What is know about Benin bronze and why are museums returning them?

For more than a century, Benin bronzes have been a subject of contention. Recent events in the repatriation of cultural artifacts have compelled European and Nigerian museums to band together to fight for their shared history.

In this article, we will discuss what Benin bronze is, its importance, and why museums all over the globe have just started to repatriate it to its origin.

Bronze from Benin

Benin bronzes are named after Benin City, which is now located in Nigeria and was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The kingdom was established during the Middle Ages, and it was controlled by an uninterrupted line of Oba, or kings, who handed the title down from father to son.

Benin has slowly risen into a great city-state, establishing itself as a rich country, via military campaigns and commerce with the Portuguese and other European nations. Both were at the heart of all commerce, managing enslaved people, ivory, and pepper, among other commodities. The country had a distinct artistic culture during its heyday.

Benin artworks, which are made of cast brass, wood, coral, and carved ivory, serve as vital historical documents of the Kingdom of Benin, helping to preserve the city’s history, dynastic history, and awareness of links with adjacent civilizations.

Many things were commissioned expressly for the altars of the former Oba and mother queens’ ancestors, commemorating their relationships with their Gods and sustaining their rank. They were also employed in various rites to commemorate ancestors and authenticate a new ruler’s inauguration.

The artwork was made by specialist guilds under the direction of the Royal Court of Benin, who used clay and the traditional wax casting process to fine-tune the mold before casting the molten metal. There is still one guild that creates work for the king today, with the craft being passed down from father to son.

Benin’s Invasion

Benin’s riches were powered by a thriving commerce network that provided direct access to valuable natural resources and other commodities. Initially, nations like Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom formed partnerships and trade agreements with Benin in order to benefit from its natural and artisanal resources.

European nations assembled in Berlin in 1884 to control European colonization and commerce in Africa to avert territorial wars in Africa. The Berlin Conference may be considered as one of the beginning points of the “Scramble for Africa,” which saw European powers invade and colonize African nations. This marked the start of the Age of Imperialism, which continues to have ramifications for mankind today.

European nations have forced their self-proclaimed authority on African countries, creating economic, spiritual, military, and political supremacy. Obviously, the African nations resisted, but they were all greeted with bloodshed and tremendous loss of life.

Benin battled to keep foreigners out of its commercial network, particularly the British, who desired to dominate West Africa’s commerce and territory. When members of the royal family took control, and then again when civil conflicts erupted, Benin’s government and economy were severely harmed. Britain sought to remove Oba because it was displeased with its commercial deals with Benin and wanted total control of trade authority.

In 1897, James Robert Phillips and a group of troops went to the city on an illegal expedition to meet with Oba with the goal of overthrowing him. “I am sure there is only one remedy, and that is to overthrow the King of Benin from his throne,” Phillips stated in a letter to the Foreign Secretary.

The arrival time was carefully timed to coincide with the Igue festival, a holy period in Benin during which strangers were not permitted to enter the city. Oba was unable to meet with Phillips because of the festival’s traditional custom of self-isolation. Benin City government authorities had warned that any white person attempting to enter the city at this period would be killed, and this is precisely what transpired. The deaths of these British troops served as justification for a second assault.

Newspaper clipping detailing the Massacre in Benin, 1897
Newspaper clipping detailing the Massacre in Benin, 1897. ©Achieve

A month later, the British troops retaliated with a campaign of murder and destruction in towns and villages along the path to Benin City. The events that followed brought the Kingdom of Benin to an end; its king was driven into exile, and the surviving people were subjected to British control, as well as to Benin’s precious human sacrifice and cultural ideals.

This invasion was deemed a war crime under the Hague Convention of 1899, which prohibited plundering and assaulting undefended towns or populations and was adopted three years later. The Kingdom of Benin’s heritage and customs were violently destroyed in this massive cultural catastrophe.

This is why bronzes from Benin may be found all over the globe. According to a lecturer at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, more than ten thousand artifacts are in prominent collections today. It is impossible to provide a precise assessment due to the unknown number of Benin bronzes in private collections and institutions.

Nigeria has been seeking the restitution of its stolen cultural legacy since the early 1900s, long before it became independent in 1960. In 1935, Akenzua II, the exiled Oba’s son, made the first claim for damages. Two crowns and a coral beaded tunic were restored to the family privately.

Restitution demands from African governments are more than just a mechanism for former colonies to get their hands on rare artifacts; they are also a tool for former colonies to challenge the prevailing imperial narrative. Benin’s efforts to regain control of their cultural story, develop and interpret their cultural items, and escape their colonial past are thwarted by this narrative.

The restitution process

In the last few decades, the restitution of cultural property has come to the forefront due to renewed talk of decolonization and anti-colonial practices in museums and collections. What prompted the renewed conversation likely began with the 2017 Sarre and Savoy report, organized by the French government to assess the history and current state of state-owned French collections of African heritage and artworks and discuss potential steps and recommendations for returning artifacts made during imperialist rule.

Benin Bronzes depict a horse rider and royal man
Benin Bronzes depict a horse rider and royal man

Since no international policy or law compels the return of these objects, the decision of whether or not to return them is entirely up to the individual institution. The response has generally been positive, with numerous institutions announcing the unconditional return of Benin City bronzes:

  1. The University of Aberdeen was one of the first institutions to pledge the full return of a bronze sculpture depicting the Oba of Benin City.
  2. The Humboldt Forum, Germany’s newest museum, announced an agreement with the Nigerian government to return a significant number of Benin artworks in 2022.
  3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced in June 2021 its plans to return two sculptures to Nigeria’s National Commission on Museums and Monuments.
  4. The National Museum of Ireland has pledged to return its share of twenty-one works of Benin art in April 2021.
  5. The French government voted unanimously in October 2020 to return twenty-seven pieces from French museums to both Benin and Senegal. This was stipulated on the condition that the objects would be returned as soon as Benin established a museum to house them.
  6. The Quai Branly Museum returns twenty-six pieces of Benin art. Restitution has become a major topic of discussion in France, especially because of the recent actions of several activists, including Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza.
  7. Several British institutions have announced plans to repatriate Benin bronzes, including the Horniman Museum, Cambridge University’s Jesus College, Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and the National Museum of Scotland.

There have also been instances of individuals voluntarily returning items to Benin. In 2014, a descendant of a soldier who took part in the attack on the city personally returned the object to the Royal Court of Benin.

Until a museum is built to house these returns, several projects are underway to promote restitution in other ways. One project is the Digital Benin project, a platform that digitally brings together works of art scattered around the world from the former Kingdom of Benin.

This database will provide global public access to works of art, their history, and related documentation and materials. This will facilitate further research for geographically disadvantaged people who cannot see the materials in person, as well as provide a better understanding of the historical significance of these cultural treasures. Digital Benin will bring together photographs, oral histories, and rich documentary material from collections around the world to provide a long-requested overview of royal works of art looted in the 19th century.

West African Museum in Edo

When the Benin bronzes return, they will have a place in the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), which will open in 2025. The museum is being built as part of the Rediscovering Benin History initiative, a joint project led by the Heritage Restoration Foundation, the British Museum and Associations of Ajaye, the Benin Dialogue Group, and the Edo state government.

Efforts to create this museum are in part thanks to the Edo State Government and the Benin Dialogue Group, a multi-stakeholder collaboration group with representatives of various institutions who have committed to sharing information and concerns about Benin artworks and to promoting the permanent exhibition of these objects.

Most of the museums involved in the return process mentioned above are part of the Benin Dialogue Group and participate in a plan to facilitate a permanent display of rotating objects loaned to the museum. The first phase of the museum will be a monumental archaeological project that is considered to be the largest archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City.

Head of queens
Head of queens

The focus of the excavation will be on uncovering the remains of a historic building beneath the proposed site and incorporating the ruins into the surrounding museum landscape. These fragments allow the objects themselves to be placed in their pre-colonial context and will give visitors a better understanding of the true significance of these artifacts within the traditions, political economy, and rituals enshrined in Benin City culture.

As of July 2021, there was a dispute over who would retain ownership of the sites once they were decommissioned and returned to Nigeria.

The current Oba, Ewuare II, arranged a meeting in July 2021 demanding that the return of the Benin bronzes be rejected from the current project between the Edo state government and the Heritage Restoration Trust (HRT), calling the HRT an “artificial group”.

As the great-grandson of the Oba, who was deposed in 1897, he insisted that the proper and only legitimate destination for the bronzes would be the Royal Museum of Benin, located within his palace. He insisted that the bronzes should be returned to where they were taken and that he was the custodian of the entire cultural heritage of the Kingdom of Benin.

There is also the possibility that Oba’s intervention came too late. Millions of dollars in contracts have already been signed to support this project from various institutions and governments, such as the British Museum and the Edo state government.

The conversation about the restitution of the sites is still going on. Until an agreement or compromise is reached between the Oba and the Nigerian government, the Benin bronzes will continue to be stored in their respective museums and await their return home.

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