The conviction of a man arrested during a demonstration at the Museum of London Docklands has raised concerns about the criminalisation of protests related to African restitution.
Isaiah Ogundele, 33, was convicted in absentia last week after an incident at the Museum of London Docklands on 29 January in which he reportedly toppled a number of sculptures from their plinths in an attempt to seize them, and shouted at members of staff.
Ogundele, who is of no fixed abode, was staging a protest at the museum’s London, Sugar and Slavery Gallery calling for the restitution of African cultural heritage. Police became involved after the protest escalated and, on 18 September, a magistrates court found Ogundele guilty of “threatening/abusive/insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm, or distress”, an offence that could result in a prison sentence of up to six months, a fine or both. Ogundele was not present during the hearing.
The conviction has raised concern among groups campaigning for the return of African cultural objects in Western institutions. The Return of the Icons group, which is part of a $15m initiative funded by the Open Society Foundation to restore cultural heritage to the African continent, has set up a petition against the criminalisation of restitution protests.
The group says on its petition page: “It is with the utmost alarm that we note the fundamentally unjust efforts to criminalise those campaigning for the restitution of stolen African artefacts, as well as human remains held in British cultural institutions, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“There have been longstanding peaceful appeals for restitution of these artefacts, many of which were looted in violent, punitive raids during the age of empire and colonisation.”
Pointing to the recommendations of the landmark 2018 Sarr-Savoy report, the group says “options for peaceful resolution of these issues are already on the table without the need to criminalise protestors”.
It adds: “Attempts to criminalise those participating in these campaigns should be avoided at all costs, not least when we consider the initial violent and murderous circumstances in which these collections were acquired. Criminalising the descendants of those original victims intensifies the original crimes.”
Errol Francis, the director of the charity Culture&, which supports diversity in museums and heritage, echoed the concerns. He told the Art Newspaper: “While I would not support the damage of artefacts, I am concerned about what appears to be a criminalisation of protest in this case.”
A spokeswoman for the Museum of London said the Metropolitan Police had taken the charges forward against Ogundele. In a statement, she said: “At the end of January 2020 an incident occurred at the Museum of London Docklands involving a member of the public. The person became increasingly concerned about objects on display in the London Sugar & Slavery Gallery, all on long-term loan from the British Museum.
“The Museum of London Docklands’ permanent London, Sugar and Slavery gallery explores London’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, an important and widely overlooked history. Within the gallery, there were two replica objects; a cast of the head of an Ife man (1300-1400) and the cast of the head of an Ife King (1100-1300) alongside an original Benin water container (1500s) and a Benin brass plaque (1500s-1600s), all on long-term loan from the British Museum.”
The spokeswoman said the objects had been loaned to the museum “following consent from the consultative group who helped create the gallery”. They have been part of the exhibition since it opened in 2008 but have now been temporarily removed from display.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police declined to comment further on the incident to avoid prejudicing any future proceedings. The Met said in a statement: “Police enquiries are underway to trace a man who failed to appear at court in connection with a disturbance at the Museum of London Docklands on 29 January 2020.
“Isaiah Ogundele, 33, appeared at Stratford Magistrates' Court on 24 March charged with using threatening/abusive/insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
“He was bailed ahead of a trial at Stratford Magistrates’ Court on Friday, 18 September. He failed to appear at court. Enquiries continue.”
The Museum of London Docklands removed a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan from its entrance courtyard following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in June.