Repatriation of Benin Bronzes confirmed by British museums

Artefacts to be returned despite concerns over private ownership

The Horniman Museum has started returning items. PA
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Benin Bronzes held in British museums will be repatriated as Nigeria has set out ground rules that means the artefacts will find a new home with a traditional ruler.

Museums and universities say they are pressing ahead with repatriation plans after Nigeria decided they would be returned to the Oba of Benin.

The Oba was the region’s ruler when it became a part of Nigeria and the bronzes left the country.

The Horniman museum in London, having already returned the first of its bronzes, said it is pressing on with the repatriation.

Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery, which has 19 Benin Bronzes, said it will return them “to their legitimate owners”.

“The return of artefacts is a complex and lengthy process. Glasgow’s position remains unchanged: we will work with the appropriate representatives to continue Glasgow’s positive repatriation history,” a spokesman for Glasgow Life said.

Nigeria’s former president Muhammadu Buhari signed a gazette handing ownership of all returned artefacts to the Oba in May.

The move appeared to take western countries by surprise and raised questions about the return of the Benin Bronzes, the name for thousands of looted items in European collections.

There has been talk that the repatriated artefacts will be housed in a yet-to-be-built museum.

The items were seized by British forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

Many British and European institutions are looking at when to keep and when to return artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes.

Separately, the Elgin, or Parthenon, marbles now housed in the British Museum have been the subject of a decades-long campaign for their return.

National Museums Scotland is also considering a request from Nigeria to repatriate its 59 Benin artefacts.

Oxford University, which has sought to return 97 Bronzes, said it was “monitoring the situation”.

Cambridge University, which had agreed to return 116 artefacts, paused the repatriation process in May after learning that the Nigerian president had declared the Oba to be their owner.

The British Museum alone has more than 700 objects from the historic kingdom in its collection.

The Ethnological Museum of Berlin has the second largest collection of Benin Bronzes, with more than 1,100 objects.

Germany said last month it was seeking clarity on whether the bronzes would be displayed in a new museum, but that the plan to give them to Nigeria had not changed.

Updated: July 17, 2023, 10:18 AM