The year 1897 was not a particularly eventful year in Britain. Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee. The Tate Gallery was inaugurated in London. Oscar Wilde was released from prison. But in what is now known as Edo State, Nigeria, at the frontiers of the once great Benin Empire, 1897 was the year “the world turned upside down.” These are the words of Patrick Oronsaye, a Nigerian historian and descendant of the Oba of Benin, interviewed by Barnaby Phillips in his impressive recent book, Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes.
It was Queen Victoria’s subjects who conquered Benin City and overthrew the Oba that year. For centuries, Britain and the Benin Empire had been partners in trade—of slaves or ivory or pepper. But after the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery and the scramble for Africa, British imperialism was in its prime and the Benin Empire was in the middle of its long senescence. A confrontation was inevitable. The British Empire’s desire to monopolise the West African economy was unacceptable to the Oba, who wished to retain his kingdom’s independence. Britain rapidly colonised neighbouring kingdoms. But, in January 1897, a secret expedition to Benin was ambushed. British officers were killed. The press was horrified, and the British now had an excellent pretext to wage war and end the Oba’s reign once and for all.
The so-called “punitive expedition” lasted six weeks. After the capital was seized, the Oba was sent into exile. As is par for the course with colonial conquests, there was destruction, there were massacres and, of course, there was an orgy of looting. The earthen walls of Benin that fascinated European explorers—described as “the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era” by The Guinness Book of Records—were razed. Subsequently, a fire broke out that consumed the whole city. The fire was the result of British recklessness, not deliberate policy. Still, the British were culpable, and an entire civilisation was vanquished.
As a result of the looting, some treasures were salvaged from that civilisation: what we now call the Benin Bronzes, an immense collection of artworks technically made of brass, often in gunmetal grey, created, formed and cast by the blacksmiths of the Benin Empire. Benin craftsmen passed their techniques down through the generations; their work has rightly been admired across the world ever since. The lion’s share is displayed in the British Museum, but plenty of other institutions still house some of the treasure, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and South London’s Horniman Museum.
Campaigns to repatriate the bronzes have been around for a long time, since before Nigeria gained its independence in 1960. The Nigerian National Museum—created shortly afterwards under the stewardship of Kenneth Murray—wanted to get back as many bronzes as possible, and did manage to buy some back from private collectors and from the British Museum itself in 1950 and 51. In the west, the late Bernie Grant led an intense campaign for their return throughout the 1990s, especially in 1997, the centenary of the original pillaging. Nothing came of his campaign at the time, but over the past year or so something has changed. Ever since the death of George Floyd, demands for decolonisation have become part of the zeitgeist, as have calls for western society to reckon with the sordid history of racism and colonial oppression.
Some claim that the bronzes should be repatriated because they were acquired illegally—stolen—during a brutal colonial conquest. Others, like Dan Hicks in The Brutish Museums, argue that housing them in western museums is itself a form of extractive cultural colonialism in which colonial violence and the structures upholding it are disguised yet celebrated. Thus, repatriation is an anticolonial act because it undermines the colonial structure of the western museum and allows societies to somewhat heal the wounds caused by European colonialism.
The wall of intransigence from the arts and culture establishment—who have previously refused to take the notion of repatriation seriously—has cracked. Over the past few months, museums across Europe—such as the National Museum of Ireland—have pledged to return the bronzes. Officials in Germany are negotiating the return of a full 500 bronzes. Earlier this year in Dresden, Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh put up posters across the city to “frame the stagnant and abstract discourse surrounding colonial reparations with the urgency and gravity of a public service announcement.”
The campaign has been gaining momentum. Amid loud calls to decolonise, institutions want to advertise how they have reckoned with the dark colonial past. Museums traditionally respected as temples of enlightenment for the masses are increasingly seen as sites of violence—an archive of the collective traumas of the west’s historic victims. Pressure is increasing. On 25 March, the University of Aberdeen promised to return its single artefact to Nigeria. On 22 April, the Church of England promised to return two bronzes that were gifted to the Archbishop of Canterbury by the Benin kingdom. On 7 May, Germany’s culture minister Monika Grütters announced that German museums would be returning their bronzes, starting in early 2022.
A leitmotif throughout this argument is the mantra of ownership. “We shouldn’t have to ask over and over again, to get back what is ours,” argues Victor Ehikhamenor, for example. This logic is based on the idea of cultural patrimony: that particular objects naturally belong to certain groups. So while the Benin bronzes may have admirers from all around the world, in the end they belong to Nigerians, or, more specifically, to the indigenous people of Edo State where they were originally cast. Behind this is the assumption that the bronzes mean something to a Nigerian or a black African in a way they just don’t to a white British person or an Arab.
The quest to repatriate the Bronzes to their rightful owners may have laudable intentions. The impulse to return these treasures is a powerful one. Many Greeks thinks of themselves as descendants of the peoples of ancient Greek civilisation. They don’t want to merely look at the Elgin Marbles from afar in a British museum, but see them whole and united on Greek soil as their ancestors would have in antiquity. Likewise, some Nigerians, particularly those who see themselves as heirs of the Benin Empire, want to see, touch and wonder at the artefacts their ancestors cast in person. By interacting with them, they feel an intimate connection with their history—a connection that was ruptured by the violence of 1897.
One might argue that something must be done to somewhat address the racist history of European colonialism in Africa, which has long been ignored or downplayed. The consequences of this impulse, however, can be deeply troubling. It presents an idea of culture as fixed and immutable, as something people own by virtue of their biological ancestry—this is an almost racial view of the world. “The Benin Bronzes belong to the Edo people and they should not have to answer to anybody about what they do with them, because they are rightly theirs,” as Nigerian writer Funmi Adebayo puts it. Demands for exclusive cultural ownership on the basis of ancestry have a tendency to be the ploys of gatekeepers and wannabe brahmins who wish to set arbitrary cultural boundaries.
If a museum has a raison d’etre it is to preserve what belongs to us all—belongs in a metaphorical sense. All the world’s artefacts and treasures have potential value for all human beings. The ideal of the encyclopaedic, cosmopolitan public museum is worth defending and promoting. Museums have an essential aesthetic, educational and cultural role to play in a global society. By harvesting collections from around the world and from different epochs, they reveal humanity’s collective and universal ability to develop its culture—and the fundamentally interconnected nature of that culture. The Benin Bronzes weren’t created in a hermetically sealed universe, isolated from the rest of the world. They came into being during the Benin kingdom’s golden age as the kingdom grew from a city-state into an empire, expanding its frontiers and conquering other kingdoms.
This meant that it dominated the coastline of the Western Niger Delta, including what is now Lagos, which would prove useful when they made contact with European traders. Trade with Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, gave the kingdom the material to further develop its artistic culture, as the quality and thickness of the metals used to cast the bronzes improved—they had previously been cast using thin layers of metal, as bronze was scarce. Portuguese soldiers and traders are represented in some of the bronzes. Thus, the bronzes themselves are a document of this interaction and exchange between peoples and cultures.
The encyclopaedic museum can be liberating. The scientific approach to cataloguing, classifying and analysing culture opposes prejudice, superstition and narrow nationalist delusions of grandeur, because it treats artefacts as made by humans under specific historical and social conditions, not as eternal, immutable expressions of a Volk. It would be Eurocentric to suggest that the ideal of an encyclopaedic museum need only apply to western museums. The Iraq Museum in Baghdad, established in 1926 and inspired by the British Museum, is a fine exemplar of this idea. It collates precious relics of Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Persian civilisations.
A similar approach was established in Nigeria in the wake of independence. English archaeologist and art teacher Kenneth Murray helped set up the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos in 1957 to showcase the greatness of all the various cultures and civilisations of Nigeria. Murray tirelessly sought to collect the best of the Benin Bronzes for the museum through purchases from private owners. The British Museum made a key donation of 23 Benin plaques in 1951. This demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Not all the bronzes have to be repatriated, but some of them could be. A fair balance is possible and can be reached.
The problem is that since Nigeria has long been a poor, developing country, it cannot effectively invest in the infrastructure required to sustain and protect its museums.
They are vulnerable to theft and neglect. Phillips himself documents that, in the 1980s and 90s, theft in Nigerian museums was rampant. In January 1987, the Jos Museum was robbed of many artefacts including a rare Benin head, which was then sold to a private collector in Switzerland (it was found and returned to Nigeria in 1991). Similar break-ins occurred at the Kwara, Ife and Owo museums in the 90s. Nigerian museum officials, as Barnaby Phillips points out, “insist that the rampant theft of the 80s and 90s is over” and that security is much improved. However, these break-ins, combined with government indifference and lack of funding, mean that the damage has been done in terms of the reliability of these establishments and their ability to keep the bronzes safe and well maintained.
The campaign to return the Benin Bronzes tends to overlook this awkward but crucial detail. The campaign we need would focus on supporting encyclopaedic museums across the world, building them up and modernising their infrastructure and sovereignty so that they can possess as much power and cultural clout as their western counterparts, instead of negating the concept of the encyclopaedic museum altogether as inherently racist and colonialist. Separating cultures can only bolster nationalist and tribal sentiments. The Iraq Museum and the Nigerian National Museum will hopefully one day possess the same prestige as great advertisers of world culture and magnets of mass participation like the British Museum and the Louvre and include in their collections thousands of artefacts from Europe. In fact, there is no reason why one day museums in Nigeria or Iraq couldn’t have an exhibition on Norse monuments from Europe. But this would require an adequate and fair international system.
The Benin Bronzes originated in a civilisation that should neither be idealised and exoticised, nor demonised and maligned as primitive and barbaric. Its contribution to humanity was no more or less valuable than that of other civilisations. Its art should be respected and critiqued in its own right. It captured the imagination of Europeans and inspired Picasso. It can stand on its own merits in the pantheon of world culture, beside the great Renaissance paintings and the statues of ancient Persia. The Benin bronzes are the common property of the human race, not that of a specific tribe. The encyclopaedic museum is one of the few means we have of bringing all the various cultures of our species together instead of segregating them, and passing them on to future generations.