The Church of England is joining a handful of museums, universities, and private owners exploring the repatriation to Nigeria of thousands of brass plaques, wooden and ivory sculptures known as the Benin Bronzes looted by British soldiers in the waning days of the colonial era.
The items were seized in 1897 when British forces attacked, plundered and burned the Royal Palace of Benin in what is now southeast Nigeria. All of the royal treasures – some from the 17th century – were confiscated, with some given to individual officers but most put up for auction in London.
The looted objects eventually made their way into many of the West’s great museums including the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in the homes of the Lehman, Rockefeller, Ford, and Rothschild families as well as with Pablo Picasso. The number of objects dispersed internationally is estimated to reach 10,000.
Last month, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland announced it would repatriate within weeks a “Benin Bronze” bust of an Oba, or king of Benin, which it has had since the 1950s. The Horniman Museum in London also confirmed it was taking steps to return artefacts.
Neil Curtis, Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, said the Bronze, purchased in 1957, had been “blatantly looted” 124 years ago by British soldiers. “It became clear we had to do something,” Curtis said.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge has one of the largest British collections of Benin bronzes. It said if a claim were made, the expectation was that works with an 1897 provenance would be returned. The Horniman Museum owns 49 works from Benin City including 15 brass plaques, weapons and jewelry.
Until now, the British government said UK institutions should “retain and explain” contested artefacts. Arguments were also put forward that Nigeria was unprepared to receive the repatriated works of art. These arguments no longer hold water since the formation of Legacy Restoration Trust, a Nigerian organization set up to establish and run a world class institution in Benin that can house and showcase the Benin bronzes and other important cultural items.
The newly named Edo Museum of West African Art is soon to go up on the site of the razed Nigerian kingdom. Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who previously designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, plans to incorporate Benin City’s surviving walls, moats and gates into the new building.