Campaign for the return of bronzes from Benin, other important items taken during colonial times – Blueprint Newspapers Limited

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of over 3,000 figures and other decorative pieces looted by the British in 1897. Today, they are housed in over 160 public and private collections around the world. These objects were created from the 13th century by the Bini people and include busts of portraits in brass and bronze. Some were made using the sophisticated lost wax casting method, which was once considered an uniquely European invention.

The Bronzes from Benin or rather the objects from Benin, because not all are made of metal; some are in ivory or wood, are objects from the Kingdom of Benin.

Ill-gotten goods

On January 2, 1897, James Philips, a British official left for the coast of Nigeria to visit the Oba kingdom of Benin. Historical reports say that he took a handful of colleagues with him, and it is assumed that he went to persuade the Oba to end the disruptions to British trade.

When Philips learned that the Oba would not see him because a holy feast was taking place, he went anyway. He never came back. For the Kingdom of Benin, the assassination of Philips and most of his party had enormous repercussions. Within a month, the British sent 1,200 soldiers in revenge. On February 18, the British Army captured Benin in a violent raid. All valuables found in the king’s palace and surrounding houses were looted. Within a month, much of the bounty was in England. The artifacts were donated to museums or auctioned or kept by soldiers for their fireplace pieces.

Campaign for the return of our objects

Nigeria has been calling for the return of its artifacts for decades. Some parts stolen during the raid have found their way back home. This happened when the British Museum sold several plaques to Nigeria in the 1950s, when the Lagos Museum was established. Others, it was sold on the open market. But these were not free and it is the large-scale return of our objects that is requested for the moment.

A key moment came in the 1970s when the organizers of the great festival of black arts and culture; FESTAC ’77, asked the British Museum for a precious object: a 16th century ivory mask depicting Oba’s mother {now widely known as the FESTAC head}. Organizers wanted to borrow the work to serve as the centerpiece of the 1977 event, but the British Museum said it was too fragile and therefore would not publish it. This incident is still relevant more than 40 years later.

Almost since their looting, demands for the return of our artifacts have been made by Nigeria and other African states. Now, with the intense interest in colonial spoils, attention has returned to them. The announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 in Ouagadougou to return the colonial spoils of French colonial museums and to commission a revolutionary report from Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy was at heart of this change of interest. supported his decision.

Over the past decade, a consortium known as the Benin Dialogue Group with the cooperation of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments has worked to repatriate some of these Beninese bronzes and establish a permanent exhibition in Benin. City.

Obstacles to repatriation

The British Museum holds around 900 objects arguably the largest collection to date and with government support has refused restitution. This is part of a larger debate on the responsibility of colonialism as a crime against humanity. In addition, the British Museum is currently prevented from returning its loot by the British Museum Act of 1963 and the National Heritage Act of 1983.

Museum officials, at the start of the quest to repatriate these artefacts, were initially unaware of the problem of colonial plunder. When the pressure mounted, they downplayed criticism, ridiculed criticism, and even defamed them.

Another pressing question asked by most museums / governments is what happens to artefacts when they return to their country of origin. Frankly though, that shouldn’t be their concern. What the rightful owners do with their art is their decision and this should not delay the return.

Many objects are in private hands and museums. Calling on these people to fire them can be difficult as some are just not willing to do so and no law requires them.

Many Western countries have laws ensuring the return of Nazi looted art, this approach has not been extended to stolen art in Africa and other parts of the world.

Change attitudes towards repatriation by international museums.

The German Minister of Culture aptly captures the changing realities of most international museum institutions. We have a historical and moral responsibility to bring to light Germany’s colonial past. We would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of people who were stripped of their cultural treasures during colonial times.

Asmau Hussain-Braimah,

National Museums, Abuja

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