The University of Aberdeen has joined other forward-thinking institutions such as the Humboldt Forum museum in Berlin and announced that it will return a Benin bronze to the Nigerian government. In a statement the University announced the return because of its “extremely immoral” acquisition, and called on other Museums in the United Kingdom to conduct their own inquiry and follow their lead. I could not be more proud of my former University and I hope this move will continue to push other institutions holding on to their colonial treasures to pursue justice for these objects and the creator cultures which desire their return.
Benin’s cultural patrimony was looted by British forces in 1897 during a violent dispute in which a British delegation was attacked, and then a large Punitive Expedition was assembled and exiled the leader of benin Oba Ovonramwen. The British destroyed Benin City and took back to Britain bronze sculptures, brass plaques, and sculptures created with the lost wax process. The Kingdom of Benin as I understand had been a capable and vibrant trading partner with Europe for hundreds of years, but in the 19th Century drive to colonize Africa, the culture and independence of the Kingdom of Benin was an inconvenience for the British empire and so was eradicated and impoverished.
This return continues a rich history of repatriation by the University. Neil Curtis, who head’s Aberdeen University’s museums and special collections said in a statement:
The University of Aberdeen has previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has a procedure that considers requests in consultation with claimants. An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do.
The University museum has a small but lovely collection, and its location, the former Marischal College in central Aberdeen is being renovated, so there were not large numbers of visitors that will be disappointed in not being able to see this object on display. But that should not diminish the just result here. This head will be returned and viewed in context at a new cultural complex in Benin City which will be designed by David Adjaye.
University to Return Benin Bronze | News | The University of Aberdeen, https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/14790/ (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);
University of Aberdeen to Return Pillaged Benin Bronze to Nigeria, the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/25/university-of-aberdeen-to-return-pillaged-benin-bronze-to-nigeria [https://perma.cc/R4GD-QNQX] (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);
Catherine Hickley, University of Aberdeen to Return Benin Bronze Looted by British Troops to Nigeria, The Art Newspaper, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/university-of-aberdeen-to-return-benin-bronze-looted-by-british-troops-to-nigeria (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);
Alex Greenberger & Alex Greenberger, Scottish University Becomes First to Repatriate Benin Bronze to Nigeria, ARTnews.com (Mar. 25, 2021), https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/university-of-aberdeen-returns-benin-bronze-1234587803/;
University of Aberdeen to Repatriate “looted” Nigerian Bronze Sculpture, BBC News (Mar. 25, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-56513346 [https://perma.cc/M9NE-SXQ9].