African nations have long demanded the restitution of poached cultural artifacts, ranging from cultural treasures to artworks and even human remains, appropriated by European colonial powers during their often brutal reigns across the continent. In former colonial countries, the debate has recently reached a high point as cultural and political figures make the case for restitution.
Among the most famous looted African treasures are the Benin Bronzes, the thousands of artifacts that the British troops looted from present-day Nigeria in a punitive mission in 1897. In Germany, in March 2021, headway was made in this long campaign, as The Humboldt Forum in Berlin announced it will begin seeking the process of returning the hundreds of Benin Bronzes in its collection.
Meanwhile, the University of Aberdeen announced that it would return a Benin Late Period bust, making it one of the first public institutions to commit to a full Benin Bronzes repatriation.
What became known as Benin bronzes, are in fact thousands of artifacts made of bronze, brass and ivory, looted at the end of the 19th century from the palace in Benin City in present-day Nigeria during a British punitive expedition. Although their exact number is unknown, it is believed to exceed 3,000. These objects include figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask.
In 1897, a large delegation led by Britain’s Acting Consul-General in the region James Phillips set off for Benin City despite requests from Oba Ovonramwen, King of Benin, to postpone their visit due to a sacred annual period for the Kingdom. Fearing that the expedition would interrupt a series of rituals, some chiefs, acting against Oba Ovonramwen’s wishes, ordered the expedition to attack. Six British officials, including Phillips, and almost 200 African porters, were killed.
To avenge their deaths, Britain responded immediately, sending troops on Benin under orders to invade and conquer it. After burning and looting the palace and exiling Oba Ovonramwen, the British confiscated all of the royal treasures to break the power of the monarchy, walking away with thousands of priceless objects.
Some of the objects were given to individual officers that took part in the raid, while most of it was taken to auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition. The looted objects eventually made their way into museum and private collections around the world.
The British Museum has the most Benin Bronzes of any institution worldwide, counting 900 objects. It has often been the subject of protests from activists, scholars, and artists who claim that the institution owns stolen property; however, the museum officially stated that "no formal request has been received for the return of the Museum’s Benin collections in their entirety."
The works were snapped by other museums as well, including those in Berlin, where a new ethnological museum had just opened in 1886. Berlin’s Ethnological Museum — now a part of the newly built Humboldt Forum, today houses the second largest collection of Benin Bronzes, counting over 500 objects. Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a new consortium of museums that had its virtual opening in December, has been criticized for plans to exhibit these cultural artifacts in spite of their questionable provenance. In Germany, there are at least 25 institutions with Benin Bronzes in their collections.
The rest of the works are scattered on several continents. In his 2020 book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, scholar Dan Hicks compiled a list of 161 institutions that have acquired Benin Bronzes by various means. The list includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, the Vatican Museums, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
According to Hicks’s count, only 9 Nigerian institutions own objects from the group.
Nigeria has been petitioning for the return of the stolen Benin Bronzes ever since the country gained independence in 1960. So far, only one institution, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, has committed to repatriating a Benin Bronze work. The museum acquired a bronze sculpture of an Oba, or Benin king, at auction in 1957. In an ongoing review of the collection, the museum determined that the sculpture had been "acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral," explained Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections, in a statement.
After the unanimous recommendation by their expert panel, the institution has begun making arrangements for the sculpture’s return, which could occur within weeks. In a statement, Nigeria’s culture minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed described it as "a step in the right direction", hoping that other institutions will follow suit.
After the 2018 report by academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy recommended that France begin repatriating plundered African art in its holdings, Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to return objects to Africa within five years. However, none of the works has left the country yet and Macron has about a year to make good on his promise.
It seems that France's willingness to restitute the artworks was a wake-up call for Germany, where events have picked up speed over the past few weeks. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin said it would start pursuing the process of repatriating its Benin Bronzes. This decision has been left to the board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages the collection of the Ethnological Museum.
However, Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Germany, wonders whether the Foundation is the right choice, stating for DW that it "embodies the basic idea of ethnological and anthropological museums that goes hand in hand with the same ideology that gave rise to colonialism: the cultural hegemony of the colonizer over that of the colonized."
Meanwhile, Germany's Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters announced in a press release that twenty-five German institutions will publish their inventory lists in a central database "to achieve the greatest possible transparency in the comprehensive reappraisal of the history of the origin" of the holdings from a colonial context and "for the dialogue we are striving for with the societies of origin." This is a significant step, since the requests for restitution must first be submitted in writing and should include details of which objects the country of origin demands back and why. This was so far impossible since only a fraction of the artworks has ever been exhibited.
Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said there will be a dialogue with Nigeria about how exactly to proceed. As he explained for DW, there is a "willingness to make this process work now so that the Benin bronzes are returned but can still be seen all over the world." In March 2021, Andreas Görgen, Germany’s director of cultural affairs met with Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo in Benin City to discuss the matter of restitution. Grütters, who chairs the foundation, will meet with culture ministers, museum directors, and foreign ministry representatives this April to work out a national strategy for the restitution.
The museum is persistent with its plans to exhibit the Benin Bronzes when it reopens in the fall, yet explaining that "history of the Kingdom of Benin, but also the injustice that happened in 1897, is really at the heart of the exhibition." Curator Johnathan Fine hopes the show would raise awareness of the history of these works and advance the discussion on their repatriation. Should the bronzes have been restituted by then, the idea is to use plaster casts of the artifacts.
If the Benin Bronzes do get repatriated, they would likely end up in the Edo Museum of West African Art, a cultural hub designed by the celebrated Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. The museum is expected to open in 2025 in Benin City, right where the 1897 attack occurred. The project forms part of an initiative being led by The Legacy Restoration Trust and the British Museum to showcase the history and archaeology of the former Kingdom of Benin.
As Adjaye explained, EMOWAA will establish a new museum paradigm for Africa, since "what we are proposing is an undoing of the objectification that has happened in the West through full reconstruction."
A new dedicated space, EMOWAA will contain the rich, regal and sacred objects of Benin’s past, in a way that allows visitors not just the possibility of “looking in” but “looking out” into the visual landscape of imagining the once historic borders of a restored ancient kingdom.
Construction of the museum is planned to happen after a five-year archaeology project takes place on the site and its immediate surroundings to investigate the former capital of the Kingdom of Benin. According to Adjaye, the building's arrangement is derived from the ruins of the historic city that the current Benin City stands above, and all finds from the archaeological excavations will become part of the museum collection and will remain in Nigeria.
In 1897, Britain responded to the killing of a group of officials by razing an empire to the ground. The men had been travelling to the ancient Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, when they were ambushed and killed by local soldiers. Just six weeks later, the British had exacted their revenge, set Benin aflame, exiled the king and annexed the territory. They also made off with some of Africa’s greatest works of art. This is the story of the ‘Benin Bronzes’, their creation, removal, and what should happen to them now. When first exhibited in London they caused a sensation and helped reshape European attitudes towards Africa, challenging the prevailing view of the continent as ‘backward’ and without culture. But seeing them in the British Museum today is, in the words of one Benin City artist, like ‘visiting relatives behind bars’. In a time of fevered debate about the legacies of empire, loot, museums and history, what does the future hold for the Bronzes themselves?
Featured image: Benin Bronzes at the British Museum, via Son of Groucho on flickr.