South London’s Horniman Museum and the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin have become the latest institutions to take steps towards the repatriation of Benin bronze objects in their collections.
The cultural treasures – looted by the British army from Benin City in present-day Nigeria, 1897 – have dominated the cultural restitution debate since Berlin's Humboldt Forum announced last month that it would return its Benin bronze holdings.
The National Museum of Ireland declared this week that it plans to return 21 Benin bronze items to Nigeria. The objects, which include armlets, wooden paddles, figures and a staff, came into the museum’s collection between 1898 and 1907. The museum has yet to announce a formal restitution plan.
Meanwhile the Horniman published a policy document last month outlining a formal procedure for requesting the repatriation of items from its collections. The museum's chief executive, Nick Merriman, said: “Our Restitution and Repatriation Policy sets out a clear procedure for repatriation claims… The Horniman has, at the time of writing (7 April 2021), received no repatriation requests which means that no definitive decision has been reached, nor even yet considered, about repatriation of any object.”
The Horniman has 50 objects that are believed to have been looted in February 1897 during the military invasion of Benin City. Fifteen of these objects are brass plaques referred to as Benin bronzes.
With fresh pledges of restitution moving quickly, Museums Journal spoke to museums across the UK to find out their latest updates on the Benin bronze repatriation issue.
University of Aberdeen
After an internal review, the university announced in March 2021 that it will unconditionally return the one Benin bronze sculpture in its collection. The review uncovered that the object was pillaged by British forces in an “extremely immoral manner”. The University of Aberdeen is the first British institution to agree to full repatriation of a Benin bronze.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge
The MAA estimates that its collections include more than 160 artefacts which have or are likely to have an 1897 Benin City provenance. In 2019, the MAA developed a framework for the return of artefacts.
Director of the MAA, Nicholas Thomas, said: “No claim has yet been made for the return of Benin works, but it is anticipated that a proposal to return artefacts will in due course be made and considered.
“Given the published criteria, it is anticipated that the claim would be supported and steps taken to return the artefacts.”
A planned visit by Benin representative Enotie Ogbebor to study MAA’s collections was deferred following lockdown but will be rescheduled.
The British Museum (BM), London
The BM has around 900 objects from Benin kingdom in its collection. A spokeswoman for the BM said the institution is working directly with colleagues in Nigeria on the issue.
She added: “We are currently collaborating with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria and Adjaye Associates on a major new archaeology project, linked to the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA)... The EMOWAA will reunite Benin artworks from international collections.”
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Last month, Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums released a joint statement stating that it holds approximately 105 objects taken during the 1897 looting of Benin city; they are currently under the stewardship of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Since 2017 the museum has been part of the Benin Dialogue Group, which is helping to develop a museum in Benin, Nigeria, and exhibit the looted works on a rotating loan basis.
“We acknowledge the profound loss the 1897 looting of Benin City caused and, alongside our partners of the Benin Dialogue Group, we aim to work with stakeholders in Nigeria to be part of a process of redress,” the statement said.
Great North Museum, Newcastle
The museum holds one item from Benin City – a brass staff/stave in the form of a bird. Executive manager Caroline McDonald said of the staff: “Unfortunately, its acquisition history has been lost and our own research has not been able to establish how the item left Africa or whether it was part of the 1897 punitive expedition.
“We have just secured resources to undertake further research on all of our African collections as we do not have an ethnographic specialist in the team. If we find that the Benin item was, or was most likely, acquired illegally, then we would not hesitate to return this item.”
The Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT), Brighton
The RPMT has several objects – two carved wooden Oba heads, a circular box and a carved Edo elephant tusk – in its collection that it believes may have been acquired through the British Punitive Expedition to Benin of 1897.
CEO Hedley Swain said: “We are planning to undertake provenance research into items with potentially contested histories in our collections and intend to work collaboratively with Africa-based researchers and institutions on the future curation of these items.
“RPMT is open to consider any requests from source communities to repatriate objects.”
National Museums Liverpool
The institution is part of the Digital Benin project, which is committed to assembling all the dispersed royal artworks from Benin City in order to digitally reunite them .
Janet Dugdale, executive director of museums and participation, said: “We have not been approached about the repatriation of Benin objects in our collections, but as an organisation, National Museums Liverpool is committed to engaging in open and respectful dialogue about the unconditional return of culturally significant objects on a case by case basis.”
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Bristol currently holds one Benin bronze, which came to the city in 1935 with little supporting information. A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “We have been working with interested parties in Nigeria and those negotiating with them across Europe, as part of the Benin Dialogue Group. Following discussions with the LRT in December, we are awaiting further information on next steps from the stakeholders in Nigeria. Once we have been able to establish the level of agreement for their plans for a new museum, we will be able to progress towards establishing an action plan for the future of the artefact currently in Bristol.’’
National Museums Scotland
The institution has around 80 objects from Benin in its collection and believes that approximately 70 of those are connected to the 1897 expedition. Director Chris Breward said: “We are participating in the Benin Dialogue Group, which is committed to sharing information and knowledge and working towards a major reunion of the Benin works of art in Benin City. We are also working with the Digital Benin project to understand and share more about the provenance of the Benin objects in our care.”
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
The Barber Institute has one Benin bronze on display. A statement from the Henry Barber Trust said: “The trustees take this issue very seriously and are cognisant of the wider debates and are keeping abreast of the climate of opinion and best practice. They will be guided by official policies or decisions made by the UK Government and museum sector.