Updated: Dec 15, 2022
A south London museum has become the latest in a series of institutions in the West to return African artefacts looted more than a century ago, from their original owners.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill transferred ownership of 72 religious and cultural items, stolen from Benin City in 1897, to Nigeria on Monday 28 November.
The ownership transfer was sealed during a private signing ceremony between representatives from the museum, the Oba of Benin, and Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NNCMM).
“The antiquities being returned represent important efforts in the history of the Benin people of Nigeria,” said NNCMM director general Professor Abba Tijani, and marks years of pressure from Nigeria to have their artefacts returned.
Under the agreement, ownership of the objects and the copyright of associated media, such as the original copies of acquisition paperwork correspondence, returns to Nigeria, Professor Tijani said.
Michael Salter-Church, the museum’s chair of the trustees and one of the signatories, told guests and the press (including AKADi Magazine) that the six artefacts displayed at the ceremony would be returned to Benin City with immediate effect.
Michael said he hoped that some of the artefacts would be lent to the Horniman for a longer period
“The other 66 will be on loan to the Horniman for the initial period of 12 months while we work with our Nigerian colleagues on the practical details of returning them,” he added.
Michael said he hoped that some of the artefacts would be lent to the Horniman for a longer period so they could become part of a new display the Museum will stage about the Kingdom of Benin and the story of their return.
“Personally, I have learnt a great deal from the objects here - about the powerful and complex Benin society and its lively trade that reached across many nations,” he said. “And I hope what we are now going to see is a trade in knowledge as well between us.”
Professor Tijani confirmed that an agreement had been made for the Horniman to cover the [cost of] temporary storage and display of the objects on loan that were awaiting physical return to Nigeria.
He added that, upon concluding legal transfer of title, the NNCMM would be “open to all forms of collaboration with the Horniman, including loans of objects and touring exhibitions”.
He also called on other nations and institutions with Nigerian artefacts in their possession to follow the Horniman's lead in returning their collections.
The British captured Benin City on 18 February 1897, in what was described as the ‘Benin Expedition’. Houses, sacred sites, ceremonial buildings and palaces, including the Palace of Benin, were looted, and the city set ablaze.
Two of Nigeria’s famed Benin Bronzes were among the six looted items on display at the signing ceremony.
They were a brass plaque featuring the Oku’Oba (Oba’s emissary), and a brass plaque depicting Oba Orhogbua (circa 1550-1578) holding a staff representing authority and power and with royal tattoos known as Iwu.
The complete collection of 72 items includes 12 brass plaques, known publicly as Benin Bronzes.
Other objects include a brass cockerel altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, everyday items such as fans and baskets, and a key ‘to the king’s palace’, according to details on the Horniman Museum website.
Cultural and religious importance
Prince Aghatsie Erediauwa, one of five representatives of the Oba of Benin City at the ceremony, welcomed the return of the artefacts.
“When the British attacked Benin in 1897, they had an eye for the artistic nature of these objects overlooking the fact that beyond their artistic nature, they were religious objects," he said.
“So today, succeeding Obas in Benin have made spirited efforts, in particular to the British government, to return these spiritual objects that were taken away when Benin was attacked unjustly, massacred and raised to the ground in 1897.
“It is still a point of pain to us in Benin. Our children grow up and are taught the history…so, when we see that worldwide, the narrative is now changing on ethical, moral and legal grounds, that objects that were stolen should be returned."
Michael, the Horniman’s chair of the trustees, said the museum had been “thinking about restitution claims for many years and had developed a policy and a process some time before we received a formal letter in January from the NNCMM in Nigeria requesting the return of those 72 objects that had been looted.”
The Horniman established a sub-committee and enlisted university associate professor and anthropologist Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp as the museum’s senior curator. A report was developed setting out the details of the objects that might be in the scope and the circumstances of their acquisition, Michael said.
“The sub-committee was particularly struck by the evidence that many of the items were purchased at a sale which was explicitly advertised as the first sale of items from the raid," Michael said. "At the same time, we consulted with our local Nigerian diaspora community – the Horniman members – about the request.
"We also asked local school children who participated in our key stage 2 sessions on Ancient Benin. The overwhelming consensus is that as these items had been looted, they should be returned.”
Time for change
Could Nigeria’s recent outcome be a catalyst for other nations, including Ghana, to intensify restitution efforts?
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has come under scrutiny for being one of the institutions to hold Asante gold regalia. The artefacts were the spoils of the Third Anglo-Asante War in 1874 which the V&A acquired at an auction.
The V&A’s director Tristram Hunt is reported to have started a conversation about developing a ‘renewable cultural partnership’ with Ghana, according to an article in the Art Newspaper.
But according to the publication, ‘a return of treasures to Ghana by the V&A will inevitably increase pressure on the British Museum, which holds a much larger Asante collection.’
Is the West ready?
A report* by AFFORD UK (the African Foundation for Development) highlights that some institutions have already returned artefacts and human remains.
In 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Namibians killed during the German colonial genocide over a century ago. These skulls were used for research by ‘racial anthropologists’.
And 192 years after Sarah Baartman (Venus Hottentot) was taken from present-day South Africa to Europe “as an anthropological curiosity in the early 19th century”, her remains were repatriated and buried in 2002.
Sarah died at the age of 27 and her brain, genitals, and skeleton had been preserved in a back room at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris - but her remains fell into the hands of various other museums.
But, there is still a long way to go. According to AFFORD UK's report, “90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is currently held outside the continent as a result of conquest, plunder, theft and colonialization, as well as legitimate trade and exchange.”
What do you think? Tell us in the comments if you think looted artefacts should be returned to their region of origin.
*The AFFORD UK report is called ‘Return of the Icons; The restitution of African artefacts & human remains project mapping report’.