Over the past month, debates surrounding the Benin Bronzes—a group of thousands of objects plundered by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin during the 19th century—have taken a new turn. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin has said it will begin seeking the process of returning the hundreds of Benin Bronzes in its collection, and a Scottish university became the first institution to formally commit to returning a Benin Bronze to Nigeria. Why have the Benin Bronzes generated so much controversy, and what will happen to them in the years to come? Below, a guide to the artworks and their history.
What are the Benin Bronzes?
The Benin Bronzes are a group of thousands of objects that were taken from the kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, in 1897. (Their exact number is unknown, though it is believed to exceed 3,000.) These objects—including figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask—were looted by British troops, and have since been dispersed around the world, with the bulk of the works now residing with state museums in Europe. Contrary to the name, not all of the works are made of bronze. Because they made their way beyond West Africa as a result of a colonial conquest, the Benin Bronzes have faced calls for their return, both within Nigeria and outside it.
How were the Benin Bronzes plundered?
In 1897, James Phillips, an unarmed British explorer, visited the Kingdom of Benin. The kingdom’s ruler, the Oba Ovonramwen, welcomed Phillips, who decided to continue the expedition, even though he had been warned not to come to the Oba’s kingdom during a sacred period for its members. Chiefs reporting to Ovonramwen believed that Phillips and his expedition would interrupt a series of rituals, and a dispute occurred. Phillips, several in his mission, and 200 African porters were killed. To avenge their deaths, the British empire sent troops to steal artifacts from the kingdom, and they walked away with thousands of priceless objects. Some were placed on loan to the British Museum by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in England, and many more were sold to British and German institutions, as well as private dealers. According to the British Museum’s website, certain people who took part in the Benin expedition also kept Benin Bronzes for themselves.
A 16th-century Edo ivory mask held by the British Museum.
©Trustees of the British Museum
What have Nigerians said about the Benin Bronzes?
For many Nigerians, the Benin Bronzes are a potent reminder of colonialism and its continued effects on African society. Citizens in the country have long called for the return of the Benin Bronzes, though institutions outside its borders have been reticent to heed them. In 1977, FESTAC ’77, a Lagos arts event that took as its title the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, used a 16th-century ivory mask once worn by an Oba as its symbol. There are four known copies of the mask, with the most well-known one residing at the British Museum in London, where it is on permanent display. In the run-up to the festival, Nigerians began clamoring for the return of the British Museum mask, and when that became impossible, a committee began seeking a loan. That, too, never came to pass.
Nigerians have continued to demand that museums across the world give back their Benin Bronzes. The Lagos- and U.S.-based artist Victor Ehikhamenor, for example, wrote an impassioned New York Times op-ed on the subject in 2020. His essay concluded: “Generations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent. We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours.”
Which museums hold Benin Bronzes?
Institutions on several continents hold objects from the Benin Bronzes group, many of which are considered highly valuable. The British Museum has the most Benin Bronzes of any institution worldwide, with 900 objects from the group in its holdings. Because of the vast number of Benin Bronzes in its collection, the British Museum has repeatedly been the subject of protests from activists, scholars, and artists who claim that the institution owns stolen property. Berlin’s Ethnological Museum—now a part of the newly built Humboldt Forum, which also houses a research laboratory—has also faced pushback because it owns more than 500 objects from the Benin Bronzes cache, as well as other works that various figures have claimed should be repatriated to their former owners.
Yet these are but two of the many museums around the globe that hold Benin Bronzes. In his 2020 book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, scholar Dan Hicks compiled a list of the 161 institutions that have acquired Benin Bronzes by various means. His list includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, the Vatican Museums, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Whereas 45 U.K. institutions and 38 U.S. institutions hold Benin Bronzes, just 9 Nigerian ones own objects from the group, according to Hicks’s count.
The University of Aberdeen’s Benin Bronze.
Courtesy University of Aberdeen
How has the British Museum responded to protests?
On its website, the British Museum has written that “no formal request has been received for the return of the Museum’s Benin collections in their entirety,” and that the museum is engaged in “longstanding dialogues” with the current Oba, Ewuare II, who visited the museum in 2018 and met with director Hartwig Fischer.
Who has returned their Benin Bronzes?
Just one institution has committed to repatriating a Benin Bronze work, though others have made promises to start seeking discussions about sending back objects from the group. In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland called its 1957 acquisition of a sculpture of the Oba at auction in London “extremely immoral” and vowed to send the work home. Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, encouraged others to follow suit.
The University of Aberdeen’s groundbreaking decision followed major developments days earlier at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which said it would start pursuing the process of repatriating its Benin Bronzes. A decision on whether they can return to Nigeria will be left to the board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages the collection of the Ethnological Museum. The Humboldt Forum’s director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, said the museum would not show its Benin Bronzes, leaving blank spaces or exhibiting copies in their place, though the institution plans to forge on with a display devoted to the group.
Meanwhile, in 2019, after a report by academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy recommended that France begin repatriating plundered African art in its holdings, the French state pledged to return 26 Benin Bronzes in the national collection. Progress has been slow, however, as politicians in the country have historically been resistant to repatriating African art, claiming that it constitutes French heritage, and as of April 2021, none of the Benin Bronzes have permanently left France.
Where will the Benin Bronzes go if they are sent back to Nigeria?
Nigerians have been eagerly awaiting the return of the Benin Bronzes, and with the expectation some will head back in the years to come, a museum is being built to house them in Benin City. That institution, the Edo Museum of West African Art, is being designed by architect David Adjaye and is currently set to open in 2025. It is expected to be host to the most comprehensive collection of Benin Bronzes to date.