London’s Horniman Museum Will Return Stolen Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The 72 objects were looted from Benin City more than a century ago

Benin plaque
A plaque depicting a war chief and a royal military priest carrying a leather gift box Horniman Museum and Gardens

London’s Horniman Museum announced that it will return 72 artifacts to Nigeria that British troops looted in the 19th century. 

According to Josh Halliday of the Guardian, the announcement marks the first time that a government-funded institution in Britain has agreed to relinquish treasures that were looted in 1897—despite years-long debate over these artifacts’ ownership. 

Among the objects marked for repatriation are a brass altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, “everyday items” like fans and baskets, and 12 brass plaques that belong to the group of artworks known as the “Benin bronzes.” 

The Benin bronzes were made in the Kingdom of Benin, which is now in Nigeria. Despite their name, they include artifacts made from a range of materials, like ivory, leather and wood; the most well known examples are the brass plaques that once adorned the royal palace in Benin City, the kingdom’s capital. 

In 1897, British forces raided Benin City and stole upwards of 3,000 objects. Some of these precious artifacts were awarded to acting officers, while others were sold at auction or given to museums.

“The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force,” says ​​Eve Salomon, chair of the Horniman museum, in a statement, “and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.” 

Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments requested the return of the objects in January, prompting the Horniman to begin “detailed research.” The institution also consulted with museum visitors, experts, academics, artists and schoolchildren in both the United Kingdom and Nigeria, per the statement.

Today, relics of the once-great kingdom can be found in museums and private collections around the world. The British Museum alone still counts 900 objects from Benin among its collections, despite calls to return them.

With the repatriation announcement from the Horniman, the British Museum will face “renewed pressure to return items,” writes Robbie Griffiths of the Evening Standard

Nigeria has been asking for the artifacts to be returned for decades. The push for repatriation intensified in recent years, with “protests and policy changes” prompting some institutions to take action, wrote the Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone earlier this year. In June, for example, the Smithsonian voted to return 29 Benin bronzes held in the National Museum of African Art. The following month, Germany and Nigeria signed a restitution agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,000 artifacts to Nigeria. 

British institutions have been “slower to respond,” writes Danica Kirka of the Associated Press (AP), but the tide may be shifting. Just last week, Oxford University took steps toward the return of some 200 objects that were looted from Benin. 

Discussions about the formal transfer of the Horniman’s Benin artifacts will now begin, according to the museum. The Nigerian government plans to house the objects in the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is scheduled to open in 2025.

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