An exhibition at Hamburg’s Museum am Rothenbaum is among the many ways that the global museum community is addressing the future of the cultural treasures that were stolen by the British army from Benin City, Nigeria, in 1897 and then scattered across the world.
Benin: Looted History presents the museum’s entire Benin collection and was created to allow “visitors to participate in the ongoing process of returning the artefacts and sheds light on both the history of origin and the outstanding artistic quality of the works, as well as their significance in African art and cultural history”.
The exhibition opening followed a meeting convened in April last year by Monika Grütters, the German minister of state for culture and the media, to discuss how the country should address the issue of Benin bronzes in German museums.
The participants, which included directors of museums with Benin holdings, reaffirmed their willingness to make substantial returns of these artefacts, promising transparency, cooperation and action. This was followed in October by the German government signing a memorandum of understanding with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). This next step is an agreement to determine the transfer of ownership.
Meanwhile in Austria, the government announced in January that it was setting up a committee to help develop guidelines for a consistent approach to repatriation demands. The committee is chaired by Jonathan Fine, the director of Weltmuseum Wien, who is also the secretary of the Benin Dialogue Group, which was established in 2007 to foster international cooperation over the future of the Benin bronzes.
There has also been lots of activity in the UK. Last April, the University of Aberdeen announced that it was planning the unconditional return of one of the Benin sculptures, The Head of an Oba, from its museum collections – making it the first institution to fully repatriate a bronze to Nigeria. South London’s Horniman Museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock and Glasgow Museums have all recently taken steps towards the repatriation of Benin bronzes in their collections.
There are several reasons for the flurry of activity over the past 12 months. Most simply, announcements of repatriation plans by one museum have prompted others to take action. Country-wide approaches to repatriating objects, such as those in Germany, have also been influential.
Change has often been led by small museums, which have framed their intentions on an ethical basis, emphasising that it is the right thing to do and is about recognising the wrongs of the past. This contrasts with some larger national institutions, which can be reluctant to engage with the issue head on.
More broadly, change has also been driven by the impact of movements such as Black Lives Matter and efforts to decolonise museums, highlighted by the Museums Association (MA) launching its Supporting Decolonisation in Museums last November. Pressure from the authorities in Nigeria is also having an enormous impact.
But does this activity signify a sea-change in the attitudes of museums in the US and Europe towards the repatriation of objects to countries that were colonised? And, if so, what can be learned from the process?
“Museums in the UK are choosing to do proactive repatriations of looted items such as the Benin bronzes, where previously they would have been more likely to wait for a claim to be made,” says MA policy manager Alistair Brown. “It is also interesting that this is happening outside of the national museums, and without any overarching national strategy or guidance. The Arts Council England (ACE) repatriation guidance is still unpublished and seems unlikely to come out soon.
“I think we will continue to see non-national museums engage in proactive repatriation, and a growing gap between them and the national museums. I hope that it will also prompt ACE to finally publish its guidance for repatriation.”
Most people involved in the issue believe that the case for repatriating the Benin bronzes is straightforward and uncontentious, but this does not mean negotiations are easy.
“Gruelling discussions, frank conversations, friendliness and open mindedness got us to this level of success” says the NCMM’s legal adviser, Babatunde Adebiyi.
Adebiyi says most public museums want to enter into discussions with the NCMM, which favours collaboration, although private holders of Benin items are still reluctant.
Relationships between all those involved in negotiations have evolved over time and the dynamic has changed as a result. Many museums have worked through the Benin Dialogue Group, but while the group is still active, one insider says the NCMM is now the organisation that is deciding on priorities and driving progress forward.
Barriers to repatriation
Ongoing negotiations over the Benin bronzes have also thrown up some of the barriers to repatriation, beyond western museums simply being obstructive and dragging their feet.
One has centred on concerns over the standard of storage and display facilities in Nigeria, particularly security and environmental conditions. There is also the issue of who to negotiate with when there are multiple claims of ownership and relevance. Both these issues have been raised in Nigeria as well as overseas.
The whole world must understand that times have changed and nobody can hold on to others’ cultural property forever without budging. They must come to a compromise with the true owners.
But they are largely being addressed through the work of the NCMM and others. Two museums are being built to house the objects: the Palace Museum of the Oba; and the Edo Museum of West African Art, a collaboration between European partners, the Edo State government,
the NCMM and the Royal Benin Palace. The National Museum, Benin City, will also house some of the items.
Adebiyi says the return of the Benin artefacts needs to be seen in the context of a wider campaign to repatriate items. “We are concerned with all Nigeria’s antiquities, not just the Benin bronzes,” he says. “The Ife, Nok, Owo, Jukun, Igbo Ukwu, Ekiti and the art of the Benue Valley are all important, and we want to lay claim to them by striking agreements that confer legal title on Nigeria.