Art

Major European Museums Plan To 'Loan' Stolen Benin Bronzes Back To a New Museum Opening in Nigeria

The Royal Museum is due to open in 2021, displaying the Benin bronzes that were looted during the Benin Expedition of 1897.

The controversial conversation surrounding art repatriation continues as a new museum opening in Nigeria in 2021 will make way for stolen artifacts to return home—temporarily.

Major European museums have reached an agreement with Nigeria to "loan" significant artifacts to the Royal Museum, Artnet News reports.


"[Nigeria's] Royal Museum will house a rotating display of artifacts, including the Benin bronzes that were looted during the Benin Expedition of 1897," Artnet continues. "The agreement marks a significant step after years of negotiations among European institutions and Nigerian authorities."

This agreement was a result of the Benin Dialogue Group, consisting of Nigerian representatives and European museum officials, who gathered in the Netherlands to hold negotiations in the beginning of this month. Artnet notes museum leaders from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain will facilitate a display at the planned institution within 3 years. Details regarding which specific objects will be "loaned" over what period of time have yet to be determined.

The artifacts that have been at center stage during this debate were looted by the British army during a "punitive expedition" in 1897, where the army stole about 4,000 elaborate sculptures, such as what we now know as the Benin bronzes, from the king's palace in the former Kingdom of Benin.

"I am happy we are making progress in the effort to give our people the opportunity to once more access our heritage that was looted," Prince Gregory Akenzua, Enogie of Evbobanosa, states in a press release.

Although critics acknowledge this is a step in a right direction, they stress that it's important that this doesn't replace the need to push negotiations further towards ownership.

"This, and many other things in the museum world, is about power," Niama Safia Sandy, cultural anthropologist and curator, tells OkayAfrica in an April interview.

"The thinking for leadership at museums and heritage institutions is, 'if we return this country's artifacts, we'll have to return that country's artifacts' and it is basically a matter of blood in the water. What is to stop every country in the world outside of the West from requesting their cultural artifacts back? I agree that a fully inclusive and cosmopolitan view of the world's histories and heritages must be shown and preserved but the manner in which the items are procured really should be considered."

The Benin Dialogue Group states that the loans indeed do not represent the "end point in negotiations," and that Nigeria has not waived any claim to outright ownership of the objects.

The group plans to meet again in 2019 in Benin City, Nigeria before gathering once more at the British Museum in London in 2020.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

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