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You can borrow our looted Benin Bronzes, but you must give it back to us’ – British Museum tells Nigeria

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*Looted Benin Bronzes can be “loaned” says British Museum*

3rd March 2022

THE BRITISH Museum plans to “lend” their collection of looted Benin Bronzes but has failed to say if items will be permanently returned to Africa, The Voice can reveal.

There have been renewed calls for the museum to return the pillaged historical items back to Nigeria, after two stolen artefacts were finally returned this year – more than a century after they were taken by British troops in 1897.

The museum disclosed to it currently has 928 objects and approximately 300 historic photographs in their possession that are associated with the Benin Kingdom, but said its their mission is make the artefacts available to everyone from the UK.

Speaking to The Voice, a spokesperson for the British Museum said: “It is the role of the British Museum to make the permanent collection freely available for anyone in the world to enjoy wherever they are.

“You can visit in London, engage with the 4.5m objects available online, see our touring exhibitions and view important objects loaned around the world.

“The collection empowers visitors to navigate and understand the complex relationships between empires, nations and peoples whether through trade, conquest, conflict or peaceful exchange.”

The spokesperson continued: “The Museum is committed to thorough and open investigation of Benin collection histories, and engagement with wider contemporary dialogues within which these collections are positioned.

“This includes fully acknowledging and understanding the colonial history which provided the key context for the development of the Museum’s Benin collections.”

But many critics have said the museum is failing to fully understand the immoral colonial links to the items by keeping hold of them and not returning them to where they rightfully belong.

Despite increased public criticism surrounding the museum’s vast collection of looted items, they maintain their collection will be loaned and not fully returned.

The spokesperson added: “The Museum understands and recognises the significance of the issues surrounding the return of objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums across the globe to share the collection as widely as possible. We believe in the importance of lending our collection, it strengthens the stories the collection tells and when displayed alongside other objects, they create new stories and conversations.”

Many campaigners believe the museum is not acknowledging the items have deep cultural, religious and spiritual significance and have said they should no longer dictate what happens to historical artefacts from Africa.

Speaking to The Voice, award-winning author and professor, Dan Hicks, said there shouldn’t be a continued delay to African cultural restoration.

He said: “The world is moving on, the shift that is now happening is based on law and a shift in ethics.

“The ethical case and moral case is overwhelming that we are seeing returns happening, so the British Museum saying they will loan back your property to you, is just incomprehensible and is out of step with our times.”

The presence of African treasures and artefacts in European institutions, has come under increased criticism in recent years, with many calling for items stolen during the colonial era to be returned to their ancestral home.

Mr Hicks told The Voice, Europeans should not be deciding what happens to sacred African artefacts.

He said: “It’s time for Europeans like me, working in these incredibly white institutions, to take ourselves out of any conversation about where these items should be, and hand that agency over to our Nigerian colleagues.

“Signing over legal title is the first step that can be made, and then discussions about where they should be in Nigeria or if there are options to loan them to our universities, are decisions for Nigeria to make and to be leading on.”

Mr Hicks is also a museum curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

He believes the British Museum, which holds the single largest collection of Benin Bronzes in the world, only has a small fraction of their collection on display and hundreds of items may be in storage.

“How can we argue we are a caring for what the British Museum has defined as a universal heritage, when these items are languishing in storerooms?” he asked.

Mr Hicks said the secrecy surrounding the number of items taken in 1897 and in the subsequent years, has caused a lot of mistrust and hurt.

“How can we be caring for items and there is this lack of clarity on how much we hold and especially when items are not display?

“These are not museum pieces, in case of the items looted from the Royal Court, they are sacred royal objects, decisions about where they are in the world and if they are even be put on display, those decisions should lie with Nigerian colleagues.”

Mr Hicks believes now is the time for the museum to be “open, transparent and adopt a formal process to return items” like other institutions.

In October 2021, the British Museum received a written request calling for the return of ‘Nigerian antiquities’ from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Nigeria.

Also, representatives from the Benin Royal Palace have made several public statements asking for the Benin collections to be returned to Nigeria.

The museum maintains it has a “positive relationship” with the royal palace in Benin City and with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

French art historians estimate that some 90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage is being held in Europe.

— Voice Online

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