Britain can’t decide whether to return plundered Benin bronze treasures to their rightful owners

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Britain counts on its imperial history again in a week in which two ceremonies were held to mark the return of ancient artifacts looted to Nigeria from the UK.

A Cambridge University college held a ceremony on Wednesday to recognize the official return of a bronze statue of a rooster to the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments.
The rooster, donated to the university in 1905 by a student’s father, is a bronze from Benin, looted during the British invasion of the city of Benin in 1897, in modern Nigeria, during which forces Britons burned down the royal palace among other buildings and stole priceless artefacts.

The event at Jesus College was followed by a similar handover at the University of Aberdeen on Thursday evening where a sculpture depicting the head of a King of Benin was returned to Nigeria. Elsewhere in continental Europe, France and Germany have also taken steps to repatriate similar items. President Emmanuel Macron was present at an event Wednesday at the Quai Branly museum in Paris where 26 artefacts were ceremoniously returned to Nigeria.

Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, looks at a bronze sculpture of an oba (king) from Benin. Credit: Kalyan Veera / Reuters

These measures have put pressure on a number of academic and cultural institutions such as the British Museum, which is facing calls to return its huge collection of bronzes, made up of more than 900 artefacts. The museum said in a statement sent to CNN that it “understands and recognizes the importance of the issues surrounding the return of the objects” and remains committed to “sharing our collection as widely as possible.”

The problem is uncomfortable for the museum, which is also home to other world-famous stolen objects including the Parthenon Marbles, a series of ancient sculptures looted in Athens.

The UK government considers the museum to be the ideal place for bronzes as it makes them accessible to as many people as possible and, as a leading museum in one of the most global cities in the world, has the best facilities for their maintenance.

It’s an argument that many find insulting and rooted in exactly the kind of British Imperial thinking that saw the artifacts looted in the first place.

“This logic suggests that Nigeria is a poorer country which is unable to properly deal with artifacts stolen by colonialists, despite having a state-of-the-art museum awaiting them in Nigeria. It is a classic racist argument that the Britain is a place of refinement and knows best, ”said Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at the University of Birmingham City.

French President Emmanuel Macron inspects a 19th-century royal statue of Benin's King Ghezo, on display at the Quai Branly museum before his return to Nigera.

French President Emmanuel Macron inspects a 19th-century royal statue of Benin’s King Ghezo, on display at the Quai Branly museum before his return to Nigera. Credit: Michel Euler / AFP / BELGA / Getty Images

Others have argued that because the Kingdom of Benin benefited from the slave trade, modern Nigeria does not have the high morality to demand that the artifacts be returned.

Enotie Ogbebor, Nigerian artist and authority on bronzes, said that “many artefacts were made long before the slave trade”, this point is irrelevant. “They are part of our culture, they tell a story of our history and they have been stolen. It’s pretty simple.”

No matter how much the UK government would prefer these artifacts to stay in the UK, critics say it’s already on the wrong side of history.

The statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is seen disfigured, with the words (Churchill) "was a racist" in Parliament Square in central London after a protest on June 7, 2020.

The statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is seen disfigured, with the words (Churchill) “was a racist” in Parliament Square in central London after a protest on June 7, 2020. Credit: Isabel Infantes / AFP / Getty Images

A parallel debate over the British statues of historic colonialists and slave traders – sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world after the murder of George Floyd – forced many Britons to finally have this difficult conversation about l history of their country and the horrors of the British Empire.

Last summer, when protesters shot down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and vandalized other statues, including that of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson fired back, calling the attack on the Churchill statue a “absurd and shameful” and his government has done all it can to protect monuments in the name of heritage – following a bill in March that contained measures that would make degradation of statues a criminal act.

On the specific topic of Benin bronzes, a government spokesperson told CNN this week that museums operate “independently of government with decisions relating to the maintenance and management of collections, including whether to lend objects, taken by the trustees of each institution, “specifying that the bronzes are a private collection rather than part of the national collection.

Edo West African Art Museum architect David Adjaye plans to bring home famous artefacts looted by the British Empire

This level of rejection combined with government policy which strongly supports the protection of statues of colonialists in the name of heritage is frustrating to those who believe that artifacts like bronzes should be returned on the grounds that they were stolen property.

“There is a new generation who will remember the scene of the George Floyd protests and the downed statues,” said SI Martin, author of several books on British colonial history and British black history.

“It seems inconceivable that the conversation will end at this point or that people will suddenly become 100% comfortable again with the way these objects appeared in Britain. It could force museums to act for their own relevance. “, did he declare. added.

A visitor takes photos of the controversial display of Beninese plaques at the British Museum in London.

A visitor takes photos of the controversial display of Beninese plaques at the British Museum in London. Credit: David Cliff / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

For now, the British Museum is prohibited from returning its artifacts under British law, although it is discussing possible loans to the future Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria.

The decision to do so could give one side a small token victory in the cultural war against Britain’s colonial past. The question is on which side this institution, which has so much cultural clout, will give its stamp of approval as the UK attempts to address its complicated and controversial history in a time of such divisions and anger.

Top image: Sonita Alleyne, the teacher of Jesus College, with the Director General of the Nigeria National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, before a ceremony at Cambridge University where the rooster in Looted bronze, known as Okukur, will be returned to Nigeria.


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