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Benin bronzes: imperial loot to be returned

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Western museums are filled with ancient artefacts looted in Europe’s age of empire – just as town squares are populated with monuments to slave-traders and colonialists. The global Black Lives Matter protests last year have shone a spotlight on these material legacies of empire. Archaeology has moved centre-state in contemporary culture wars.

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin is to restore 500 objects, including 440 bronzes, looted from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. Aberdeen University has followed suit, announcing the return of a notable bronze depicting the Oba, the King of Benin.

Explaining the decision, the university authorities made reference to the ‘extremely immoral’ way in which the object was acquired, during a ‘punitive expedition’ that amounted to one of ‘the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th century European colonial expansion’.

This is piling pressure on the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of Benin bronzes, and on the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which holds a further 300. But successive British governments have resisted calls for the restitution of plundered antiquities for decades, and there are no signs so far of a shift in policy.

The British Museum has issued a statement saying, ‘We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange.’

Part of the notorious ‘Scramble for Africa’, the Kingdom of Benin was attacked by an army of 1,200 British troops in February 1897. The capital was captured, burned, and looted, and the independence of the kingdom was ended. The British Admiralty then auctioned around a thousand bronzes taken from the royal palace to cover the costs of the military expedition.

The Benin bronzes, created from the 13th century onwards, are outstanding examples of indigenous metallurgy and art from the African Iron Age. Momentum is building for their return to the descendants of the people who made them.

Neil Faulkner reporting.

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