UK museum to return 72 looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

By Desmond Davies

London, Aug 12, GNA – A museum in the United Kingdom has agreed to return ownership of 72 Benin Bronzes that were looted in 1897 to Nigeria, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London has announced.

The Horniman said that its Board of Trustees took the decision to send back the artefacts, which were forcibly removed from Benin City by British troops during their incursion in February 1897, following a request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

The move came after the UK’s Charity Commission, the regulator of the country’s charitable sector, endorsed the decision of the Horniman trustees on August 5.

The collection includes 12 brass plaques, commonly known as Benin Bronzes.

Other objects include a brass cockerel altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, everyday items such as fans and baskets, according to the Horniman.

The museum said it received the request from the NCMM in January this year and had since “undertaken detailed research of its objects from Benin to establish which are in the scope of the request”.

In welcoming the decision by the Horniman, Prof Abba Tijani, Director-General of the NCMM, said: “We look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Horniman.”

Eve Salomon, Chair of the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, said: “The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.

“The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step and we look forward to working with the NCMM to secure longer term care for these precious artefacts.”

Over the years, Nigeria and other African countries have been making efforts to get priceless artefacts, which were forcibly taken away by the colonial powers for exhibition in their museums, returned to their rightful owners.

The Benin Bronzes, made of brass and bronze, are a group of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments.

They were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the historic Kingdom of Benin by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba in Benin City.

In January 1897, a so-called British trade mission was attacked on its way to Benin City, leading to the deaths of seven British delegates and 230 of the mission’s African carriers.

This led to the launch of a large-scale retaliatory military expedition by the British against the Kingdom of Benin and in February 1897 Benin City was captured by British forces. 

The looting of the artefacts followed.

Various institutions that hold Benin collections are found around the world, including in the US where there are important collections in Chicago, Boston, New York, Denver and Philadelphia.

In the UK, the British Museum has in its collection over 900 objects from Benin.

More than 100 are in a permanent changing display within the Museum’s galleries, while objects from Benin are also lent regularly around the world.

The British Museum’s collections additionally include a range of archival documentation and photographic collections relating to the objects from the Kingdom of Benin and their collection histories.

In October 2021 the British Museum received a written request for the return of “Nigerian antiquities” from the country’s Ministry of Information and Culture.

This followed a visit to Nigeria in August 2018 by the Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, who, during an audience with His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II, discussed new opportunities for sharing and displaying objects from the Kingdom of Benin.

Oba Ewuare II repeated his request for the Benin collections to be returned.

The British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, which brings together museum representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK with key representatives from Nigeria, including the Benin Royal Palace and NCMM.

The Group is working to establish new museums in Benin City to permanently display objects from the Kingdom of Benin, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums, as well as historic and contemporary works from across West Africa.