throughout the world’s museums and universities. And Josh says that has made it incredibly difficult to ask them back.

Josh Spero
Attempts were made in the 1960s and ‘70s to start identifying where all of these things were, because you can’t ask for things back if you don’t know where they are. And of course, the European museums were very, very anti that. They deliberately made it so that they would seem, oh you know, good custodians of this heritage and they’re doing it in the objects’ best interest. But actually, there was a very concerted campaign to keep this knowledge from coming out.

Lulu Smyth
Today we dig into the story of the Benin Bronzes, which Josh has been following for several years. Recently, a group of scholars has been working on just the kind of database for tracking the bronzes, which once seemed impossible, and that’s feeding into a push to return them to Nigerian ownership. Then we kick off our boring topic challenge. A few weeks ago, we asked you to challenge us to make something which seems boring into something interesting. Our first topic: the psychology of supermarket layouts. This is FT Weekend. I’m Lulu Smyth.

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I’m going to start the story by just clarifying: the Benin Bronzes are actually not from Benin, the country. The Benin kingdom was a powerful state in what is today’s southern Nigeria. It was known as one of the oldest and most developed states in coastal west Africa, and its centre still exists today as Benin City. It’s actually Nigeria’s third-largest city in Edo state. The inhabitants of the Benin kingdom were called the Edo people. And what unites all the objects known as the Benin Bronzes is that they were used in religious and cultural ceremonies by the Edo royalty, which also still exists. So it’s safe to say that if the Benin Bronzes weren’t in western museums, they’d still be used regularly in Benin’s cultural life.

Aanu and Josh, welcome to the show.

Josh Spero
Thanks for having us.

Aanu Adeoye
Thank you for having us.

Lulu Smyth
So I’m wondering if we can start by defining some of the terms. What are the Benin Bronzes?

Josh Spero
So the Benin Bronzes encompasses a huge range of items. They’re called the Bronzes, but they were made of bronze, brass, wood, ivory, coral, and a huge range of functions, too. Some are decorative things. There are plaques, relief plaques showing different scenes from battles, for example. There are masks. And one of my favourite things is a little bird, a brass bird. And you would hit it on the nose during a ceremony and it would make a sound. And it was a musical instrument.

Lulu Smyth
Cool.

Josh Spero
They call them idiophones.

Lulu Smyth
And are there that’s like some of the most important artefacts that you can talk about?

Josh Spero
Probably the most iconic of them is the mask of Queen Idia, which is made from ivory. Now that is in the British Museum. And it became — well, the original is in the British Museum — and it became an icon of the struggle in 1970s when African nations started first trying to get back their heritage from western museums. It became the face of the campaign, as it were.

Aanu Adeoye
But when I went to the Benin City National Museum and an official was giving me a tour of the place, and then she showed me a replica of the famous Queen Idia mask. And I asked her, “What’s happening with this mask?” And she shook her head and said, “The original is still in the British Museum.”

Lulu Smyth
You might have come across an image of the mask of Queen Idia in the past. It’s made of ivory, and it’s an elongated head of a woman who’s wearing a beaded headdress and a beaded choker. Her eyes look hauntingly at the viewer from below two parallel scars etched on her forehead. The mask commemorates the mother of King Esigie, who came to power in the early 16th century. He’s also known as Oba Esigie, since “oba” means “king” in Edo.

Can you tell me a bit about the Edo kingdom and why these objects would have been so significant?

Aanu Adeoye
I mean, the Benin kingdom — I think Josh pointed it out — it’s now in present-day Nigeria. And back then, this was a way for the kingdom to represent their spiritual art activity and sacrifice. These materials were a way for the king to usually send positive message of sorts. And they were part of the fabric of everyday life in Benin City. And Benin was this very powerful kingdom of its day before the British came.

Lulu Smyth
Yes, so can we, can we talk a bit about what happened when the British came in?

Josh Spero
There was an, in the late 19th century, the scramble for Africa, as it’s known, when European nations divided up the entire continent. Germany, Belgium, France, Britain, they all went for as much as they could get. And in the course of one of these expansionary raids, the British encountered the Kingdom of Benin, and the Kingdom of Benin initially fought back, at which point the British said, “OK, well, we’ve had enough of this.” And they sent masses of troops, millions of bullets, and they massacred the city. They exiled the king, the Oba, as he’s called. They killed some of his chiefs. And then they stole thousands and thousands of these items.

Lulu Smyth
The objects then got sold and traded further, to Russia, to Israel, to the US. And since the 1970s, Nigeria, as the modern-day home of Benin, has been asking to have them back. You think the solution would be pretty straightforward. Britain stole them. Everyone who now has them gives them back. But for a long time, nobody actually knew where the objects were that they were asking for.

Aanu Adeoye
We wrote it in the piece, right? The answer lies possibly in the eternal maxim ‘’Knowledge is power”.

Lulu Smyth
The first attempts to catalogue the Benin Bronzes happened in the 1960s and ‘70s. Those didn’t go well, as Josh said at the beginning of this episode. And in the last few years, we found out why.

Josh Spero
There is actually a document which this scholar called Bénédicte Savoy discovered from Germany’s Unesco commission, which said, and I quote, under the heading Object Inventories From 1978: “Both ethnological museums and cultural administrations warned against the compilation of such lists. These would only encourage covetousness. Lists of all collections must be avoided in writing without fail. This is an extremely important principle.” Very . . . 

Lulu Smyth
Outrageous.

Josh Spero
Yeah. And think “covetousness” is like me stealing your car and then saying, “Oh, you want it back? That’s a bit greedy.” (Laughter)

Lulu Smyth
So it was, while you think about these things, it’s like you assume that it’s ignorance or oversight when in fact there’s a kind of deliberate obfuscation.

Josh Spero
And that was what museums, western museums, wanted us to think. And I think one of the conclusions of Bénédicte Savoy’s book and of other texts on the subject is that museums lie. They’re not innocent neutral organisations.

Lulu Smyth
But over the last few years, the ground has been shifting. In 2017 President Emmanuel Macron announced that he plans to return all of France’s African art objects to Africa. And they’ve already started doing that, along with other countries. Germany transferred the ownership of 1,100 Benin Bronzes this summer. Not all of the bronzes will go to Benin because some are meant to stay as ambassadors at museums abroad. But all of them now belong to Nigeria. And a load of other museums have done the same, like the Smithsonian, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and the Horniman in London. In this more open climate, a new project has been launched which is starting to catalogue all the Bronzes in one place.

[SONG CLIP PLAYING]

Lulu Smyth
It’s called the Digital Benin project. And what you’re hearing is a song recorded by one of the project’s Nigerian contributors. It was written for the most recent coronation of the Benin Oba. In addition to tracing their location, the project is telling the story of the bronzes from the perspective of the people of Benin, songs included. To be clear, the Digital Benin project is a resource. It isn’t a platform for restitution. In order to get the western museums to actually participate, the project had to assure them that they would retain their rights to the objects and also to their digital images. I asked Aanu how all of this is being viewed in Benin City, which he recently visited. As someone who lives in Lagos, he’d never really given the bronzes much thought, but reporting the story woke him up to that ongoing significance.

Aanu Adeoye
The general vibe now is “You can’t steal our stuff and then tell us how to take care of it.” Right? Because some of the conversations look like, western commentators and western museums is “Oh, we’re not really sure if Nigeria will be a good custodian of this.” I was like, “Look, that’s a moot point. Return this stuff, right? It’s not yours, right?”

Lulu Smyth
So you say, you’re a recent convert. How did you feel when you were hearing all these arguments and, like, what was your sort of conversion process while you were in Benin?

Aanu Adeoye
(Laughter) So it was like this, like, very slow conversion process for me. And I think just like being in Benin City, being in the museum and also talking to Godfrey, who is the primary lead researcher for Digital Benin in Nigeria. And I spent like three days with him, just talking to him when I was in the city and I was like, you know what? This thing is like, really important to people, right? This thing, they’re not just objects to look at. I mean, they are nice to look at, but they have, like, religious value to different people, right? It might not have religious value to, like, someone else, but it matters to a certain aspect of society. And I think, like, that’s what basically, like, made me a convert. And it’s like, you know what? Yeah, we should have more, like, nuanced conversations about restitution.

Lulu Smyth
So, we’re at a point now where some of the bronzes are being returned. You say that Germany’s returned more than a thousand objects. The Smithsonian in the US has returned some.

Josh Spero
The British Museum is a very sensitive position. It’s banned by law — for a law from 1963, I think — from giving things back. It’s not allowed to. But recently, when Boris Johnson was prime minister, if you can remember that many prime ministers ago, (laughter) he . . . his spokesman said, you can . . . It’s up to the trustees of the British Museum if they want to give things back. And so that suggested that maybe there wouldn’t be a legal challenge. But the problem for the British Museum is that if it gives one thing back, people will say, well, why can’t you give other things back? And the other things people have in their mind are the Parthenon Marbles, which were brought to the UK by Lord Elgin a couple of hundred years ago. And the British Museum is keeping a fairly . . . It doesn’t want any cracks in the wall because then it thinks, well, that’s the Elgin Marbles back.

Aanu Adeoye
And I think we should also add that the British Museum did not put anyone up for an interview despite, like, when we were writing our article, they did not put anyone up for an interview.

Lulu Smyth
It seems like a kind of, there’s like a sort of shirking of responsibility thing going on where they don’t want to put out a statement. I mean, their position is like, “We are beholden to the law.” And then the law is pointing back and saying, “Well, no, it’s with you.” So maybe not providing a statement is some kind of, well, hiding.

Josh Spero
The less clarity they have, the better it is for them. But of course, as journalists, clarity is what we want. You know, they’re in a difficult position. I’m not saying I’m sympathetic to it, but they are in a difficult position because they have a lot of things that people want back. And if they set a precedent by giving one thing back, then, I think people, the claims on all the others, justified or not, will become much, much louder.

Lulu Smyth
Mmm. Aanu and Josh, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Josh Spero
Thanks.

Aanu Adeoye
Thank you for having us.

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Lulu Smyth
A few weeks ago, you might remember that we asked you to challenge us. We wanted you to send us some topics that most people consider boring, that you’d like us to make interesting. And you sent so many great suggestions. So, challenge accepted. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be bringing you segments based on your messages. And we’re starting with this one from Eugenia.

(Beep sound)

Eugenia
I saw this thing online this morning about somebody who went to Target in the US and he ended up spending four hours there and didn’t leave with anything. So I think an interesting, boring topic would be how supermarkets lay out so that they draw you in and then you end up spending hours there not even buying, but you intended to buy.

Lulu Smyth
Eugenia, we hear you. Who hasn’t gone into a supermarket and walked out with random stuff they don’t need, or occasionally, nothing at all? So we tracked down someone who knows a lot about supermarket layouts. His name is Benjamin Lorr. In 2020, Benjamin wrote a book about supermarkets called The Secret Lives of Groceries, and he definitely doesn’t think supermarkets are boring.

So, what’s your reaction to that? I mean, what do you think of the idea that supermarkets are boring, as the author of The Secret Lives of Groceries . . . (Laughter)

Benjamin Lorr
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the great duality of supermarkets. So, this definitional chore, totally boring and yet they contain miracles, right? At our, at our fingertips are options that weren’t available to the greatest kings and emperors or pharaohs throughout history. And yet somehow we’ve managed to take that awesome display of abundance and render it into boredom in our brain because we’re so complacent and so used to it.

Lulu Smyth
Benjamin says that to understand the supermarkets and why we feel so manipulated by it, we need to go back to its beginning.

Benjamin Lorr
So the first supermarket’s, in 1930 in Queens, a guy named Michael Cullen founds it. And people come from hundreds of miles away just to see it. I mean, his essential idea was just, “We’re gonna make everything bigger and cheaper.” And those two forces are gonna kind of work together. So by making everything cheaper, you’re gonna make people excited to buy. They’re gonna fill their carts up with more. And that’s gonna fuel even lower prices, the ability of the store to offer even lower prices. And people truly treated that first store like it was an attraction.

Lulu Smyth
By the 1950s, the supermarket goes international in Rome, and that’s a massive hit, too.

Benjamin Lorr
And the Roman people go crazy. There’s press clippings of, like, a woman who starts running up and down the aisle screaming “This must be heaven”, (laughter) because the people hadn’t seen that much food together at cheap prices.

Lulu Smyth
Can we talk about the history of the supermarket and how the design of the place fits into it?

Benjamin Lorr
Sure. As soon as people’s minds were blown by the expanse of the supermarket and the abundance of what was available, they quickly turned to like various sinister machinations that the store was doing to them. And there’s some great overwritten writing. You know, like, 1967, gentlemen like AQ Mowbray declares the supermarkets the sign of the greatest swindle since Eve took the apple from the Serpent. And for whatever reason, the layout of the store, partly because I think it was just a bigger retail space than anyone had ever seen before, becomes the locus of that. Whether there’s any truth to that at all, I think, remains in question.

Lulu Smyth
But fast forward to now and Benjamin says there are definitely patterns in how grocery stores today arrange their goods.

Benjamin Lorr
Typically, you’re moving anticlockwise through the store and, you know, you’re greeted with a few, big, enticing symbols up front. Almost always the produce, which is, you know, this primitive symbol of like food and abundance and piles of apples and oranges and all the different types of greens. Right? and so that’s the first thing you’re faced with. And then you kind of get make your way through to the centre aisle, there are like products that never perish. And then finally, as you get to the register, you get closer to the, like, the higher cost-density items. So they’re smaller but you can cram more of them into a given space and they’re priced more.

Lulu Smyth
Benjamin even talked to a retail architect whose job it is to make design choices at a supermarket.

Benjamin Lorr
This retail architect, Kevin Kelley, likened the entire experience to building a movie where, as a customer, you’re walking through a scene. And so there would be some very obvious symbols that are maybe that produce and those flowers that signal abundance. And then you walk through and there are various symbols there, depending on who you are.

Lulu Smyth
Right.

Benjamin Lorr
And each chain will have its own signifier. So, some people who fashioned themselves as a bargain hunter might walk into a bare-bones retail warehouse where the food is stacked on pallets. And that can be a pretty intentional decision on the part of the retailer. We don’t want to have a lavish experience. We don’t want to have well-lit stores. And that’s going to trigger something in the brain of this bargain hunter that’s gonna be very positive.

Lulu Smyth
One thing in particular that I want to zero in on is . . . music playlists?

Benjamin Lorr
Yeah.

Lulu Smyth
And what, like, what is going on with them? Did you speak to anyone who helps curate them?

Benjamin Lorr
God, I wish I had. I should have. (Laughter) I, you know, I talked to Trader Joe, who is this guy who founded the American chain Trader Joe’s, which is something of a phenomenon here. And he copped quickly to have read a New Yorker article that’s claimed that people slowed down when listening to Hawaiian music. And so in his early days, he would blast Hawaiian music in his stores in this hope to create this lackadaisical mood and his customers as they, like, leisurely move through the store. (Laughter) Eventually, though, his clerks complained because they just were being driven mad by the same, like, you know, lilting sounds of Hawaii. And they revolted and refused to play it. I think the general theory holds of, like, let’s create some music that hits your target audience, that really speaks to the consumer. So, you know, you’ll see like these kind of hip-jazz playlists at some of the more upscale chains because they’re basically, like, crying out to say, “This is not the mom-and-pop store you went to as a kid with this terrible, stale Muzak blasting. We get you.”

Lulu Smyth
Right. Yeah.

Benjamin Lorr
We’re putting some, we’re putting some Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane on because you (laughter) are a sophisticated person who belongs in a sophisticated grocery store.

Lulu Smyth
So all of this has been designed to make us feel a certain way. It’s very detailed and very intentional. But to the extent that it’s trying to brainwash us, Benjamin is sceptical.

Benjamin Lorr
I would guess I would just flip it on its head. I think it’s like the supermarket has always been about creating an attraction, to create people want to buy more. I think in doing that, you want to create an environment that is conducive to them staying and you want to create an environment that makes the place pleasant and pleasurable. It’s hard for me to frame that as a sinister act on the part of the grocer, but where do they supposed to make this, some horrid place that we’re like washing our cars through and like, pelting us with cold water? That, you know, it doesn’t really add up in my head as like a sinister act. I think, of course, that’s happening.

Lulu Smyth
Benjamin says people often mistake the common pattern of grocery stores for a conspiracy. Like there’s this idea that the milk and eggs are in the back because that’s the stuff that everyone comes in to buy. And so putting them at the back forces shoppers to go through the whole store and then they’re exposed to everything on the way and start to fill up their carts. But according to Ben, the truth is that cooling systems need CO2 condensers, and the most efficient way to arrange them is against a big wall. So most refrigerated items end up in the back.

Benjamin Lorr
Focusing on like a customer’s footpath through the store is a kind of almost a hangover from the simpler times. We wish that we were being manipulated by our footpath. What happens is, in fact, we’re being manipulated on like much more macro levels. In the US, we are in a place where five firms control 65 per cent of the market, and that offers the real opportunity for customer manipulation.

Lulu Smyth
Still, before I let Ben go, I was interested to know how he weighs his money in a supermarket — is he a bargain hunter or is he that bougie guy who’ll only stay in the shop if John Coltrane is playing?

Is there anything which you buy in the supermarket which is pointless? (Laughter)

Benjamin Lorr
Yeah, tons of things. Everytime I leave, I leave with a pint of blueberries and a chocolate bar and maybe a tin of sushi that I didn’t intend to get. And I do think of it as a reward for doing this chore. I’m like, “Oh, well, you know what? I did this chore. I might as well give myself a chocolate bar.” It makes no sense. It’s not a good purchase. But the only thing that’s sinister that’s going on there is inside of me and my need to, like, you know, fill whatever hole is inside by getting some super-nice product for myself. I feel like it would be pretty unfair to blame whoever was stocking that shelf.

Lulu Smyth
Benjamin, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Benjamin Lorr
Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lulu Smyth
That’s the show this week. Thank you for listening to FT Weekend from the Financial Times. We’re still collecting your cultural predictions for 2023, which will be going through in our final episode of the year with FT Magazine editor Matt Vella. So what cultural shifts do you think will happen or want to happen in 2023? Will Dolly Parton go into politics? Will MySpace be resurrected following the collapse of Twitter? Click on the link in the show notes to tell us. And throw in some curveballs. Surprise us.

I’m Lulu Smyth and here’s our team. Katya Kumkova is our senior producer. Molly Nugent is our contributing producer. And we had help this week from Manuela Saragosa, Josh Gabert-Doyon and Viki Merrick. Our sound engineers are Breen Turner and Sam Giovinco, with original music by Metaphor Music. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer, with special thanks to Cheryl Brumley. Have a lovely weekend. Lilah will be back next week.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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