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Why won’t the British Museum return the Benin Bronzes?

The Museum’s involvement in a huge project in Nigeria has only dragged it further into a fractious heritage debate

The designs for the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, with which the British Museum is assisting
The designs for the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, with which the British Museum is assisting Credit: PA

At the weekend, the British Museum announced one of the largest projects it has ever worked on beyond these shores. It will collaborate on a major archaeological dig on the site of the future Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, the capital of Nigeria’s Edo State. 

The stated purpose of this new museum will be “reuniting Benin art works currently within international collections”, and creating “the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes”. This massive trove of artefacts, some more than half a millennium old, was plundered from the Kingdom of Benin in February 1897, and is now scattered across the globe. The question of restitution concerns the British Museum more than most, because it holds around 900 of these 10,000 or more objects, and has faced demands for almost a century for them to be returned to Nigeria. 

Last week, Godwin Obaseki – the newly-re-elected governor of Edo State – announced that a new private return was made in August, and that further returns are expected in 2021. The British Museum’s latest announcement was therefore accompanied by a deafening absence: there was no softening of its entrenched position against returns, and preference for temporary loans of what was stolen. Worse, precious few of its Benin Bronzes are even on display. Of those 900-plus artefacts at the British Museum, only 100 can be seen; the vast majority are in storage.   

Returning the Benin Bronzes is not just a question for the British Museum, however; it holds only 8 per cent or so of what was taken in the 1897 attack. A comparable number is collectively held by scores of regional British museums, large and small, outside London. Here, the situation is starker still. Less than one per cent of Britain’s African collections are visible to the public. The remainder is in storeroom boxes, most aren’t on a database, and many don’t even have a dedicated curator who could put them on one.  

This is the bitterest of ironies. When displays of the Benin Bronzes were first made in Berlin, London and Oxford, it was to celebrate a military atrocity as a step in Africa’s “cultural evolution”. And it was, undeniably, an atrocity. Benin City was ransacked by a force of 5,000 men in February 1897. They deployed Martini-Enfield rifles, rocket launchers, electric searchlights and Maxim machine guns against Edo people armed with muskets, bows and arrows, and the occasional medieval cannon. Nearby towns and villages were razed. The loss of human life was immense. 

The objects taken from Benin in 1897 were intended for display – ironically, given their fate Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum

When the troops stormed the city, they also desecrated a sacred landscape of historic royal palaces and ancestral altars that commemorated an unbroken line of Obas (Kings) of Benin dating back before the reign of Elizabeth I. Objects were looted for the personal gain of soldiers, sailors and colonial administrators. They included brass plaques, commemorative heads and figurines, intricately-carved ivory tusks recording royal history in a unique iconography, and many more objects of brass, wood, coralwork, iron and ivory. Some remain in family collections in Britain to this day; others were sold to museums or dealers. 

The Oba was re-installed under British rule, and across the 1920s, the royal palace was rebuilt. In 1936, Oba Akenzua II made the first formal demand for restitution, and in 1938, the first returns from those 10,000 objects – two coral-bead crowns and a coral-bead tunic – were overseen by the British Museum. In the 1950s, the British Museum sold more than a dozen plaques from its collection at a “nominal” price to the Nigerian government, to support the establishment of the colony’s first modern museums. 

After independence, Nigeria made further purchases on the open market; in 1980, the government paid £800,000 for objects at one Sotheby’s auction alone. Private returns have also been made to the Oba. In 2014, for instance, a bronze cockerel and bell were returned by Mark Walker, a medical consultant from north Wales who inherited them from his grandfather, an officer in the 1897 attack. 

The British Museum continues to face a variety of calls for restitution Credit: PA

In every case, returned items have been cared for in Nigeria, not sold off or lost. And the British Museum has not fallen down. When the argument is put that returning such objects would empty out our galleries, there’s often little sense of quite how much is already shut away and forgotten. It’s time to excavate what’s in our storerooms, rediscover neglected African collections, research their provenance – and listen to demands for returns on a case-by-case basis. Understanding and acting on claims for a return will require expert curatorial knowledge, but caring for Britain’s holdings – which hold immense cultural value for communities thousands of miles away – will also require us to acknowledge what’s gathering dust in our vaults. 

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the Edo Museum of West African Art is gathering pace. Twelve months from now, the 125th anniversary year of the Benin atrocity will be almost upon us. In Europe and America, museums, universities, charitable trusts, regimental collections, descendants who have inherited loot, collectors, and others need to step up.

For all the size of the British Museum’s new dig in Benin, Europe’s “world culture” collections may, in reality, be the last remaining great archaeological sites, filled with subterranean layers of colonial theft. A new generation of curators is firmly rejecting the idea of only ever “loaning back” what was stolen in 1897. We must commit to the permanent, unconditional and timely returns of the Benin Bronzes to their rightful owners in Nigeria.  

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His new book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, is published by Pluto Press; to order your copy, visit the Telegraph Bookshop