Later this month the University of Cambridge will become the first institution in the UK to officially repatriate a Benin bronze to Nigeria.
Delegates from the country's Benin City, where the sculptures were looted by British forces in the punitive expedition of 1897, will be present for a handover ceremony at Jesus College on 27 October, where they will receive a bronze cockerel that was acquired by the university in 1905.
The milestone is the latest in a year of significant breakthroughs in the dispute over the sculptures; in March, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin's Humboldt Forum announced that it would enter talks with Nigeria to fully repatriate its Benin bronze holdings, and shortly after the University of Aberdeen said it would unconditionally return a Benin sculpture from its collections.
With the issue of restitution under the spotlight like never before, pressure has grown on UK institutions to resolve other long-running disputes over objects acquired in the colonial era.
Last month, a Unesco committee issued a resolution urging the UK Government to revisit its stance on the Parthenon Marbles, which have been the subject of a longstanding repatriation claim by the Greek government. Unesco's International Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property criticised the conditions in which the sculptures are held at the British Museum.
Following the committee session, Greece’s culture minister Lina Mendoni said: “Together with the recommendation that was issued – referring to the poor conditions of exposure that the sculptures are kept in at the British Museum – Greece also achieved a decision from the Intergovernmental Committee that pertains specifically to the return of the Parthenon sculptures.”
She added: “The committee urgently calls on the United Kingdom to review its position and enter into a discussion with Greece, recognising that the issue is of an intergovernmental nature – in contrast to claims from the British side that it is a matter for the British Museum – and mainly that Greece has a valid and legal claim to demand the return of the sculptures to their place of birth.”
Museums Journal understands that the resolution was met with anger at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), where relations with Unesco have been strained by the international heritage body's decision earlier this year to strip Liverpool’s waterfront of world heritage status, as well as its criticism of the planned Stonehenge tunnel.
A statement from the DCMS said: “We disagree with the committee’s decision adopted in the closing minutes of the session and are raising issues relating to fact and procedure with Unesco. Our position is clear – the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference. All decisions relating to collections are taken by the museum's trustees.”
British Museum trustees have also made clear that they believe Unesco involvement “isn't the best way forward”. A statement from the institution said: “The British Museum has a long history of collaboration with Unesco and admires and supports its work. The trustees of the British Museum have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care and to make them accessible to world audiences.
“The trustees want to strengthen existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures directly between institutions, not on a government-to-government basis. This is why we believe that working in partnership across the world represents the best way forward. Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy.”
Campaigners have also called on the British Museum to return a collection of sacred altar tablets – which have never been displayed or studied due to their sanctity – to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The items were taken during the British military assault on Maqdala in 1868.
A letter to British Museum trustees this month, signed by high-profile figures including writer Lemn Sissay and former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, said: “We believe that today the British Museum has a unique opportunity to build a lasting and meaningful bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia by handing the tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”
The museum’s longstanding position is that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents it from restituting objects, but a new legal opinion, which was sought by campaigners, claims that the tabots could be lawfully returned under a provision in the act allowing for the disposal of objects “unfit to be retained” that can be disposed “without detriment to the interests of students”.
The British Museum is also facing questions about its Benin bronze holdings. A group of contemporary Nigerian artists made headlines worldwide last month when they offered to exchange the historic sculptures for their own works.
“We never stopped making the bronzes even after those ones were stolen,” Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of the Ahiamwen Guild, told Reuters news agency at the time. “I think we make them even better now.”
The British Museum says it is engaged in “sustained and open dialogues” with Nigeria concerning the Benin collections. It is part of the Benin Dialogue Group assisting with the development of the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, and is also involved in an archaeology project in the city. The British Museum has committed to long-term loans but has not changed its stance on restitution.
Regarding its Maqdala collections, the institution says: “Discussions with Ethiopian partners concerning the Maqdala collections are continuing and the museum is actively invested in these.”
Some heritage professionals have hit back at simplistic media coverage of the issue. In a letter to the Guardian this week, Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, wrote: “The futures of museum collections and public statues are often portrayed by lobbyists and media as a fight between retainers and disposers. The real work is happening behind the scenes: people building new communities on the back of new engagements and research.”
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