The Horniman, a museum in south-east London, has agreed to return 72 cultural artefacts to Nigeria. The items in question had been looted from the Kingdom of Benin (what is now southwestern Nigeria) during a British military invasion in 1897. The collection includes 12 brass plaques, known as the Benin Bronzes, and a key to the king’s palace.
The Horniman made this decision following a request made by the Nigerian government earlier this year, and a consultation with a wide range of parties, including heritage experts, members of the local community and Nigerian artists. “The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” said Eve Solomon, the museum’s chair, in a public statement.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement to return looted artefacts from European museums to their countries of origin. Earlier this year, the German government returned over 1,000 objects to Nigeria, and both Cambridge and Oxford University have agreed to return hundreds of looted Nigerian artefacts – one of the largest repatriation efforts the UK has ever seen.
As the Smithsonian Institution (currently the world’s largest group of museums) has also announced its intentions to change its policies in favour of returning stolen works, it’s clear there is a growing trend across Europe and the US in favour of repatriation. While this is to be welcomed, one major institution is conspicuous in its absence: the British Museum, which has long been criticised for its failure to consider the issue of artwork restitution.
Described as “the world’s largest receiver of stolen goods”, earlier this year the museum doubled down on its refusal to return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece, ignoring years of campaigning from the Greek government. As it stands, there is little indication that the British Museum is on the verge of adopting a more progressive approach. But as more prestigious institutions around the world continue to engage in repatriation efforts, and activist groups continue to protest its inaction, it will hopefully at some point become untenable for it to hold onto its ill-gotten goods.