Ben Quinn’s piece in the Guardian sheds light on an interesting forthcoming conference which hopes to “establish a permanent display” of Benin material in Nigeria. The Benin bronzes are in many museums in the West, and viewing them gives me to very different reactions. On the one hand, they are terrific to look at, with wonderful detail. But on the other, many of these objects were seized by the British Empire during an 1897 Punitive Campaign. That campaign was as bad as it sounds. To give a brief overview, a British official and his advisors were sent to uncover whether there was ritual human sacrifice taking place in the Kingdom of Benin. When the official and his advisors were killed by the King of Benin, the British responded by destroying the city, and looting as many as 900 of the Benin bronzes to compensate for the costs of the exhibition. Many of these objects were purchased by museums.
Nigeria has requested the return of much of this material, but the museums and collectors who currently possess them have often refused to enter into a dialogue. These negotiations for the return of material can be difficult and contentious, but they do not have to be. Here is hoping the meeting, which will take place in the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will lead to a productive dialogue in the same way that Yale’s return of material to Peru or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act operates.
Quinn’s story highlights the ethical case driving the dialogue, but also some of the challenges:
“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”
Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.
John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”