Only took them 125 years
Two of the UK’s most historic institutions, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, have finally agreed to return hundreds of artefacts looted by British colonial troops in 1897. If the plans are actualised, it will be the biggest repatriation of stolen artworks from our turgid little isle to date.
Known as the Benin Bronzes, the commemorative sculptures were originally plundered from the royal palace of Benin City – located in modern-day Nigeria – during a British attack in the late 19th century, when they were deemed “spoils of war”. In more recent years, however, they have been at the centre of a heated debate about the restitution of artworks looted by the British Empire, alongside the likes of the Elgin Marbles.
In January this year, Nigerian officials formally requested that Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums return the bronzes in their possession. This totals more than 200 works of art (97 objects held by Oxford, and 116 by Cambridge).
The museums have since come out in support of the claim, but their charitable status means that the UK Charity Commission has the final say on whether legal ownership of the sculptures can be transferred to Nigeria. According to the Ashmolean Museum, the Charity Commission is expected to consider the claim by autumn 2022.
Of course, the decision to send back the artefacts in 2022 raises the question: why now? Nigeria has been calling for the return of the UK’s Benin Bronzes for decades, and European countries such as France committed to similar repatriation efforts years ago. An announcement of the recent decision by Cambridge University offers some explanation. “The University decision is in line with similar commitments recently made by other US and European museums,” it reads, “and reflects a sector-wide move away from keeping together collections irrespective of how those artefacts were collected.”
Basically, peer pressure does work… sometimes. Earlier this year, the US-based Smithsonian Institution also announced a groundbreaking change to its policy on returning looted artworks, focusing on “ethical norms” rather than existing legal frameworks. Of course, the British Museum – which holds the biggest collection of objects looted from Benin, at more than 900 – is yet to announce any plans to return them to their country of origin, staying notoriously silent on the subject of its colonial-era artworks.
If the newly-announced transfer of Benin Bronzes is approved, then it may put further pressure on the British Museum to take action, with the universities’ collaborative efforts alleviating fears that repatriation may cause problems related to the conservation and display of the artworks.
“As one of several UK museums that hold significant materials taken from Benin in 1897, the Pitt Rivers has been involved in long-term research and engagement projects in partnership with Nigerian stakeholders and representatives from the Royal Court of the Benin kingdom,” says Oxford University, in a statement shared with Dazed. “Since 2017 the Museum has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group and has played a leading role in discussions on the future care of the collections.”