The 124 year-old punitive expedition of British Army in Benin Kingdom, resulting in the looting of priceless bronzes, has continued to attract calls for restitution. Last week, museums and institutions in UK and Germany indicated their readiness to return some of these stolen works in collections back to Nigeria. How prepared is Nigeria to fund museums in order to provide adequate space and care for the returned objects, Assistant Editor Arts (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports.
The age-long burning issue of repatriation of artifacts stolen from Benin by the British Army during the infamous 1897 punitive expedition seems to be receiving positive responses from Europe where most of these priceless objects are kept.
The British forces looted thousands of metal and ivory sculptures as well as carvings during an invasion of Benin City in 1897. Some of the soldiers and administrators involved sold the artworks to museums, while others were given as gifts to museums or sold at auction or by art dealers.
The University of Aberdeen said last week it will return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria within weeks, one of the first public institutions to do so more than a century after Britain looted the sculptures and auctioned them to Western museums and collectors.
Also, Germany has said it would begin the process of returning hundreds of artefacts from the kingdom, including 440 of the famed Benin Bronzes held at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.
The moves follow decades of agitation for the return of artefacts that have become global symbols of western plunder during colonialism, and the ill-gotten cultural heritage of colonised peoples displayed in museums around the world. The clamour has grown louder as the Black Lives Matter movement has intensified the spotlight on the ills of colonialism and need for restitution.
However, Africa’s leading art collector and Founder Yemisi Shyllon Museum, Lagos Omooba Yemisi Shyllon is not enthusiastic about the planned return of the priceless objects saying the general attitudes of Nigerians do not favour the return of the objects. He said Nigeria lacks the capacity; human resources, technological advancement and attitudes to house and care for the objects the same way the objects have been cared for by different galleries, museums and institutions in Europe and America. He said most Nigerians do not love the works as they tag them demonic.
“I am speaking about the ethnographic and archeological works in the museums, which are not appreciated by Nigerians. Since 75 years when the first museum was established in the country, how has Nigeria funded the museums across the country? We have consistently dished out messages portraying these works as demonic and that they won’t allow many to go to heaven.
“We do not have carbon dating equipment, the human capacity to preserve these works, no adequate allocation of funds to the different museums across the country and our people believe that the works contain evil spirits. Unfortunately, the world is moving from physical to virtual in the transaction of almost every business. How have we invested in the development of the physical museums since 1945? How prepared are we to invest in virtual that is IT driven?” Shyllon asked.
He feared that when the works are returned, they will be kept in non-conducive state and will not receive the quality care they are currently getting now.
To him, rather than return the works to Nigeria, ‘we should enter into agreement with those institutions, galleries and museums reaffirming that those works belong to us, and as such they should pay royalty for keeping them until we are prepared to house the works. Such agreement, he said, should be renewable every 20 years and our preparedness should be monitored by a UN agency.’
One of Nigeria’s modern artists and trustee of Legacy Restoration Trust, Mr. Victor Ehikhamenor shared a different view. He said in a report that he hoped the decision to return the stolen objects would prompt others to follow suit. “Because some of these things are missing from our environment, people are not able to contextualise where we are coming from,” Ehikhamenor said.
The plans for a new museum in Benin City will in part answer the argument long made in the West that developing countries do not have the facilities to keep the priceless art safe, Ehikhamenor dismissed the premise.
“If somebody comes to your house and steals one of your heirlooms, it would be a bit disingenuous for them to then turn around and ask you, what are you going to do with this?
“It’s like going to Buckingham Palace, ripping the paintings off the walls and when the owners question the intruders, they would ask if the original owners are sure they can take care of them,” he noted.
“This is a major institutional return and an entire country finding the right language and having the conscious mind to do the right thing,” he added.
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed described the release of the bronze work as a right step in the right direction. “The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction,” the institution quoted him as saying. “Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation”.
Professor of Painting and Art History, University of Calabar, Prof. Victor Ecoma University of Calabar, shared similar view points of Shyllon. He said he is not sure the NCMM have the capability to retain those artifacts in a conducive museum environment that promotes research, preservation, conservation and restoration. This, he said, is partly due to inadequate budget for the sector not considered a government’s priority. “The issue of light and space requirements will also be a major set-back. Since the 1950s the national museum has not had any expansion to meet its space needs,” he added.
According to him, the drive to return looted artifacts is largely a moral burden on the West and to avoid any form of reparations. “They have also argued that it is a way of ensuring a non repeat of looting artifacts in crisis situations. Also due to globalisation the era of artistic colonisation is coming to an end,” he said.
The restitutions will increase the pressure on London’s British Museum, which holds about 900 Benin artifacts. The museum this week acknowledged the “devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897” but did not offer to return them.
In a report, the University of Aberdeen said that the sculpture of an Oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin, had left Nigeria in an “extremely immoral” fashion, leading it to reach out to authorities in 2019 to negotiate its return.
Pressure has mounted to return to their places of origin the Benin Bronzes – actually copper alloy relief sculptures – and other artifacts taken by colonial powers.
Neil Curtis, Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, said the Bronze, purchased in 1957, had been “blatantly looted” 124 years ago by British soldiers.
“It became clear we had to do something,” Curtis said.
Britain’s soldiers seized thousands of metal castings and sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, then separate from British-ruled Nigeria, in 1897.
The university called it “one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion”.
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” said university vice-chancellor George Boyne.
The move was also backed by Aberdeen University’s governing body and the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the school, Prof. George Boyne, said the development is in line with the values of the institution.
“This is in line with our values as an international, inclusive university and our foundational purpose of being open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others,” the school quoted him as saying.
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We, therefore, decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”
According to the school, it started the conversation for the return of the artwork through Prof Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in Babcock University, with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments through its Legal Adviser, Babatunde Adebiyi, the Edo State Government through the then Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Prof Yinka Omorogbe and the Royal Court of the Oba of Benin through Prince Prof Gregory Akenzua in 2020.
Director-General National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Prof Abba Isa Tijani said the importance of displaying the bronze inside Nigeria for the first time in more than 120 years was inexpressible. “It is part of our identity, part of our heritage, which has been taken away from us for many years,” Tijani said.
On the new wave of desire to return the objects to Nigeria, the former Provost Federal College of Education (Special) Osiele, Abeokuta, Dr. Kunle Filani noted that the European museums and galleries have been conscientised over the years especially with the recent protests of Black Lives Matter. “They are realising that the continuing keeping of the looted bronzes puts them in an immoral conundrum. I am sure that they will make replicas of the bronzes before returning them… this should not be permitted because it is still immoral and pejorative to the African consciousness,” he added.
The British Museum, which holds hundreds of the sculptures, has alongside several other museums formed a Benin Dialogue Group to discuss displaying them in Benin City. It has said discussions are ongoing.
The University of Cambridge’s Jesus College said it had finalised approvals in December to return one Bronze. Tijani said US museums would also return two more Bronzes.
The governor of Edo state, of which Benin City is the capital, plans to build a centre to store and study the returned artifacts by the end of 2021, and a permanent museum by 2025.
“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,” the museum said.
Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, said the statement read like “something out of the 19th century”.
“It’s hard to understand how that narrative really remains, and [how] anyone can say it with a straight face in the 21st century,” he said.
The Benin Bronzes are a series of exquisite sculptures of animals, people and the kingdom’s rulers, dating from at least the 16th century. Many were commissioned specifically for sacred ritual use. They also include plaques that tell the story of the kingdom that once lined its royal palace. Oba Ewuare II, the current king, has led efforts to recover the bronzes, including a request made during a visit from the British Museum in 2018.
Barnaby Phillips, author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, highlighted the role played by the 1963 British Museum Act, which prohibits restitution.
“I’m not saying by any means that the British Museum is desperate to return the Benin Bronzes — it’s not,” said Phillips, a former BBC correspondent in Nigeria. “[But] it is very difficult for the British Museum to give back objects in its collections short of a new law.”
Hicks estimated that 99 per cent of African objects in UK museums taken under colonialism are in storage boxes, some of which “haven’t been opened for 100 years”.