British museum agrees to return Benin bronzes looted from Nigeria

LONDON — A London museum on Sunday agreed to return a collection of Benin bronzes looted in late 19th century Nigeria, as cultural institutions across Britain come under pressure to repatriate artefacts acquired during colonial times .

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in south-east London said it would transfer a collection of 72 objects to the Nigerian government. The decision comes after the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria formally requested the return of the artefacts earlier this year and following consultation with community members, artists and schoolchildren in Nigeria and the Kingdom. United, the museum said.

“The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired by force, and an external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their property to Nigeria,” said Eve Salomon, President of the museum’s board of directors. statement. “The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step, and we look forward to working with the NCMM to ensure longer-term care for these precious artifacts.”

Horniman’s collection is a small part of the 3,000-5,000 artifacts taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 when British soldiers attacked and occupied Benin City as Britain expanded its political and commercial influence in West Africa. . The British Museum alone holds more than 900 artefacts from Benin, and National Museums Scotland has a further 74. Others have been distributed to museums around the world.

Artifacts include plaques, animal and human figures, and elements of royal regalia made from brass and bronze by artists working for the royal court of Benin. The general term Bronzes of Benin is sometimes applied to objects made of ivory, coral, wood and other materials as well as metal sculptures.

Countries like Nigeria, Egypt and Greece, as well as indigenous peoples from North America to Australia, are increasingly demanding the return of artifacts and human remains as part of a reassessment. world of colonialism and the exploitation of local populations.

Nigeria and Germany recently signed an agreement for the return of hundreds of Benin bronzes. This follows French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision last year to sign over 26 pieces known as the Trésors d’Abomey, priceless works of art from the 19th-century Kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin, a small country located just west of Nigeria.

But British institutions have been slower to respond.

The British Museum says it has had discussions with Nigerian authorities since at least 2018, and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture submitted a written request for the return of the antiquities in October last year.

“The museum is committed to actively collaborating with Nigerian institutions regarding Benin bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues,” the British Museum said on its website.

The Horniman Museum also traces its roots to the era of Empire.

The museum first opened in 1890, when tea merchant Frederick Horniman opened his collection of artifacts from around the world to the public.

Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the museum embarked on a “reset agenda,” which sought to “address long-standing issues of racism and discrimination in our history and collections, and to resolve to put us on a more sustainable path for the future.”

The museum’s website acknowledges that Frederick Horniman’s involvement in the Chinese tea trade enabled him to benefit from low prices due to the sale of British opium in China and the use of poorly paid labor and sometimes forced.

The Horniman also acknowledges that he holds objects “obtained through colonial violence”.

These include Horniman’s collection of Benin bronzes, comprising 12 brass plaques, as well as a brass rooster altarpiece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells and a palace key of the King. The bronzes are currently on display with information acknowledging their forced removal from Benin City and their disputed status.

“We recognize that we are at the beginning of a journey to be more inclusive in our stories and practices, and we need to do much more,” the museum says on its website. “This includes considering the future of collections that have been taken by force or in unequal transactions.”

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