London museum starts return of looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

[29-11-2022 09:33 AM]

Ammon News -

A small south London museum has begun the official process of returning looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

Housing a collection of 72 treasured items that were taken by force from Benin City in 1897, the Horniman Museum officially handed over ownership of the artefacts to the Nigerian government on Monday.

Returning the looted objects was a “moral and appropriate” response, the museum said after it received a request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

There are still questions about whether thousands of items that are held at large institutions globally, including the British Museum, will ever be sent back.

The first six objects that are being returned, including two “Benin Bronze” plaques from the royal palace, were handed to Nigerian officials at a ceremony marking the transfer of ownership of 72 looted items.

The items were taken from Benin City by British troops in February 1897.

Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and Prof Abba Tijani, the NCMM’s director general, were asked before the official handover if they were frustrated by the British Museum’s apparent reluctance to hand over the 900 objects it has held for more than a century.

Mr Merriman, who called the Horniman an “excellent example” of leadership, said: “Journalists who ask me about the Benin return always want to ask me about the British Museum.

“I would rather talk about what an excellent example the Horniman is rather than answer questions about the British Museum.”

The six objects, selected in consultation with the NCMM as being representative of the collection of 72 items, form the first wave of returns.

A new agreement between the NCMM and the Horniman will allow the rest to stay in the UK on loan for now, with a second phase of repatriations to follow at some stage.

Prof Tijani later said that about 5,000 Benin bronzes were “scattered” around the world.

He is hoping that talks with various institutions may result in deals that could herald the items being returned from places including Germany and the US.


Prof Abba Tijani, left, director general of NCMM, and Michael Salter-Church, chairman of trustees at the Horniman Museum in South London, at a ceremony on Monday to begin returning looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria. PA


Among the six objects being returned by the museum are a brass plaque depicting Oba Orhogbua, king of the Benin Empire, from 1550 to 1578, holding a staff representing authority and power, and with royal tattoos.

There is also brass plaque depicting Agban, the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Benin army, towards the end of the reign of Oba Orhogbua's rule and the start of the reign of Oba Ehengbuda, which ended in 1608.

The other items are a brass hip ornament depicting a face or mask; an ivory staff of office depicting a carved relief figure of an Oba; an ivory arm cuff carved with heads and abstract shapes, as part of royal regalia; and a carved wooden box frame, probably used for holding a mirror.


Artifacts on show at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London during the ceremony to mark the start of artefacts being returned. PA


Museum founder Frederick Horniman bought the ivory objects and the wooden frame from WJ Hider, of the Royal Navy, in March 1897.

Mr Hider accompanied Admiral Harry Rawson’s military incursion into Benin City in February 1897, and was personally involved in the looting, the museum said.

Prof Tijani later said he did not go to the British Museum to see the treasured artefacts there because that “is giving me high blood pressure”.

“I keep on appealing to them to really look at this [return of items] and let us discuss," he said.

“At the end of the day they will still have some objects on loan which they will continue to display."

Prof Tijani said he felt a sense of relief when he looked at the Horniman objects that were being returned.

“I feel that the right thing has been done and the Benin people and Africa have the opportunity to see and interact with these objects that they have not been able to do for many decades,” he said.

“If this invasion had not taken place, these objects would still be in Nigeria."

The artefacts were “illegally taken out” of the Benin kingdom at a time when it was a sovereign entity. It is now part of Nigeria.


An artefact is displayed during the announcement of the return of the first six objects from World Gallery's Kingdom of Benin display to Nigeria at The Horniman Museum and Gardens, in London, Britain November 28, 2022. Reuters


The nation has asked for the stolen artefacts to be returned and the institutions that have them should “do the right thing” and send them back, Prof Tijani said.

“What is the benefit to Nigeria? What is the benefit of this to humanity?" he asked. "We are not looking at monetary value. We are not looking at what will be accrued.

“We are looking at them doing the right thing and to continue our collaboration.

“These objects are going to be there in Nigeria for people to have the opportunity to understand and learn of their heritage and about their past.

"If there are any individuals who are associated with this history or heritage, of course, they will feel that the right thing has been done.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that some museums were subject to legislation that stops them permanently removing items from their collections.

Others, which are charities such as the Horniman, are allowed to do so.

“Museums and galleries in the UK operate independently of government. Therefore decisions relating to the care and management of their collections are a matter for the trustees of each museum," said a spokesman.

“The Horniman Museum and Gardens is not prevented by law from deaccessioning items, so it is up to the trustees of the museum to decide on their collections.”

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