Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

The Edo: Nigeria to build new museum that it hopes will house Benin Bronzes

The institution is being designed by David Adjaye, who is behind Washington, DC's Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. The British Museum has agreed to loan the plaques back to a new museum in Benin City in Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were taken from Africa by British troops in 1897. The return of a basalt Easter Island Head figure has also been requested this week by The Governor of the Easter Islands, Tarita Alarcón Rapu amid a broader call for artefacts taken during colonial rule to be restituted. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. The British Museum has agreed to loan the plaques back to a new museum in Benin City in Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were taken from Africa by British troops in 1897. The return of a basalt Easter Island Head figure has also been requested this week by The Governor of the Easter Islands, Tarita Alarcón Rapu amid a broader call for artefacts taken during colonial rule to be restituted. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Nigeria intends to build a new museum over the next four years that could exhibit looted Benin Bronzes currently displayed in European and American museums.

Many Benin Bronzes – a group of more than 1,000 prized metal plaques and sculptures looted in 1897 by British troops from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria – are at the British Museum and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.

The possibility of having the objects returned to Benin City in Nigeria's southern Edo state and shown at the future Edo Museum of West African Art has long been a dream for many.

"I am elated," said Theophilus Umogbai, curator of the existing National Museum in Benin.

"The museum will serve as an identity symbol of the rich cultural arts traditions of Benin people."

Museums in Europe and America have wrestled with a tangle of legal and ethical problems concerning objects taken during the colonial period.

Even in well-documented cases of pillaging, the law often prevents countries from giving them back – as is the case with the British Museum, which could, however, loan the Benin Bronzes to the new Edo museum.

"This project will help us reconnect our past glory to our present realities," Edo state's governor Godwin Obaseki said, announcing the project at an event on Friday, November 13.

He said he hopes the overall project "should be far developed if not totally completed" by the end of 2024.

The 10,000-square-foot museum is being designed by David Adjaye, the award-winning architect behind the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

It is not just enough to give back objects that were taken but to also collaborate and make this a world-class centre

David Adjaye, architect

The Ghanaian-British architect hopes that the building in Nigeria will have "a place on the world stage".

"It is not just enough to give back objects that were taken but to also collaborate and make this a world-class centre."

In addition to the museum, an archaeological excavation project will begin in 2021, at a site adjacent to the palace of the Oba, Benin's traditional ruler.

The British Museum and the Legacy Restoration Trust have already secured the equivalent of $4 million of initial funding, according to a statement from the London museum.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said that the new Nigeria museum "will surely become one of the most significant museum initiatives in the coming decades".

The British Museum was closed last month amid the coronavirus outbreak. Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum has announced it will help dig for Nigerian treasures as part of a new archaeology mission. Trustees of the British Museum

Last month, French lawmakers voted unanimously to return artefacts to Benin and Senegal – although it remains a small number compared to the estimated 90,000 artefacts the country holds from all over Africa.

Updated: November 15, 2020 06:09 PM

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