Editor's Note, April 30, 2021: In an unprecedented turn of events, Germany has pledged to repatriate the thousands of Benin Bronzes housed in its museum collections as early as next year, reports Kate Brown for Artnet News. The announcement arrives amid a renewed push to return the looted artifacts to their home country of Nigeria.
“We face a historic and moral responsibility to shine a light on Germany’s colonial past,” says German Culture Minister Monika Grütters in a statement, as quoted by CNN’s Kieron Monks. “We would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era.”
Read more about the Benin Bronzes—and recent calls for their repatriation—below.
In 1897, British colonial forces razed Benin City, massacring an unknown number of people and bringing a violent end to the Kingdom of Benin, which had thrived for centuries as one of West Africa’s major powers. During the raid, British troops looted at least 3,000 precious items made by the Edo people, including ivory statues, carved elephant tusks, ceramics, masks, carved portraits of Obas (or kings) and their mothers, and more than 1,000 intricately decorated brass plaques that once adorned ancestral altars and court buildings in the city’s royal palace.
More than a century later, the so-called Benin Bronzes remain scattered throughout at least 161 museums around the world, according to research compiled by Dan Hicks, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. For academics and art lovers alike, the works’ fate represents colonialism’s destructive impact on Nigerian cultural heritage, as Nina Kravinsky reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. References to the artifacts appear in blockbuster movies and feature prominently in art world debates about if—and how—looted art should be repatriated.
Nigerian leaders and the country’s Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT) have advocated for the bronzes’ return for decades. Now, in the wake of a year of mass global protests against racial injustice, conversations about restitution are once again heating up, writes Frankie Lister-Fell for Museums Journal.
In one major development, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum—a new museum set to open this year—announced in March that it plans to fully restitute all of its Benin Bronze holdings. After the artifacts are returned, the museum may exhibit replicas or simply leave empty spaces to signify their absence.
That same month, Scotland’s University of Aberdeen said it would unconditionally return a sculpture depicting the head of an Oba. Per a statement, this move will make the institution the first museum in the world to agree to the full repatriation of a piece of art looted from Benin in 1897.
Likewise, reports Eithne Shortall for the London Times, the National Museum of Ireland has announced its commitment to returning 21 looted Benin artworks in its collections. South London’s Horniman Museum has also published a policy document that establishes guidelines for the potential return of 49 looted Benin objects, including 15 brass plaques, notes Craig Simpson for the Telegraph.
As Museums Journal reports, other British museums engaged in global repatriation efforts, such as the Benin Dialogue Group and the Digital Benin project, include National Museums Scotland, the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
Much of the returned art could eventually go on display at the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), a planned institution set to be constructed on the site of the razed Benin City. Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, plans to incorporate surviving structures from Benin City into the modern build, he noted in a 2020 statement.
At a virtual conference hosted by Columbia University on April 9, academics and museum professionals argued “vigorously” against a long-held notion: the idea that the bronzes are “safer” at institutions in the United States and Europe than in Nigeria’s “small but growing museum ecosystem,” as Alex Greenberger writes for ARTNews.
“Of course, we do have our problems, in term of the state of our museums in the country, but that will not remain as it is forever,” said Abba Isa Tijani, a member of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, during the conference, per ARTNews. “We have our plans to build more museums. That’s why the EMOWAA museum is a bold step.”
What’s more, added Hicks of the University of Oxford, Benin’s cultural heritage objects “have been equally unsafe in the hands of [the] British, not least because of [the] attack in 1897, which destroyed so much royal and sacred landscape.”
The British Museum, which houses 900 looted Benin objects—the largest collection of any institution in the world—has historically resisted the Benin Royal Court’s public requests for the works’ return. On its website, however, the London museum notes that it is engaged in “longstanding dialogues” about the fate of the bronzes.
Benin’s current Oba, Ewuare II, met with museum director Hartwig Fischer in 2018. Discussions about a major new archaeology project co-organized by the British Museum and Nigerian cultural institutions are ongoing. (As Lanre Bakare notes for the Guardian, the British Museum and other national institutions in the United Kingdom are prevented from permanently repatriating items by the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983. Private, regional and local museums face no such restrictions.)
Some U.S. institutions have also taken new steps toward repatriation. As Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper, the University of California’s Fowler Museum recently announced plans to hold talks with the LRT about the repatriation of 18 looted Benin objects in its collections, including two bronzes and a carved ivory tusk.
Per the Art Newspaper, Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, stated during the April 9 conference that the museum could lead discussions on American restitution efforts. It currently holds 42 objects from the Kingdom of Benin.
Despite the spate of recent developments, the path toward repatriation remains protracted and complex.
A spokesperson for the Cleveland Museum of Art, which holds at least five works thought to be looted in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, told the Art Newspaper that the museum is conducting research on its holdings and is not in a position to comment on potential repatriation plans. The Baltimore Museum of Art, which houses three Benin Bronzes, issued a similar statement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which holds at least 160 objects traced to the 1897 looting, declined to comment.
Editor's Note, April 20, 2021: This article previously misstated the number of Benin Bronzes held in the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection and incorrectly suggested that the museum declined to provide a comment to the Art Newspaper.