The largest collection of looted goods from the former kingdom resides in the UK, yet the British government is more reluctant than other countries to return the treasures to their rightful place.
In recent years, the conversation around looting and rightful ownership of works of art has taken center stage, calling into question the morality of possession of a wide variety of works featured in some of the most prominent museums around the world. One such conversational touchpoint as of late has been the Benin Bronzes. The objects, which were known to be looted from Nigeria’s Benin Royal Palace in 1897 are currently scattered around the world, held by a long list of museums and even the British royal family. Nigeria has long campaigned their rightful return, especially recently, as a major museum in Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art is planned to house Benin Bronzes in its landmark opening in 2025. To many, including members of some 160 institutions currently in possession of the bronze, wooden, and ivory objects, providing Nigerian artifacts to Nigeria’s new museum as a loan is somewhat ironic, if not ethically questionable, and has been taken as a sign for these items to be permanently returned. However, others have taken the museum’s plans for opening as a sign to hold onto these artifacts even tighter.
The term “Benin Bronzes” refers to an immense number of goods made during the Kingdom of Benin, or the Edo Empire, in the pre-colonial era, existing since at least the 13th century. Despite the terminology, these goods are not exclusively bronze, although the majority of them are made of either cast bronze or carved ivory. Beyond being immaculate works of art, they have important historical and cultural significance to Nigeria — they were produced primarily for the court of the Oba of Benin, the divine ruler of the kingdom in south-central Nigeria. Craftsmen were commissioned to produce these works throughout the empire as a means of recording significant historical events, as well as the Oba’s interactions with the supernatural and the deification of his honorable ancestors. While these centuries-old items were well-known in their home region, the Western popularity of these items came after the Benin Expedition of 1897, a punitive expedition carried out by British forces, where Benin City was captured and pillaged, bringing the Kingdom of Benin to a close and absorbing it into colonial Nigeria.
With the Edo Museum of West African Art’s upcoming archeological exhibition, many of the institutions housing Benin Bronzes have been collaborating with Benin’s institutions and joined in on the city’s two major initiatives: Benin Dialogue Group and Digital Benin. Formed in 2007, Benin Dialogue Group has become one of the central organizations behind discussions of restitution for objects looted from Benin City at the hands of British forces. Digital Benin, on the other hand, is an online platform that compiles museum databases currently holding works from the former Kingdom of Benin in the hopes of creating a sustainable catalogue of these works and their significance. While the former initiative focuses solely on the restitution of the estimated 3,000-5,000 objects plundered from the from Benin’s Royal Palace and ceremonial sites, Digital Benin has a more short-term goal, hoping to offer access to a more comprehensive picture of the Benin Bronzes around the world. Their site plans to go online in 2022.
While most art institutions in possession of these works have agreed to take part in these initiatives, few have agreed to actually return their works. As could be expected, the majority of works looted from the Kingdom of Benin reside in the United Kingdom, with over 900 looted works held in the British Museum, making it the largest collection of Benin Bronzes in the world. However, Britain’s government as a whole has adopted a “retain and explain” stance towards their works from Benin, making it clear that they don’t approve of or plan to return any of these works anytime soon. This is in stark contrast to the second largest collection, located in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, and the stance taken by Germany’s government. Last month, Germany, as a country, announced that they would begin returning its collections of objects from the Kingdom of Benin next year, estimating around 530 items, 440 of which are Benin Bronzes.
Interestingly enough, many British museums have said individually that they are open to returning their collections of Benin bronzes. The caveat, however, is that such repatriation would be contingent on the Nigerian government making a claim for restitution. If British government ended up needing to be involved, the process would become far more complicated, due to the passage of legislation such as the British Museum Act of 1963 and the Heritage Act of 1983, both of which prevent national institutions from permanently returning works to their origin. While institutions outside of the national realm should have an easier time returning their works, in theory, such a decision does pose a potential double standard, painting the British government and its associated institutions in an unflattering light. If unrelated institutions, like the Cambridge Museum, were to return their works, what does that say about the British government? What does it say about the ways in which Britain has acquired its impressive, worldly art collection?
Such questions deserve careful consideration, especially given the recent revelation that Queen Elizabeth II herself is in possession of one of the most important Benin Bronzes: a bust of an oba dated around 1650. The piece was not looted once, but twice. Originally, it was part of an altar in the palace of the Oba, where it stood for 300 years before being seized in 1897 during the infamous punitive exhibition. It subsequently made it onto the London art market between 1946 and 1957, where it was purchased by Nigeria’s colonial government for the National Museum of Lagos. However, in 2002, it was at a Buckingham Palace exhibition showcasing gifts to the Queen, where it was labelled as a replica to the real thing. The true story has come to light since. In 1973, General Gowon called the director of the Nigerian National Museum, Ekpo Eyo, at home, demanding Eyo open the building immediately so he could choose a gift for the Queen, as a means of expressing gratitude for British support during the Nigerian Civil War. The bust was promptly removed from the Lagos museum and taken to the United Kingdom, where it has remained ever since.
With these situations occurring in recent history, it’s within reason to question if Britain’s reluctance to engage in the restitution of Benin Bronzes is motivated by their concern over what else may be reevaluated in the future. After all, the British Museum is often considered the world’s largest receiver of stolen property, and while the government-backed museum is quick to call the looting they’ve profited from “nonviolent” and “entirely legal,” they do, among other institutions, recognize that the acquisition of their works isn’t without issue. The contested Benin Bronzes may have the power to create a domino effect that reexamines other nefarious colonial-gotten goods. With the opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art several years away, there’s still hope that first domino may fall.