Comment

Britain must give the Benin Bronzes back to Africa – it’s our moral duty

The curator of Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum explains why we should return African artefacts to their home continent at long last

The 'Benin Bronzes', Dan Hicks argues, should be returned to Africa
The 'Benin Bronzes', Dan Hicks argues, should be returned to Africa Credit: Alamy

I had always believed what I’d been told about the Benin Bronzes. That the British punitive expedition against Benin City (today in Edo State, Nigeria) was a necessary reprisal against a bloody massacre. That there was a grim justification to the looting of the city in February 1897, because the Government needed to auction African artefacts to defray the costs of the naval operation. That taking the spoils of war is a human universal, so special pleading in the case of the Kingdom of Benin would only open a Pandora’s box.  

I had never had cause to question, before I became the curator of World Archaeology at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, the idea that European museums defend Enlightenment ideals against barbarism, by keeping universally-valued artworks safe for posterity. I assumed that talk of “returns” was a silly, idealistic distraction, because African museums are insufficiently resourced to care for their own cultural treasures. That restitution – giving things back when their return is demanded – was merely iconoclasm, a nihilistic attack by activists who want to empty “world culture” institutions like the British Museum, even to see them shut down.  

But I have lost my faith in these stories – the myths that we, in the global north, have told ourselves to excuse our holding onto the cultural property of Africa. 

Let’s be clear. The Benin looting was a chaotic free-for-all where officers and colonial administrators desecrated sacred ancestral altars for their personal gain. The displays of ancient Benin royal art in Berlin, London and Oxford within weeks of the attack were no side-effect of war, but a co-option of anthropology museums to justify colonial violence,  to bolster racial theories of cultural superiority — and to make that propaganda endure. 

The bronze heads, relief plaques and carved ivory tusks did not need European keepers any more than they needed European takers. The artworks had been safely kept in Benin City for centuries before the city was sacked, and in the modern era, as restitution claims have slowly developed, Nigerian museums have cared for returned artworks for decades – while many objects supposedly safe in British museums were sold to private buyers. For example, the 267 objects in the single most significant collection of Benin art, made by Augustus Pitt-Rivers in his second collection on his private estate in Dorset, were auctioned off, piecemeal and to the highest bidder, between the 1950s and the 1970s – some are in American museums, while the present locations of many are still unknown.

As the new Royal Museum in Benin City develops, designed by the British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, the case for return has never been stronger. Audiences, communities and curators who advocate African restitution aren’t the iconoclastic enemies of the institutions they love, silencing the past; they are trying to save the project of “world culture” museums by making it fit for the 21st century.  

This concerns every British museum-goer reading this. In the UK, you’re never more than 100 miles from a stolen African artefact, from Belfast to Ipswich, Glasgow to Exeter, Brighton to Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Derby, Leeds – and more. In these regional museums, decisions about returns lie in the hands of trustees or city councillors – as seen last year when Jesus College, Cambridge resolved to return a looted Benin bronze. Tracing the distribution of the estimated 10,000 objects taken from Benin City in 1897 for my new book on the subject, I document how they are located in more than 160 museums internationally — with fewer than one in 10 held in the British Museum.  

The 1897 expedition in Benin was designed to punish the Africans Credit: James Kelly

At the Pitt Rivers, we currently hold 145 objects looted from Benin in 1897, from total museum collections of 600,000. We plan to repeat this audit for scores of other acts of dispossession, from Ghana to Sudan, from Kenya to South Africa, from Uganda to Egypt. In 2018, President Macron’s report on African Restitution showed that more than 90 per cent of African cultural heritage is currently held in collections outside the continent — and underlined the vital importance of transparency about what is held. 

We’re not living up to the standards we have sought for others. Fewer than 1 per cent of African objects in UK museums are on public display. Many languish in boxes unopened for a century, not even entered into a database, often in “orphaned” collections without a specialist curator. The spectre of emptied galleries has no place in this conversation, while so much is hidden. The work of what some call “decolonising museums” thus begins with some conventional, mundane work: curators coming to understand what they hold, and sharing that knowledge.  

But it does not end there. Acting on restitution claims is by no means new. Even the British Museum oversaw the return of a coral crown to the Oba of Benin as early as 1938, and deaccessioned bronze plaques for Nigerian national museums in the 1970s. British law has been changed for national museums to deaccession their holdings in cases of Holocaust spoliation, and standard procedures for the return of human remains have been adopted across the sector since the 1990s. In these cases, restitution is now an established part of curatorial practice. 

The problem in the case of African cultural heritage is that an outgoing Blairite generation of museum bureaucrats promoted the ideology of what they called the “universal museum”, asserting in the wake of 9/11 that people living in the southern hemisphere should buy a plane ticket if they wish to see their heritage, and promoting the idea of instrumentalising museums for the furtherance of destination tourism and multiculturalism.  

In practice, this was always hard to reconcile with the reality of visa regimes for Africans, not to mention the coming crisis for the aviation industry in an era of climate emergency – long before the public-health crisis of 2020 brought a potentially irreversible collapse in museums’ global visitor numbers.  

Benin's treasures, Dan Hicks argues, should be returned to African museums Credit: James Kelly

Meanwhile, in Britain’s non-national museums, we’re seeing new professional standards that will allow the permanent, unconditional return of African cultural heritage on a case-by-case basis develop. Such a new moment of reckoning is rippling across Europe, too. Last month, the French National Assembly voted unanimously to support Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to return the Trésor de Béhanzin – unique African artworks violently looted by General Alfred Dodds in 1892 from the Royal Palaces of Abomey – to the Republic of Bénin.  

The following day, a Dutch Government report recommended that a National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections should be based on the principle of “a readiness to return cultural objects unconditionally”. And one week later, Germany’s 16 federal states agreed on a joint strategy to publish databases of museum collections taken in colonial contexts. Meanwhile, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to interrogate the legacies of empire is being established by the Belgian federal Parliament. 

We’ve never needed “world culture” museums more than we do today, as public spaces that celebrate creativity and culture beyond art history’s old Eurocentric lens. But these are also sites of conscience, as the legacies of colonial violence continue to shape power imbalances – not bank vaults or mausoleums but crucial institutions that must be allowed to continue to evolve and change as part of our contemporary world.  

So I’ve changed my mind about returning stolen African art. Facing up to their violent histories, it’s time to do more than just shuffle objects around the galleries, or re-write the labels, or use objects merely to point a virtuous finger at the history of empire yet again. It’s time for dialogue about African claims for returns to give way to action, and without those tired cross-references to the “Elgin Marbles”, or any other whataboutist or obscurantist distraction.

We must start by returning the Benin Bronzes.