London's Horniman Museum to consider returning Benin Bronzes and other artefacts to countries of origin

The museum currently has 15 Benin Bronzes in its collection

A view of the Benin Bronze depicting the Oba of Benin. The object, purchased by the University of Aberdeen at auction in 1957, is now set to be returned to Nigeria. University of Aberdeen
A view of the Benin Bronze depicting the Oba of Benin. The object, purchased by the University of Aberdeen at auction in 1957, is now set to be returned to Nigeria. University of Aberdeen

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London will consider repatriating its collection of Benin Bronzes to their country of origin.

In addition, the museum is also outlining clear procedures for communities that are requesting the return of objects.

These plans have been listed in a document approved by the museum last month, which states: “We recognise that the collections in the Horniman have been acquired at different times and under a range of circumstances, some of which would not be appropriate today, such as through force or other forms of duress.”

In the document, the museum said that it understood communities have felt an “ongoing hurt” or “injustice” over the retention of certain objects.

"In recognition of this, the Horniman trustees wish to set out transparent policies and procedures by which communities can enter into discussion with them about the future of this material, including its possible return.”

Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, with a Benin bronze depicting the Oba of Benin. University of Aberdeen
Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, with a Benin bronze set to be returned to Nigeria. University of Aberdeen

The Horniman currently owns 15 Benin Bronzes, including plaques, weapons and jewellery, along with 49 other works from Benin City. The bronze plaques show kings and figures from the Benin kingdom.

The story of how the Benin Bronzes ended up in museums and collections around the world is a dark one. The artefacts, including plaques and sculptures, were stolen by British forces after a naval attack in what was once the Kingdom of Benin, now modern-day Nigeria, in the 19th century.

With the Horniman’s latest announcement, it joins other UK institutions now engaging with the issue of repatriation, a cause fought by communities and governments, including Nigeria.

Since 2017, the Benin Dialogue Group has been negotiating and planning for the return of the bronzes ahead of the opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art in 2025.

Last month, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland announced that it would return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria, making it one of the first western institutions to do so. The sculpture is of an oba, or ruler, that was bought by the university at auction in 1957.

Officials have said that it has not been on public display for decades and a review by the institution concluded that the bronze’s history revolved around “extremely immoral” circumstances.

In February, the British Museum, one of the biggest targets of criticism in the repatriation issue, hired a curator to research the history its collection in order to know more about contested objects that may be tied to the colonial era and slave trade.

Published: April 8, 2021 05:29 PM

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