Taken during a violent British raid, the Benin bronzes have sat in Western museums and private collections for over a century. Kieron Monks reports on Nigeria’s battle to get them back and what it means for the wider push to return works robbed from Africa.
‘We are very happy and excited,’ said Abba Issa Tijani ahead of the ceremony.
The director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) had arrived in Cambridge with Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, younger brother of the Oba (King) of the Royal Court of Benin, the ancient kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. Aides buzzed around the pair, attempting to corral herds of TV crews.
The delegation was in town to receive a 400-year-old bronze cockerel that was looted by British soldiers during the violent conquest of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Thousands of masterfully-crafted artefacts, some dating to the 13th century, were stolen. These objects, dispersed to museums and private collections across the world, came to be known as the Benin bronzes – although many are made of brass and ivory.
With the handover of the cockerel on 27 October 2021, the University of Cambridge became the first British institution to return a bronze. The following day, the Nigerian delegation travelled north to the University of Aberdeen to receive another – a sculpture depicting the head of an Oba. And a few weeks earlier, an agreement was struck with the German government to transfer ownership of around 1,100 bronzes.
‘The coming years are going to be very busy for us,’ says Tijani as he reels off a list of institutions in Europe and the US that the Nigerian government is at various stages of negotiation with. ‘We are not going to relent.’
Campaigns for the restitution of stolen artefacts are growing around the world, with Ethiopia and the Republic of Benin among the nations to secure returns in 2021. But Nigeria has always been at the vanguard of the movement, and no claim has been harder-fought than for the bronzes.
This is partly because of the shocking violence of the raid of 1897. Dozens of villages were annihilated and Benin’s inhabitants were massacred with high-powered weaponry. An empire that had stood for centuries, and stretched from the Niger Delta to Accra at its height, was crushed and its territory annexed to Britain.
The campaign is also sustained by the great importance of the bronzes to Nigerians, particularly Binis. ‘The idea that they are simply artefacts is in many cases misleading,’ says Palace Chief Charles Edosomwan, spokesperson for the Royal Court, explaining that some were used for private rituals of supplication to the ancestors. Others formed a visual diary of life in the Court, depicting events and characters.
Edosomwan believes the losses, in such brutal and humiliating circumstances, have inflicted lasting damage to the national psyche. ‘You can’t fully recover, you can only compensate,’ he says. ‘A lot of children grew up not knowing their history.’
Enotie Ogbebor, a Bini artist, explains through analogy: ‘If the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bach, Shakespeare, Picasso, and Monet...were taken from Europe,’ he asks. ‘Do you think European civilization would be where it is today?’
Nigeria has been seeking the return of its heritage since before independence in 1960, with limited success.
Several factors have contributed to the recent breakthroughs, including greater awareness and activism about stolen artefacts. The worldwide Black Lives Matter movement has drawn connections between the crimes of colonialism and racial injustice today. Tijani also credits the determination of the University of Cambridge students who campaigned to return the cockerel.
A flurry of new books has also laid bare the brutality of the raid on Benin and the negligent treatment of its spoils. In The Brutish Museums, author Dan Hicks finds centuries-old masterpieces used as doorstops in forgotten basements, undermining Western museums’ argument that they are the most assiduous guardians.
The Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) has brought the Nigerian government and Royal Court of Benin together with European museums to discuss plans for restitution since 2007, laying the groundwork for recent breakthroughs. The Group also launched the Digital Benin project, which tracks and catalogues the thousands of works taken in 1897 alongside historic photographs and documentary material.1 This is particularly useful as many museums have not made thorough inventories of their African collections.
Nigeria is also working with civil society groups such as the Art Loss Register to pursue pieces stolen since independence. A bronze from the city of Ife was recovered via the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after the Register exposed a fake letter approving its sale, supposedly signed by Nigerian officials. The letter was typed on Microsoft Word but dated to before the software was available.
Another avenue for the return of valued works is UNESCO’s restitution committee, at which Nigeria recently made its first claim for an Ife head stolen in 1987. The bronze, valued at more than $5.3 million, was acquired by a Belgian trader before being seized by police at a British auction house. The trader has since dropped his demands for the full value of the piece down to about $53,000 but Nigeria is only offering the $265 he paid for it. A resolution is expected shortly.
According to a report commissioned by the French government, more than 90 per cent of ‘the material cultural legacy’ of Sub-Saharan Africa is held outside the continent.2 But while more Western governments and museums are becoming amenable to restitutions, many are still resisting. The British Museum holds the world’s largest collection of around 900 pieces and has long been a focus of Nigerian campaigning. In October 2021, Tijani served director Hartwig Fischer with a formal request for their return, which the British Museum says is being ‘reviewed and addressed’.
National museums in Britain and other European countries often point to laws that forbid them from ‘deaccessioning’ – permanently removing – works in their collections. In 2020, former UK Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, threatened the funding of museums that return or remove controversial objects.3
But there are inconsistencies in how stolen works have been treated. Tijani points to exceptions created for artworks looted by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and says Nigeria may lobby the British government to change the law. Germany and France have taken steps to override similar statutes, for example in 2020 French senators approved a bill to return 27 colonial-era objects in museum collections to the Republic of Benin and Senegal while Germany is implementing new legislation for the return of the Bronzes.
‘On our terms’
Not every artefact has to come home. Tijani emphasizes that Nigeria is primarily seeking recognition of ownership and some can stay in Europe on loan. There can be collaborative exhibitions. The objects have value as ambassadors abroad showcasing the skill of Nigerian artists and the richness of their traditions. ‘But this must be on our terms,’ he says.
Western museums that have expressed concerns that large-scale restitution could decimate their collections need only look to Germany for a chance to see the benefits of such action, believes Barbara Plankensteiner of the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg, and a co-founder of the BDG.
‘I don’t think it will damage museums,’ she says. ‘Restitution will establish new relationships and partnerships.’
One possibility is for Western museums to acquire more contemporary Nigerian and African art while letting go of historic pieces. The Ahiamwen Guild of Benin has made an offer to the British Museum of a vast plaque weighing two tons to replace bronzes. Ahiamwen co-founder Lukas Osarobo-Okoro says they wanted to draw attention to the quality of artisanship that still exists in Benin.
‘[The bronzes] are portrayed like dinosaur fossils from some desert, they are not associated with living, breathing people,’ he says. ‘But we never stopped...We can create a new era of artefacts that will have the same impact and amaze people in the same way.’
The British Museum is open to the proposal, says Osarobo-Okoro, and further announcements will follow the resolution of logistics planning.
Nigeria has detailed plans for the long-awaited return of the bronzes and to capitalize on this historic moment. The NCMM is developing several new museums, including one in the capital city of Abuja and the Royal Museum in Benin next to the Oba’s palace. Tijani says security is being finalized for travelling exhibitions intended to maximize access, while smartphone apps are being developed to appeal to young audiences.
The project that has attracted most attention is the Edo Museum of West African Art, designed by star architect David Adjaye, under development by the non-profit Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT). This complex will include a museum showcasing art of the region, an archaeology site, storage facilities and event spaces.
‘The idea is to try to attract creative industries, as well as being relevant to local audiences,’ says LRT director Philip Ihenacho.
Ogbebor, a trustee on the LRT board, believes the bronzes can be inspirational: ‘My hope is that they awaken the interest of the people to find out more about their history, to take pride in their history, culture and tradition, and also to be influenced by the sheer beauty of these works to want to emulate it in their professions.’
The impact will register beyond Nigeria. Tijani says he is in regular contact with other countries seeking to reclaim heritage and he hopes returns of bronzes can set a precedent for further returns. Tentative steps at a region-wide approach are underway.
He also hopes this might prompt a wider re-evaluation of relations between former colonies and colonial powers: ‘Before, artefacts were stolen and taken to these countries. Now they are exploiting resources like oil, gas, minerals,’ he says. ‘We should be partners for advanced countries rather than [suffer] this exploitation.’
1 digital-benin.org 2 Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage…’, November 2018, nin.tl/sarr-savoy 3 Peter Stubley, ‘Museums risk funding cuts if they remove controversial objects…’, Independent, 27 September 2020, nin.tl/funds-risk