The year is 1897, and British troops are brutally consolidating colonial power in the Kingdom of Benin, present-day Nigeria. An expedition of soldiers and sailors finds thousands of magnificent brass, bronze and ivory sculptures and carvings – now termed the Benin Bronzes – in the royal palace. They steal them and take them back to Europe. Today, the bronzes are considered some of the region’s most historically and spiritually important works of art.
The bronzes were then distributed to museums and private collectors throughout Europe and North America. But after Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960, countries around the world started to consider returning the bronzes, recognising their importance to Nigeria – and acknowledging their 1897 theft as the result of a violent, repressive colonial past.
Following 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests (and a renewed focus on Europe’s colonial history) the return of the Benin Bronzes picked up pace. Both France and the Netherlands have promised to return all colonial artefacts to their rightful owners. In April 2021, Germany, which holds the world’s second-largest collection of Benin Bronzes, said it would return all of the looted bronzes in its public collections by the end of 2022. And just yesterday, the Smithsonian in Washington DC said that it would be repatriating 39 of its bronzes to the National Museum of Benin.
But in the UK, the country actually responsible for the looting of the bronzes, the response has been shamefully slow. While the likes of the University of Aberdeen, the Horniman Museum and the Church of England have all announced their intentions to return bronzes to Nigeria, the British Museum – holder of more than 900 Bronzes and the biggest collection in the world – remains mostly unmoved.
For decades, British collectors rehashed the same arguments for keeping the bronzes, citing lack of safety or lack of knowledge in Nigeria – reasoning laced with the patronising, paternalistic attitudes of Britain’s imperial past. The British Museum, meanwhile, has also remained protected by the British Museum Act, a law that forbids the museum from disposing of its holdings apart from in certain circumstances.
Neo-colonial attitudes aside, why else may the British Museum not want to return its Benin Bronzes? Foremost in its reasoning could be that the repatriation of the bronzes might set a precedent for museums to have to return other looted objects to their rightful owners. The likes of the British Museum, the V&A and Wallace Collection are bursting with artefacts that were accumulated during the height of the British Empire. Without those objects, their collections would be much, much smaller.
There are supposedly 10,000 bronzes in various locations around the world. They range from plaques to sculpted heads to jewellery, and some date from centuries before Europeans landed in Nigeria. In modern-day Benin City, a museum called the Benin Royal Museum is being built with the intention of housing the bronzes. The British Museum has said it will lend the new museum some of its collection (but not repatriate anything, of course).
In the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, the British Museum’s continued refusal to return its Benin Bronzes seems particularly ill suited to our times. And it isn’t as if the British Museum Act completely prevents the museum from returning the bronzes.
A clause in the act states that artefacts can be let go by the museum should they be ‘unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students’. If you ask us, the Benin Bronzes – a collection of looted relics and a continual reminder of Britain’s barbaric past – fit the bill perfectly.