The Horniman Museum in London announced at the weekend that it will return 72 artefacts to the Nigerian government, including its collection of brass plaques known as Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British soldiers in 1897 from Benin City, located within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Prof Abba Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), welcomed the return of the artefacts that were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king). He said:
“We very much welcome this decision by the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Following the endorsement by the Charity Commission, we look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Horniman.”
How did the Benin Bronzes get to British museums?
On 2 January 1897, James Phillips, a British official, set out from the coast of Nigeria to visit the Oba of the Kingdom of Benin. News reports at the time said he took a handful of colleagues with him and it is assumed the purpose of his journey was to persuade the Oba to stop interrupting British trade in the region.
When Phillips was told the Oba couldn’t see him because of a religious festival, he went anyway. He didn’t come back.
For the Kingdom of Benin, the killing of Phillips and most of his party had huge repercussions. Within a month, Britain sent 1,200 soldiers to take revenge. The Benin punitive expedition, commanded by Rear Admiral Harry Rawson, was instructed to torch the city. On 18 February 1897, British forces took Benin City; they also took the opportunity to loot the city of its artefacts.
The various artefacts we now call the Benin Bronzes – which amount to 3,000 items scattered worldwide (possibly many more) – may be a huge underestimate of the number of looted artworks. You can find examples of these treasures in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They’re in smaller museums too: the Lehman, Rockefeller, Ford and de Rothschild families have owned some, as has Pablo Picasso.
This is now about to change
Last week, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford announced that they would return 200 items held between them. This was followed swiftly by the announcement from the Horniman Museum, which is the first government-funded institution to hand back these looted treasures. Other museums, including the British Museum, have as yet only agreed to loan the artefacts back to Nigeria. The British Museum continues to resist calls to return the 900 Benin items it holds.
The Benin Royal Family and the Nigerian national governments plan to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 with at least 300 Benin Bronzes. The pieces will mainly come from ten major European museums, including the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, the Weltmuseum in Vienna and the British Museum. They will initially be loaned for a period of three years with the possibility to renew. It is hoped that the new museum will become a cultural centre celebrating African art and culture. Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo State in Nigeria, home to Benin City said, “I want people to be able to understand their past and see who we were”.
It remains to be seen whether other museums and collections will follow the example set by the Horniman Museum. More importantly, will these moves satisfy Nigerian activists who have long campaigned for the return of the bronzes to their country of origin?
UK museums and contested cultural objects
Professor Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University and curator archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, has been a leading voice among museum professionals calling for the return and restitution of contested cultural objects. He points out that the most problematic artefacts are those that were stolen, looted or removed by the British from their place of origin, where local people had been subjugated. “In this country you’re never more than 150 miles away from a looted African object”, he states.
The UK’s museums receive restitution requests from around the globe, but it is those from Africa that are coming under the greatest public scrutiny:
“We need to think very hard about objects from Africa, where it is clear they were taken as trophies of war. However you rewrite the labels and retell the history, you’re not going to be able to tell a story other than one about military victory. In those cases, we need to work towards a restitution process.”
Hicks describes these latest developments as “immensely significant”, but stresses that more institutions – particularly the British Museum – need to follow suit:
“With every day of inaction and every day of seeking to hold on to these old arguments, they are just making themselves more and more irrelevant. Inaction, in this context, is an action – it’s a choice that they’re not able to tell us at the very least what they have.”
It would appear the ‘ownership’ of these artefacts is therefore still up for debate. In the meantime, if we want to see the bronzes, we can get a greater appreciation of the works by making that trip to Nigeria to view these masterpieces in the place where they were designed and made.