Museum  August 10, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

London-based Museum to Fully Repatriate Benin Bronzes

Wikimedia Commons.

Edo peoples, Single-figure plaque, mid 16th to 17th Century. Cast copper alloy. Dallas Museum of Art.

Though the Benin Bronzes of Nigeria—a collection of a thousand plus statues and plaques stolen from the African Kingdom of Benin by British troops in 1897—remain scattered across the world, serious discussions of their provenance and restitution have occupied headlines for more than one year at this point.

In March of 2021, a rash of news stories related to these artworks emerged alongside important, in-person meetings between Nigerian and German officials. Specifically, Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki welcomed Dr. Andreas Görgen, the head of the German foreign ministry’s culture department, to make plans concerning about 530 artworks, 440 of which are bronze works.

Though many believe in full repatriation, most of these talks—including those between Governor Obaseki and Dr. Görgen—only solidified plans to loan collections to Nigeria for study and eventual display at the Edo Museum of West African Art, which will not be fully constructed until 2025.

Wikimedia Commons.

Print depicting the Kingdom of Benin around 1668. Featured in Description de l'Afrique . . . Traduite du Flamand, a book by D. O. Dapper, dutch physician and writer.

Most recently, the London-based Horniman Museum & Gardens announced in an August 8, 2022 press release that ownership of their seventy-two stolen cultural artifacts will be formally transferred to the Nigerian government.

According to the release, the Horniman collection includes twelve items specifically classified as Benin Bronzes as well as “a brass cockerel altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, everyday items such as fans and baskets, and a key ‘to the king’s palace.’”

Also according to the release, the Horniman came to this decision, which was formally endorsed on August 5, 2022, after receiving an unspecified request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in January of the same year.

The request prompted months of academic research and a series of discussions—held with everyone from schoolchildren to heritage professionals to Nigerian artists—designed to collect a wide range of “views on the future of the Benin objects.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Joy of Museums. 

Installation view of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum.

Importantly, the Horniman was sure to clarify at the end of their release that, amid impending discussions with the NCMM on “the process for the formal transfer of ownership,” they remain interested in, “the possibility of retaining some objects on loan for display, research and education.”

As Governor Obaseki said in a 2021 press release, “Yes, the objects are from Benin but today they are global. So, the idea of having a universal display is something that we cannot run away from.”

Still, these talks and their possible outcomes drew—and continue to draw—the attention of institutions, museums, governments, and the general public across the globe.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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