In mid-March this year, the German government announced that it was close to finalising plans to return to Nigeria Benin Bronzes from around 25 of its museums. The statement was swiftly followed by news of proposed returns from corners of the globe as disparate as Aberdeen and California. Developments were also in evidence in the form of new policies on restitution announced by institutions such as London’s Horniman Museum and a return announced by the Church of England – though in this case, the items to be returned are two bronze busts gifted in the 1980s to the then Archbishop of Canterbury and thought to be contemporary to that time, rather than examples of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ discussed above, being of course, those objects looted in the infamous punitive raid on Benin city by the British in 1897.
It is tempting to see this series of events as representing something of a domino effect. There is talk of the ‘tide turning’ and an increasing expectation that, after decades of discussion, action will now swiftly follow.
We know from experience, however, that the path from word to deed can often be a somewhat tricky one. Over five years ago, in early 2016, the Student Union of Jesus College Cambridge proposed that a bronze cockerel (an Okukor), looted in the 1897 raid and subsequently bequeathed to the college by a former army officer should be returned to Nigeria. It wasn’t until November 2019, however, that the College’s Council confirmed its decision to return the work (and it is still unclear whether the cockerel has yet made the journey back). The slow pace of change is also exemplified by developments in France. President Macron’s rallying cry in Ouagadougou in November 2017 for “conditions to be met within five years for temporary or permanent restitutions of African heritage to Africa” took some time to bear fruit – and even then, the result was relatively meagre pickings in the big scheme of things. It took over three years for a law making returns possible to be passed by the French National Assembly, and that law allowed only for the return within a year of 26 artefacts to the Republic of Benin and one to Senegal.
The developments over the past few months are themselves the cumulative result of many years of painstaking and often difficult negotiations. As early 1936, the first formal claim for restitution of artefacts looted during the 1897 raid was made by the then Oba of Benin, and the Benin Court and the Nigerian government have subsequently sought the return of looted Benin antiquities on various occasions since Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
A consortium of major European museums which hold Benin Bronzes, known as the Benin Dialogue Group, was formed in 2010 and has met several times since to consider the future of the objects and to engage in discussions with the Nigerian authorities. A 2017 meeting of the group held in Cambridge resulted in a commitment to “take concrete steps towards the establishment of a permanent display in Benin City of rotating materials…”, envisaging arrangements focused on loans and the sharing of artefacts through joint exhibition projects.
At subsequent meetings of the group (first in Leiden, then in Benin City, both in 2019) plans for the establishment of a new museum to house the Bronzes were shared. It was significant that all three parties involved in the discussions from the Nigerian perspective (the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the Government of Edo State and the Royal Court of Benin) were now active participants in the group.
Both of these (connected) factors (the engagement of the three Nigerian entities and the new Benin museum) have certainly been important in the context of the recent developments. A new body, the Legacy Restoration Trust which represents all three of the Nigerian entities has been established to develop the new museum, now called the Edo Museum of West African Art. Architect Sir David Adjaye has been appointed to design the museum, which will provide a “civic and cultural space for the people of Benin City and Edo State” to “highlight, rediscover and preserve the rich history of West African culture and the heritage of the Benin Kingdom”.
Next year represents the 125th anniversary of the attack on Benin city. The outlook for the Benin Bronzes is markedly different today from that of a quarter century ago. The pace of change has quickened significantly in the past few years. In late 2018, in questioning the value of an ‘all or nothing’ approach to restitution, the renowned scholar and a founding figure of heritage law in Africa, Professor Folarin Shyllon*, who sadly passed away earlier this year, asked: “Is half a loaf not better than none at all”? Finally, it seems, solutions may be in sight which enable all parties involved to feel like they are getting a full loaf, not just the crumbs. Whilst this may not happen overnight, a new spirit of collaboration seems to be in evidence.
*Professor Folarin Shyllon, pioneer of African cultural heritage law and a stalwart of the Benin Dialogue Group was a member of the Editorial Board for Art Antiquity and Law. He wrote extensively about the Benin Bronzes as well as other aspects of African cultural heritage and the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities. The UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R., spoke in this recent tribute, of Professor Shyllon’s “lifelong commitment to the protection of cultural property … matched only by his humility and generosity. His writings will continue to inspire present and future generations”. To further explore some of the history and issues surrounding the Benin Bronzes, readers may be interested in articles he wrote for Art Antiquity and Law from 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Image: Benin Bronzes in the British Museum (Alexander Herman, 2018, CC BY)