Benin Bronze head (left) in the MAATripadvisor

The Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (MAA), part of the University of Cambridge’s Museum consortium, has agreed to work towards the display of Benin artefacts in Nigeria.

The agreement follows a meeting of the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’ hosted by the MAA last week. The group brings together representatives of the Court of Benin, Museums in Nigeria and a number of European museums with major Benin collections to discuss the future of these artefacts.

The Benin artefacts are steeped in controversial history. In 1897 a punitive expedition undertaken by the British destroyed the city of Benin, now in present-day Nigeria, and looted thousands of artworks. Many of these were then sold or donated to Museums, where they remain to this day. The discussions are part of a long-term effort to have them displayed in their ancestral home.

One of these artefacts, a bronze cockerel known as the Okukor, is owned by Jesus College and has been the subject of an ongoing student campaign for its repatriation. However, Jesus does not appear to be part of the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’ and so it is unclear whether the Okukor is affected by the agreement.

These developments are linked with the visit to Cambridge by a delegation from Nigeria, including Prince Gregory Akenzua of Benin, last week. During the visit, Prince Akenzua renewed his appeal for the Okukor and thanked all of the students who have been involved in the campaign.

At a drinks reception last week, a statement was read out by Prince Akenzua which announced that the group had agreed to “the establishment of a permanent display in Benin City of rotating material from a consortium of European museums”. However, the statement did not specify which artefacts will be part of the display nor does it detail which museums from the consortium will make the loans.

A spokesperson for the University told Varsity that this agreement builds on a ‘Benin Plan of Action’ drawn up in 2013 that “agreed to share collections, support improvements to training and facilities, and work toward the display of Benin artefacts in Nigeria”.

The meeting last week built on these agreements by “committing a wider group of European museums” to work towards a permanent display of Benin works in Benin City. The MAA is not listed in the original ‘Benin Plan of Action’ and so may be one of the European museums which only committed to the ‘Plan of Action’ last week.

Commenting on the meetings, Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told Varsity: “The opportunity to host a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group, involving representatives of the Court and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, as well as a range of curators and directors from European museums, was enormously rewarding.”

He continued: “We made significant steps forward, and there is now a better chance than at any time before, that we can work towards significant Benin collections being displayed in Benin City, accessible to people there.”

During their visit the Nigerian delegation also met with CUSU President Amatey Doku, who is a former President of JCSU, and former JCSU Racial Equalities Officer Ore Ogunbiyi. Both have been leading figures in the student campaign for the Okukor’s repatriation.

Whilst both students said that the agreement was “a step in the right direction”, they expressed misgivings about its limitations. Ogunbiyi told Varsity: “This is the nearest we have got to any form of decision since our endeavours began but I am hesitant to celebrate just yet. This is not a repatriation and we must not get distracted.

The Okukor in Jesus College dining hall

“Amatey and I both attended this drinks reception and heard the announcement directly, a pre-prepared write-up given to the Prince to read out – symbolic in itself. There was no mention of the Okukor and there was also no mention of Jesus College in this announcement.”

Jesus College had displayed the Okukor in its dining hall before it was “permanently removed” last year after Jesus College Student Union (JCSU) passed a motion in favour of repatriating the statue. However, the Okukor has not left Jesus, the college so far only promising to work with museum authorities “to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

In spite of Jesus’ equivocation, Doku remains adamant that the Okukor should be returned to Nigeria: “The College is not a museum and the Okukor was on display in the dining hall not protected or appreciated for what it was. It would be wrong for the College to think that they were better equipped to house the bronze than the experts and curators across Nigeria’s numerous museums.”

This is the most recent instalment in a campaign that stretches back to the 1930s, when the Court of Benin first called for the repatriation of looted artwork