Eric Brassem

Will the Benin Bronzes finally go home?

Picture: Petterik Wiggers. Picture courtesy of the Benin National Museum, Benin City, Nigeria.

Institutions from Europe and Nigeria are talking about a new exhibition space in Benin City to host the bronzes that were once stolen and are still on view in European museums. At a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in the first weekend of July, 2019, reknown Tanzanian/British architect Sir David Adjaye was invited to Benin City, to share his ideas on a transformation of the town into a cultural hub.

Picture courtesy of the Benin National Museum, Benin City, Nigeria

The planned Royal Benin Museum is key to the grand ambition of Edo State governor Godwin Obaseki, explains Enotie Ogbebe, his cultural advisor. The  museum will exhibit artefacts looted by the British in 1897 from the palace of the oba (king) of the Benin Empire, which was situated in the present Edo State.

The oba, Akenzua II, is involved in the development of the museum. The space will be owned and managed by an independent trust, delegates were told at the meeting. The objects to be exhibited will be lent by ten European museums from their Benin Bronzes collections.

“We are ahead of schedule”, says Ogbebe, referring to the Royal Benin Museum. The loan arrangement was agreed upon during previous meetings of the Benin Dialogue Group. But Nigeria explicitly upholds its claims for the ownership of the objects. In recent months, authorities in France, Germany and the Netherlands have moved into the direction of restitution.

Picture Petterik Wiggers

In March, the Dutch Museum van Wereldculturen was the first European institution to publish a set of regulations to deal with such claims. This document was also discussed at the recent meeting in Benin City, explains Henrietta Lidchi, curator of the Dutch museum owner of 139 Bronzes artefacts. “I hope to have a conversation with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in the next few weeks.”

In a lengthy feature, published by Dutch daily Trouw, editor Eric Brassem reports about his recent journey to the scene of the crime. What caused the 1897 crack-down expedition of British soldiers? What do the bronzes tell us about ancient civilization in Africa? What provoked todays’ talk about the return of the bronzes? In the initial talks, the European institutions proposed to only lend the bronzes to its rightful owners. Is this a first step towards unconditional homecoming? And: are Nigerian institutions ready to host the treasures?

Check out the Trouw special here.