Photo: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

The missing Benin Bronzes

More than a century ago, the Bronzes were taken by the British during a brutal colonial campaign in West Africa. Is it time they went back home?
April 30, 2021

On 29th December last year more than 200 posters were installed on bus stops and billboards across Dresden. Though they bore the word vermisst, they weren’t spreading the word about a missing person. Instead they featured five elaborate brass sculptures held in Dresden’s State Art Collections—objects taken from the Oba (king) of Benin in West Africa more than 120 years ago. The Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, who organised the poster campaign, tells me that he wanted to lend “the urgency and gravity of a public service announcement” to what has become a perennial debate in museum boardrooms across Europe and America.

The Benin Bronzes are an emblem of a wider discussion over the provenance of items from colonised nations that have ended up in the west. And the demand for their return is a cause célèbre for those who want to “decolonise” western culture. For those in charge of collections assembled during the imperial age, calls for restitution have become hard to ignore in the era of Black Lives Matter. But would returning the Bronzes truly right the wrongs of the past?

The term “Benin Bronzes” refers primarily to thousands of plaques, heads and animals cast in bronze, brass and copper using the finicky “lost wax” method that had been practised in the Kingdom of Benin since the 12th century. That kingdom—now part of Edo State in southern Nigeria—was one of Africa’s most powerful for 400 years.

article body image

Sacred power: court officials at the palace represented in one of the 700 Benin Bronzes held by the British Museum (c16th/17th centuries). Image courtesy of Oneworld

That power came to a brutal end in February 1897, when the British deposed Oba Ovonramwen in a punitive expedition. Eight officers of the British Niger Coast Protectorate died; the number of Bini casualties was not accounted for, but perhaps four million bullets were used by the British. The action was justified as retaliation for the massacre of Captain James Phillips and his men a few months earlier; despite repeated warnings to stay away, they had sought an audience with the Oba during a sacred religious festival. But it was also the culmination of years of effort by the British Niger Coast Protectorate to undermine the Oba’s control over lucrative resources, such as palm oil. Today, the former British territory forms part of Nigeria. (The neighbouring country Benin, once the French colony of Dahomey, is a different place.) It is not known how many artworks were plundered by British soldiers back then, but one recent estimate puts the figure at 4,000. These are scattered across public and private collections around the world, including some 700 in the British Museum.

In Benin’s royal palaces, the artworks served many functions, both aesthetic and archival. In the Edo language, the verb “to remember” (sa-e-y-ama) translates literally as “to cast a motif in bronze.” The artist and writer Victor Ehikhamenor, who hails from Edo State, tells me that “it’s not just art for art’s sake. Cosmology, coronation processes, archiving of laws and ways of life—these plaques were ways of recording things, almost like photography, supplemented by oral narrative.”

Enotie Ogbebor, the son-in-law of prince Edun Akenzua of the Royal Court of Benin, asks me to “imagine that the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Delacroix, all the way to Picasso, Renoir and Monet—but also the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare and Dante—were removed from western society and locked up for 100 years. Do you really think that western civilisation would be where it is now?”

When the artworks arrived in Europe they caused a sensation. Charles Read and Ormonde Dalton, keepers at the British Museum, noted their astonishment (in the racist language typical of the era) at finding Benin artists “using with familiarity and success a complicated method which satisfied the fastidious eye of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance.” The pieces were appreciated for their aesthetic value with little concern for what they meant in their original context, or for the manner in which they arrived.

After the initial spate of imperial triumphalism, the Benin expedition became blurred in the British memory amid countless other colonial campaigns. In 1964, future prime minister James Callaghan confessed he had never heard of it—even though his father had fought in it. Perhaps this historical amnesia goes some way to explaining why calls for the return of the Bronzes have been met with broad-brush replies: that any return would precipitate the emptying of western museums; that objects are better cared for in the west; that the world’s heritage belongs to a global audience, and so on.

But calls for the restitution of the Bronzes have a long and highly specific pedigree. Akenzua II, grandson of the deposed Oba Ovonramwen, lodged the first formal request for the return of two brass thrones in 1936. The director of the German State Museums replied at the time that he “was not prepared to give back or sell chairs of such high cultural value.” Another flashpoint came in 1977, when Lagos hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. A 16th-century ivory mask depicting Queen Idia, a renowned warrior and mother to Oba Esigie (who reigned from 1504 to 1550), was chosen as the symbol for the festival. But the British Museum claimed that this masterpiece was too fragile to travel.

In recent years, the debate has caught the attention of a wider global public. Movements such as Rhodes Must Fall have called for a reckoning, putting museums—often thought of as tranquil, fusty storehouses of cultural memory—in the frontline of the colonial history wars.

French president Emmanuel Macron sent shockwaves through the art world with a speech in Burkina Faso in 2017, in which he said restitution of African heritage was a “priority.” He commissioned a report, published the following year, from Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy. The authors called for a protocol to oversee the return of any objects in French museums looted from former colonies—a protocol that Macron has attempted to implement. In February this year, the Dutch government passed a similar resolution. In March, the German culture minister Monika Grütters called for “a national strategy” on restitution of German-held Benin Bronzes—including the “missing” Dresden sculptures.

In the UK, institutions as diverse as the University of Aberdeen, the Horniman Museum in London and the Church of England have all in recent months made strides towards returning Bronzes in their collections. There have been previous high-profile cases in the UK—notably that of Jesus College, Cambridge, which pledged to return a bronze cockerel, or okpa, after student pressure in 2016. However, such gestures are not looked on favourably by Boris Johnson’s government; the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has been trying to rein in the alleged “woke” tendencies of museums. It seems unlikely that the UK will follow its European neighbours in changing the strictures established in legislation such as the British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents trustees of the museum from being able to “sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in the Collection,” and so enable permanent restitutions from national collections.

Still, the debate is unlikely to calm down. In his new book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto), Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Oxford, provides probably the most sustained attempt so far at setting out a theory for “decolonising the museum.” “Anthropology museums,” Hicks tells us, “are surely as significant a technology in the development of Victorian colonialism as the Maxim gun.” The latter enabled the subjugation not only of Benin City, but of many other societies across West Africa, a series of so-called “little wars” which, Hicks argues, in fact add up to a cohesive “World War Zero.” Hicks argues that the knowledge we gain from museums such as his own can only ever be a kind of “necrography”—offering a record only of the demise of a culture.

Hicks presents a moral binary that simplifies the issue. The Benin Bronzes themselves, though present in his subtitle, scarcely get a look-in as material and cultural artefacts. This failure to grapple with their specific case is more than a quibble over emphasis, for the Bronzes are atypical among African artworks. In basing the broader case for restitution of colonial-era objects on them alone, Hicks—like the French Sarr-Savoy report before him—misses some subtleties that are pertinent to any debate about decolonising culture.

“The Benin Bronzes have become an emblem of a wider discussion over the provenance of items from colonised nations”

Chief among these are the many less tangible forms of culture, which are still very much alive in Africa today. The headline-grabbing estimate used by Sarr-Savoy was that 90 to 95 per cent of material cultural heritage from Africa resides outside the continent. But this overlooks the rituals, songs and other art forms that both predate, and have developed since, the colonial era. Critics such as the curator Simon Njami have long argued that obsessing over the return of objects instils a Eurocentric ideology of valuing material heritage that is at odds with the way certain African cultures understand their history. And the movement of objects can change their meaning. For instance, masks that once had symbolic or spiritual power among the Fang communities of Gabon were stripped of this force when they were removed to the west. Returning such objects to the descendants of their makers would not undo the original theft—and seems scant reparation for the evils wrought with the Maxim gun.

Barnaby Phillips’s new book Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (Oneworld) is considerably more persuasive. It casts the objects themselves as the protagonists of a lucid history. Phillips is scrupulously fair yet damning. He points to the racist hypocrisy that rationalised colonial plunder: laws that had been established in the wake of Napoleon’s invasions to outlaw spoliation applied only, in the words of the 1894 British War Office Manual of Military Law, to “warfare between civilised nations.” Phillips also covers the ritzy, often clandestine, history of the Bronzes on the western market, where some objects have been sold for up to £10m. Above all, his tale is one of competing ways of assessing material culture. In one telling anecdote, a visitor to the British Museum from Benin’s royal family provides “new information” to a curator who has studied the works for “much of her professional life.”

article body image

Image courtesy of Oneworld

It was with precisely this kind of knowledge-exchange in mind that the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) was established in 2010. It is a consortium of representatives from 11 European museums, as well the Nigerian National Commission for Monuments and Museums, the government of Edo State and the Benin royal family. Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the MARKK museum in Hamburg and a co-founder of the BDG, tells me that the group came about after an exhibition she curated in 2007 called “Benin: Kings and Rituals.”

Plankensteiner spent six years seeking scholarly input from the Benin royal family and other partners in Nigeria. But while the show travelled from Germany to Vienna and Chicago, all too typically, it did not stop in Benin.

“We felt that such an international and important project should have also taken place in Nigeria,” Plankensteiner says with regret. “We also felt particularly that we needed to do something about these sensitive and problematic collections in western museums. It’s a legacy that concerns all of us.”

Last year, the group announced plans for a new museum situated in the old Kingdom of Benin—the Edo Museum of West African Art. Designed by David Adjaye, it will feature a permanent but rotating installation of the Benin Bronzes, using loans from European museums, which the group claims will be “the most comprehensive” in the world. The British Museum is also helping to fund a £3m excavation of the site before building work commences. 

In the same spirit, Digital Benin—a project spearheaded by Plankensteiner—will put a database of all known Bronzes online by 2022. Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, points to the ambition of the BDG to “drive quick action.” The loan agreement, he tells me, was something that “museum directors and curators had the authority to do,” without waiting for “trustees, city, state and national governments, in some cases changes of legislation.”

There are many Nigerians—Victor Ehikhamenor and Emeka Ogboh among them—for whom the idea of loans leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Wounds that have been open for more than a century will not heal easily, and the broader question of reparations remains live. But while European governments dither, the long-imposed obstacles to returning the lost pages of Benin history are being steadily removed.