Benin’s bronze ambassadors

What the opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art means for the potential restitution of 2,807 historical bronze artefacts

On Art

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

There are some 2,807 historical bronze artefacts from Benin in Nigeria now scattered around 160 of the world’s museums. They number high-relief plaques and sculptures in the round and the majority were looted in 1897 when the British Navy attacked and sacked the royal city of Benin in a punitive raid.

The palace of the Oba — the king — and nobles’ residences were stripped of their bronzes and ivories. Most ended up in London. In 1898, the Foreign Office sold off a large number of pieces, most of which went to museums in Germany, Austria and America, but there are still more than 1,000 Benin bronzes in British collections, mostly in the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and the Horniman Museum in south London.

Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has made various calls for the return of the bronzes, with little effect. Nigeria did buy some back when the British Museum sold 30 pieces as duplicates in 1950: 13 of them went for £75 each.

One of the reasons given by Western institutions against their return was that Nigeria had no proper place to display them. Last year, however, the British- Ghanaian architect David Adjaye revealed plans for a $100 million new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), on a site in Benin City next to the historical Oba’s Palace.

The museum, scheduled to open in 2025, is the brainchild of the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of European and Nigerian museums, the Benin royal court and the Edo state government. The British Museum was a prime mover in the group, which was founded in 2007.

The question of restitutions has accelerated in recent years, especially since 2018 when a report commissioned by President Macron, ponderously titled “Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics”, was published. Macron issued his own mea culpa: “I am from a generation of French people for whom the crimes of European colonisation cannot be disputed and are part of our history”. Last summer the French government unveiled a draft law mandating the restitution of cultural objects to Senegal and Benin. Some 30 items have so far been earmarked for return.

Phillip Ihenacho, the director of Nigeria’s Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), the body that will oversee the restitutions, said recently: “We have a strong conviction that the time is approaching … I see our role as to demonstrate our readiness as opposed to fighting for restitution.”

The tactic is working, he says. “We have had a lot of museums reaching out.” Now, one major holder of Benin bronzes has gone further. Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, recently announced that the country’s museums would start returning a “substantial” number of Benin bronzes from next year.

“We are facing up to our historical and moral responsibility to illuminate and come to terms with Germany’s colonial past,” Grütters said. “The way we handle the Benin bronzes is a touchstone for this.” The country will also help train Nigerian curatorial staff for the new Edo museum.

Germany is also at the forefront of Digital Benin, a project based in Hamburg and Benin City that is creating an inventory of looted bronzes worldwide: Christchurch in New Zealand, for example, holds 17 Benin bronzes while there are 97 in Switzerland. The project aims to sift the looted from the legitimate, such as the two Benin heads given to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1982.

One of the reasons given by Western institutions against their return was that Nigeria had no proper place to display them

Germany’s stance puts added pressure on the 25 British institutions that have Benin bronzes. The University of Aberdeen has already announced that it will return its Head of an Oba, bought for £750 at Sotheby’s in 1957, since it came to Britain “in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral”. Jesus College, Cambridge has also pledged to return its Benin sculpture of a cockerel. The British Museum, home to 700 bronzes, has made no such commitment. It can’t. The British Museum Act of 1963 bars it from deaccessioning. Its leading role with the Benin Dialogue Group is a sign of good faith, however, as is the fact that the museum has already agreed to loan some bronzes to the new Edo museum.

Ihenacho clearly feels there is more room for manoeuvre: “If we were not confident that there would be the return of objects from the British Museum, it would be difficult for us to partner with them.”

The long-term answer may lie in the large number of bronzes held overseas —too many for the Edo museum to display. A work-around would be to transfer the ownership of many to Nigeria while the works stay where they are on permanent loan. As Ihenacho notes, an object on view to an international audience “can serve as an ambassador”. The opening of the Edo museum and the mood of the times mean that something is clearly going to happen in the next few years. This legal finessing — or fudge — offers perhaps the best way to save face, in both London and Nigeria.

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