British Museum offers to loan stolen Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

Curators from Europe and the United States are negotiating an agreement to set up a permanent exhibition in Nigeria of the Benin Bronzes looted by the British Army in 1897. Returning stolen art has for a long time being part of a wider campaign for reparations from Western governments to countries that endured the brutalities of slavery and colonization which contributed significantly to wealth of the west and impoverishment of colonized societies.

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of intricately-worked sculptures and plaques in bronze, ivory, ceramic and wood that decorated the royal palace of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa—the Kingdom of Benin, which was subsequently incorporated into British-ruled Nigeria.

Nigeria’s government is in talks with the UK to accept the return of rare bronze statues that were stolen by the British more than a century ago. Nigeria could accept the temporary loan of a collection of exquisite bronze sculptures rather than their permanent return by European institutions, including the British Museum, officials have said.

The prospect of a loan, rather than full restitution, could set a precedent for other disputed art and artefacts that were taken during the colonial era, ending up in museums and galleries in Britain, including the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, as well as Germany, Austria and the US.

Godwin Obaseki, the governor of the southern Nigerian state of Edo where Benin City is now located, said that museum officials in Europe have floated the idea of returning the objects on loan.

“Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations,” Mr Obaseki told Reuters.

“In some cases it could be a permanent loan and in some cases it (could) just be for temporary display. In other cases it could be a return of works,” he said.

A brass plaque from Benin’s royal palace, now held by a museum in Berlin Credit: Alamy

Eric Ogbemudia, 62, an expert in metal sculpture, said to Aljazeera that the bronzes should be returned. “We will be happy if those stolen artefacts are brought back to Benin. But they stole them. Those items are the works of our forefathers and they are very unique to us,” he said.

The governor of Edo state in southern Nigeria (home to the modern day Benin kingdom) told Reuters: “whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations.” The Oba of the Benin kingdom has already identified a site for a new museum to accommodate the collection, close to his palace.

This appears to be part of a growing acceptance among African governments that such deals, however unpopular among the public, are the only way western museums will let go of pieces that attract millions of visitors. However, aside concerns that once these artifacts go back as a loan, they may not be handed back to western museums, there are fears that returning the pieces to poorly resourced African museums could expose them to poor maintenance or even ending up on a black market, where they could fetch millions of dollars.