British university, Germany to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

A British and Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) in Germany have signaled their readiness to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

The University of Aberdeen said 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.

According to the university, the bronze will be returned to Nigeria within weeks, making it 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.

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Pressure has mounted to return to their places of origin the Benin Bronzes – actually copper alloy relief sculptures – and other artefacts taken by colonial powers.

Neil Curtis, Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, said the Bronze, purchased in 1957, had been “blatantly looted.”

“It became clear we had to do something,” Curtis said.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said the importance of displaying the Bronze inside Nigeria for the first time in more than 120 years was inexpressible.

“It’s part of our identity, part of our heritage… which has been taken away from us for many years,” Tijani 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 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, some officially on loan. It has said discussions are ongoing.

Germany mulls return of Benin bronzes

A committee in Germany said on Wednesday that the country is also considering returning the artefacts that are being held at Ethnological Museum in the German capital to Nigeria.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which manages Berlin’s museums, said its members “agree that in the case of the Benin bronzes, a solution will be found that also considers the return of objects as an option”.

In a statement, the foundation said there had been “intensive dialogue with the societies of origin for years with the necessary sensitivity”.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday that “the question of the return of cultural goods is part of dealing honestly with colonial history. It is a question of justice”.

“In the case of the Benin bronzes, we are working with those involved in Nigeria and Germany to establish a common framework, especially in the museum cooperation with the planned Museum of West African Art in Benin City,” he tweeted.

The Ethnological Museum has 530 historical objects from the kingdom, including 440 bronzes, the AFP news agency reports.

Part of it was due to be exhibited this year in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, it adds.

Germany is in talks to send back 440 Benin Bronzes as early as the autumn, according to newspaper reports, while the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College said it had finalised approvals in December to return another Bronze. Tijani said U.S. museums had also agreed to 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 artefacts by the end of 2021, and a permanent museum by 2025.

Artist and Edo state native Victor Ehikhamenor said he hoped the decision would prompt others to follow suit.

“Because some of these things are missing from our environment, people are not able to contextualize where we are coming from,” Ehikhamenor said.

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