Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has made a formal claim for Benin works held by the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA).
The museum, which holds 136 Benin items, anticipates that the claim will be supported and steps taken to return the artefacts. The objects relate to the British raid of 1897 against the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. Benin City was captured and looted, with many of the stolen artefacts ending up in museums across the world.
In 2017, the University of Cambridge hosted a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), which brings together European museums and representatives of the Government of Nigeria and the Royal Court of Benin. Since then, the MAA has supported the BDG commitment to return artefacts to a new museum being developed in Benin City.
The MAA and the University of Cambridge Museums consortium later developed a framework for the return of artefacts. The policy notes that consideration will be given to whether artefacts were “appropriated in the aftermath of violence, for example in the context of a colonial intrusion or war”. In recent years, MAA staff have visited Benin City, and Benin representatives have visited Cambridge.
MAA director Nicholas Thomas said: “The dialogue over the last few years between MAA curators and colleagues in Nigeria has been extraordinarily rewarding. We welcome the claim from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the opportunities this process presents, as a university museum committed to working internationally, in partnership."
The claim by the NCMM follows the return of a Benin item to Nigeria from Jesus College Cambridge in October last year. The repatriation of the bronze cockerel was the first institutional return of its kind.
The return of the Benin items held by MAA is expected to take some time, particularly as there are 136 objects to deal with.
A number of other UK museums are making efforts to deal with Benin items that they hold.
Harewood House is home to a small Benin bronze belonging to the Lascelles family, which owns the historic property in west Yorkshire. The family are working towards the repatriation of this item and are in conversation with stakeholders.
Harewood is currently displaying the bronze as part of its Open History series, which uses objects in the collection to engage visitors in Harewood’s past.
Meanwhile at National Museums Liverpool, the World Museum is opening a display about its Benin items. Benin and Liverpool, which will be unveiled on 18 March, has been developed in collaboration with five Liverpool residents of African descent. The aim is to bring absent voices and new narratives to the presentation of the museum’s collections from Benin City.
Benin and Liverpool is part of the #WMWhereNext campaign, which is exploring the World Museum’s colonial collections and the contexts in which they were acquired.
As well as displaying 21 original Benin artworks, including an elaborately carved elephant tusk damaged during the looting of the city, the display includes audiovisuals that bring contemporary Edo voices to the gallery and two contemporary artworks by artist Leo Asemota.
The five Liverpool residents who helped create the display were Nasra Elliott, Saffron Francis, Otis Graham, Ashleigh Nugent, and Emy Onuora.
Elliott said: “Being both a scouser, a member of the African diaspora, and a lover of African history and culture I saw this as a great opportunity. I see my position as a member of the diaspora as unique, having a foot in both camps.
“I wanted to be involved in the debate on restitution to hopefully speak on behalf of the voices that are often stonewalled from the dialogue and to build on my personal knowledge of West African Civilizations.
“I think the display is more inviting to the audience, it encompasses colours more fitting to the Benin kingdom and it explains the history of the punitive expedition more explicitly which is needed for context.”
Janet Dugdale, NML executive director of museums and participation, said: "Across National Museums Liverpool, we are thinking about new ways to use objects to understand our collective past, present and future. In Benin and Liverpool, we proactively confront questions about Britain's colonial history, its legacies and our collections.
"This collaborative and inclusive process was challenging, creative and rewarding. We hope it tells a more human story that confronts historical injustices and connects Benin and Liverpool within a global context.”
From the latest research into its collections, World Museum has 51 Benin artworks in various materials (copper alloy, ivory, stone, wood) that are highly likely to have been acquired directly or indirectly from participants in the 1897 punitive expedition. This figure does not include one item that was destroyed in a fire at the museum in 1941.