Benin Bronzes: Divergent views on repatriation of artefacts

The announcement by the London-based Horniman Museum of the return to Nigeria of 72 artefacts that have been in its collection for about 125 years has spawned divergent responses from experts in the West African country’s academic and cultural communities.

There is generally an aura of excitement that, after more than a century, the restitution is happening of some of the sacred and priceless artefacts looted by the British troops who invaded the then Benin Kingdom in southern Nigeria.

However, the planned repatriation has created two schools of thought in Nigeria: one that argues that the artefacts are better kept in foreign museums and another that argues otherwise, with each group citing its reasons. Pertinent questions have also been asked about the role Nigerian universities should be playing in the repatriation process and decolonisation discourse around it.

In the wake of global anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter, many Western countries, their museums and institutions, some attached to universities, are appraising artefacts in their custody and have made repatriation commitments to countries that were looted.

France, for instance, in November 2021, returned 26 treasures that were looted from the Benin Republic during the colonial period. Four years before the handover, President Emmanuel Macron said that restitution of African cultural objects was a “top priority”.

Two British universities – Jesus College, Cambridge, and Aberdeen University – in October 2021 returned two Benin Bronzes to Nigeria and have pledged to return over 200 more.

Germany also announced in July that it is transferring ownership of 1,130 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria after a restitution agreement signed in Berlin by Germany’s Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, its Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth and Nigeria’s Minister of Culture, Lai Mohammed, and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Zubairo Dada.

Building on this momentum, on 7 August 2022, the board of trustees of the Horniman Museum, founded in 1901 by English tea trader Frederick Horniman, made the unanimous decision to return looted Nigerian artefacts in its collection to their country of origin.

According to a statement by the Horniman, the 72 objects to be returned include 15 brass plaques, a brass cockerel altar piece and ivory and brass body ornaments. The museum said the transfer of ownership was after a request from the Nigerian government in January.

‘Repatriations will boost research’

The Horniman’s repatriation announcement is a testament to the fact that Nigeria’s efforts at recovering its artefacts scattered around museums, galleries and collections in the world are paying off, experts say.

They also believe that the artefacts, once returned to Nigeria, will boost local research and cultural values. Researchers told University World News that studies have been difficult with the bronzes locked away in foreign museums.

Osarhieme Osadolor, a professor of African history at the University of Benin (UNIBEN), Edo State, said the return of the artefacts will, therefore, spark immense curiosity from researchers.

Professor Patrick Okpoko, an art connoisseur and the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said of the planned repatriations from the Horniman: “These are good times for Nigeria.

“Having the artefacts on our soil will undoubtedly enhance curiosity, research and creativity among Nigerian researchers. It will also boost Nigeria’s foreign exchange, employment opportunities and cultural values,” he told University World News.

Okpoko, who is a board member of the Nigerian Heritage Journal, the flagship publication of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said it is a welcome development that the Horniman is considering lending back some of the Benin Bronzes.

“I remember that, during the [General Ibrahim] Babangida regime in the 1980s, the government lent some of the country’s artefacts to foreign museums for exhibitions. The foreign museums displayed these items for an agreed period and returned them to Nigeria,” he said.

Mufu Onifade, a visual artist and former chairman of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners in Lagos, also believes the return of the artefacts would boost local research and appeals to the government to safely preserve them.

“To boost research, each artefact must have the proper anecdote to enable an understanding of the history behind it. For instance, if the Idia Mask is being displayed, it should have a museum label telling how the mask symbolises Queen Idia’s astuteness,” he said.

Art historians believe that the Idia Mask, a pendant mask carved from white ivory and iron, was produced in the early 16th century by the Benin monarch, Oba Esigie, to honour his mother, Queen Idia, for providing him with critical assistance during his kingdom’s expansion battles.

Concern over heritage preservation

While there is great anticipation for the return of the artefacts, especially in Benin City, some Nigerians are afraid the artefacts may not survive another century, principally because of what they describe as the poor culture and heritage preservation and conservation of the Nigerian government.

Ifeyinwa Emejulu, a professor of archaeology and tourism studies at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, asked: “How would we feel if, after these artworks, which have been abroad for over a century, in very good conditions, are repatriated and started depreciating in our hands? Wouldn’t we be making a mockery of ourselves?”

Emejulu’s fears were borne out of an earlier experience. She recalled attending a conference in Ghana and found out that one of the Benin Bronzes was being kept at the University of Ibadan (UI) museum (in Nigeria).

“But, at the conference, I learned that the piece had broken while in the care of UI. I felt terrible. When I got back to Nigeria, I went on an accreditation tour to UI and asked to be shown the artwork. They told me they had it before, but that it was no longer with them.

“I asked where it was then, but they could not answer my question. Obviously, they could not account for it. I was embarrassed. Yes, our artefacts are ours, but it would be irresponsible of us to get them back and then they are either stolen or not safely kept. These are really my concerns,” she said.

Osadolor, from the University of Benin, also expressed safety concerns about repatriated artefacts.

“There is a proposal to build the Benin Royal Museum, but this project has not taken off. The Edo Museum of West African Art, originally planned for the Benin Bronzes, is still under construction, and it is unclear when it will be completed.

“However, if these artefacts are repatriated now, they can be temporarily kept in the palace of the Oba of Benin, from where they were stolen in the first place. When the museums have been built, they can be displayed to the public,” he said.

Preparing for the return of the artefacts

Okpoko, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, said he does not buy the argument that Nigeria cannot keep its artefacts safe.

“Nigeria never told Britain to keep the artefacts for it, in the first instance. They were safely kept here before they were stolen. One of the stolen artefacts was the Idia Mask and I remember that during Festac ’77 [an international festival known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture], Nigeria went to Europe to request it for use during the festival.

“But Nigeria was not given this item because we were told we would not preserve it well. So they gave us a replica of the mask, which was used during the festival. I still consider this an aberration, up to this day.

“We have many museums in Nigeria. We have national, state and university museums. We also have experts who can preserve these artworks. They should only be retrained to preserve these artefacts while the government should build the right facilities to keep them.”

At the Berlin agreement signing ceremony in July for the return of Nigeria’s artefacts, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission of Museums and Monuments, noted that the repatriations will not happen overnight.

He explained that transport, packaging, insurance, preservation and other technical aspects have to be in place first, adding that the bronzes are to be exhibited in various state institutions and museums, in galleries and in the rebuilt royal palace, which is to be inhabited by descendants of the once expelled king of Benin City.

New era of international cooperation

The fact that looted artworks are now being returned by the Global North paves the way for a new ethic in the field of international cooperation, experts say.

Nanette Snoep, the director of Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museums in Cologne, Germany, according to a Deutsche Welle or DW report, said that the fact that Nigeria and Germany are now coming to an agreement after protracted negotiations means that “history is now really being written”.

“If the return and transfer of ownership of the Benin Bronzes succeed now, then that really is the beginning of the decolonisation of the so-called ethnographic bronzes museums,” Snoep said.

Experts also said that the repatriations to Nigeria would trigger a new wave of requests from other countries from the Global South whose artworks are in the museums and galleries of the Global North.

“I think other countries might also be demanding that the UK and other former colonial authorities return artefacts stolen from them. However, the previous colonial masters can then ask for the artefacts to be lent to them, which will be based on agreements,” Osadolor, the African history expert at UNIBEN, said.

This has already started happening. For instance, Greece has intensified its campaign for Britain to repatriate the renowned Elgin Marbles, believed to have been stolen from Athens in the 19th century.

In 2019, the Washington Post reported that Kenya’s Pokomo tribe had requested the British Museum to return its ngadji, a drum that the tribe believes is a source of their power and pride.

Jesusegun Alagbe is a freelance multimedia journalist, writer and researcher from Lagos, Nigeria.