London museum returns looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

There are questions about whether thousands of items which are held at institutions globally, including the British Museum, will ever be sent back.

A small museum in south-east London has begun the official process of returning looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

The Horniman Museum, which houses a collection of 72 treasured items that were taken by force from Benin City in 1897, officially handed over ownership of the artefacts to the Nigerian government on Monday.

The Horniman described returning the looted objects as a “moral and appropriate” response after a request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

There are still questions about whether thousands of items which are held at large institutions globally, including the British Museum, will ever be sent back.

Artefacts to be returned to Nigeria
A brass sculpture depicting a cockerel as museum chiefs have agreed to return ownership of a looted collection of treasured artefacts to Nigeria (Horniman Museum)

The first six objects which are being returned – including two “Benin Bronze” plaques from the royal palace – were handed to Nigerian officials at a ceremony marking the transfer of ownership of 72 looted items.

The items were taken from Benin City by British troops in February 1897.

Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and Professor Abba Tijani, the NCMM’s director-general, were asked by journalists ahead of the official handover if they were frustrated at the British Museum’s apparent reluctance to hand over the 900 objects it has held for more than a century.

Mr Merriman, who said the Horniman had been an “excellent example” of leadership, stated: “Journalists who ask me about the Benin return always want to ask me about the British Museum.

“I would rather talk about what an excellent example the Horniman is rather than answer questions about the British Museum.”

The six objects – selected in consultation with the NCMM as being representative of the collection of 72 items – form the first wave of physical repatriation of Benin objects from the Horniman.

A new agreement between the NCMM and the Horniman will allow the remainder to stay in the UK on loan for now, with a second phase of physical repatriations to follow in due course.

Professor Tijani later explained that about 5,000 Benin bronzes are currently “scattered” around the world.

He is hoping that talks with various institutions may result in deals that could herald the items being returned from places including Germany and the US.

The six returning objects from the Horniman Museum are:

– a brass plaque depicting Oba Orhogbua (circa 1550-1578) holding a staff representing authority and power, and with Iwu, royal tattoos

– a brass plaque depicting Agban, the Ezomo (Deputy Commander in Chief of the Benin army), towards the end of the reign of Oba Orhogbua (circa 1550-1578) and the start of the reign of Oba Ehengbuda (circa 1578-1608)

– a brass hip ornament depicting a face or mask

– an ivory staff of office depicting a carved relief figure of an Oba

– an ivory arm cuff carved with heads and abstract shapes, part of royal regalia

– a carved wooden box frame, likely for holding a mirror.

Museum founder Frederick Horniman bought the ivory objects and the wooden frame from Mr WJ Hider, CBS Royal Navy, in March 1897. Mr Hider accompanied General Rawson’s military incursion into Benin City in February 1897, and was personally involved in the looting, the museum said.

Professor Tijani later said he does not go to the British Museum to see the treasured artefacts there because that process “is giving me high blood pressure”.

He added: “I keep on appealing to them to really look at this (return of items) and let us discuss.

“At the end of the day they will still have some objects on loan which they will continue to display.

He said he feels a sense of “relief” when he looks at the Horniman objects that are being returned.

Prof Tijani said: “I feel that the right thing has been done and the Benin people and Africa have the opportunity to see and interact with these objects that they have not been able to do for many decades.”

He noted that “if this invasion had not taken place, these objects would still be in Nigeria”.

These objects were “illegally taken out” of the Benin kingdom at a time when it was a sovereign entity and is now part of Nigeria.

The nation has asked for the stolen artefacts to be returned and the institutions who have them should “do the right thing” and send them back, he said.

Prof Tijani added: “What is the benefit to Nigeria? What is the benefit of this to humanity? We are not looking at monetary value. We are not looking at what will be accrued.

“We are looking at them doing the right thing and (for us) to continue our collaboration.

“These objects are going to be there in Nigeria for people to have the opportunity to understand and learn of their heritage and about their past. If there are any individuals who are associated with this history or heritage, of course, they will feel that the right thing has been done.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that some museums are subject to legislation which prevents them from permanently removing or deaccessioning items from their collections, whereas others, which are charities such as the Horniman, are allowed to do so.

A spokesman said: “Museums and galleries in the UK operate independently of Government. Therefore decisions relating to the care and management of their collections are a matter for the trustees of each museum.

“The Horniman Museum and Gardens is not prevented by law from deaccessioning items, so it is up to the trustees of the museum to decide on their collections.”