The story of Nigeria's stolen Benin Bronzes, and the London museum returning them
London’s Horniman Museum has announced it’ll hand over ownership of its 72 bronzes to Nigeria, home to Benin City, which the British looted in 1897. We investigate their story.
Beautifully cast by expert craftsmen from Benin City in what’s now southwest Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes have been languishing in museums all over the world for almost 125 years.
Increasingly, however, heritage experts believe they should be returned to their place of origin. With London’s Horniman Museum announcing in August 2022 that it’ll hand over ownership of its 72 bronzes to Nigeria, the floodgates for a tide of repatriations are now well and truly open.
Come 2026, these treasures will have a lasting home in Benin City’s new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA). This centre, designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, will house the most comprehensive display of Benin Bronzes ever assembled. In the meantime, at least some of the bronzes from the Horniman will be transferred to the Benin City National Museum, allowing local citizens to have permanent access to them for the first time.
What are they?
The 5,000 or so artefacts known as the Benin Bronzes, which were mostly created in the 13th to 16th centuries, aren’t from present-day Benin, but from the former Kingdom of Benin, nearby. They were looted by British colonial troops who invaded Benin City, the kingdom’s wealthy capital, in 1897. As well as bronze regalia, plaques and sculptures of people and animals, the haul included ivory, coral and wooden items.
Why were they in London?
The British forces’ aim was to expand Britain’s political and commercial reach in West Africa by sending Ọba (King) Ovonramwen of Benin into exile, destroying his trade monopoly around the Niger Delta and colonising his kingdom.
The invaders stripped Benin City of thousands of antiquities. They gave some to Queen Victoria and kept others for themselves or sold them for profit in West Africa, England and elsewhere. Many ended up in the halls and storerooms of museums around the world, including the Horniman.
What has prompted their return?
Nigeria’s mission to reclaim the bronzes began in the 1930s, took hold with independence in 1960 and gathered pace in 2007 with the formation of the Benin Dialogue Group, a working party of representatives from Nigerian and European cultural institutions focused on bringing the artefacts together in Benin City.
“We’ll also unite the dispersed objects on a single digital platform called Digital Benin,” says BDG co-chair Professor Abba Tijani of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which has issued formal repatriation requests to many museums holding Benin Bronzes. In January 2022, it contacted the Horniman, prompting them to research the provenance of the artefacts in their care.
“The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it’s both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” announced Eve Salomon, chair of the Trustees of the Horniman Museum. Some items may remain on loan in London, for display, research and education.
Why does repatriation matter?
Since physical access to cultural artefacts is immensely valuable to historians, artisans and other citizens, the looting of the Benin Bronzes has come to symbolise the evils of colonialism.
Keith Merrin, director of the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne, which in January 2022 pledged to return the single bronze in its collection, commented: “Repatriation can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act, which recognises the wrongs of the past and restores some sense of justice.”
The Horniman’s decision has re-opened the debate about other cultural hot potatoes, such as the Parthenon Sculptures, shipped from Athens to London in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin and displayed in the British Museum.
Are these the first Benin Bronzes to be returned for ethical reasons?
It’s the first British collection. Single sculptures returned include an Ọba’s head and cockerel from Aberdeen University and Jesus College Cambridge respectively, which were delivered to Nigerian officials at handover ceremonies in October 2021.
There are many bronzes in German museums. Berlin’s Ethnological Museum holds a significant collection, more than 500 of which survived the Second World War. In July 2022, Germany transferred ownership of 1,100 artefacts to Nigeria, physically returning two (a plaque and an Ọba’s head) as a gesture of good faith.
Why has it taken so long?
For much of the 20th century, cultural restitution was unthinkable. The argument was that not all items of foreign origin were stolen or acquired violently: some were willingly given or traded. If no laws were broken, there’s no legal case for repatriation.
Some curators felt that antiquities such as the Benin Bronzes should be considered part of a shared, global heritage rather than the property of a single nation. They believed the job of protecting, displaying and loaning them should go to those best placed to handle this responsibility.
The world has since reassessed the ethics and effects of colonialism. Meanwhile, Egypt and Senegal have built new cultural museums and others, including Nigeria, are following suit. One by one, the arguments against repatriating items acquired by colonialists have worn thin.
Voices of dissent remain, however. The Restitution Study Group, an organisation concerned with slavery justice, believes that present-day southwest Nigerians shouldn’t benefit from the bronzes since, as a society, they’re descended from slave traders. In an open letter, RSG director Deadria Farmer-Paellmann says the historic Kingdom of Benin made the artefacts ‘with manilla currency they were paid to raid villages with illegal guns and other weapons, steal women, children and men, sell them into the transatlantic slave trade, and sometimes kill them in ritual sacrifices.’
What’s happening to all the other Benin Bronzes?
With more and more heritage experts in favour of restitution, museums in Oxford, Cambridge, Washington, DC and elsewhere have vowed to release most or all of the bronzes in their possession into Nigerian ownership.
Controversially, the British Museum, which cares for more than 900 bronzes, is legally prevented from returning them under the British Museum (1963) and Heritage (1983) acts. The British Museum is actively involved and financially invested in EMOWAA, however, via its African Histories and Heritage Programme. “This includes a five-year archaeological partnership that’s currently investigating historic Benin City, enabling us to invest in local communities, exchange knowledge and build capacity by sharing skills and expertise,” says a British Museum spokesperson. “Deepening public access and understanding, creating new ways and opportunities for collections to be shared and understood right across the world, and forging connections between the present and the past remain at the core of what the British Museum seeks to achieve.”
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