"Benin Bronzes (British Museum)" by sc63 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the 27th of October Jesus College Cambridge officially handed back the Okukor Bronze that had been looted during Britain’s 1897 colonial punitive expedition of Benin. The repatriation was the result of long-term campaigns from Cambridge University alumni Jason Okundaye, Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi, Amatey Doku and Nadine Batchelor-Hunt and the Legacy of Slavery Working Party at Jesus College. As the first UK institution to return a looted Bronze, this watershed moment has placed much anticipated pressure onto more institutions to repatriate artefacts in their collections. The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) currently owns approximately 160 artefacts that were looted during the 1897 invasion, with 6 Bronze portrait busts on display today. Will it be the next institution to consider a full return of the Bronzes?

In 2017 the MAA established its relationship with the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), an organisation consisting of the Royal Court at Benin, the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, and museum representatives from the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden to name a few. The BDG is dedicated to sourcing and repatriating items looted from Benin and displaying them in a new purpose-built museum in Benin City. According to the group, the museum will reunite numerous artefacts created by the Edo people from the 13th century onwards — artefacts that are currently dispersed across the globe — as well as situating the Bronzes within a wider display of contemporary Nigerian art. Since 2017, the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology have been working to strengthen relations and continue dialogue with the BDG, but have not reported any concrete action until recently.

“museums are crucial in discussions of colonialism/decolonisation”

On the evening of October 26th, the MAA hosted The Benin Dialogue Group and representatives from the Royal Court at Benin to continue the discussion of repatriation at the MAA that began the previous day at the British Museum. I attended the first half of the event as a gallery assistant, and visitors were given a tour of the museum’s current exhibition ‘[Re:] Entanglements: Colonial collections in decolonial times’ led by curator Professor Paul Basu from SOAS alongside Dr George Agbo of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The exhibition stirred up a range of reactions from the BDG. There was both praise and critique, the latter discussing how photographs of people in Sierra Leone — taken by colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas — should be displayed in a modern context.

The ‘[Re:] Entanglement’ exhibition highlighted how crucial museums are in discussions of colonialism/decolonisation; they have the positionality and power to re-evaluate their collections through a post-colonial lens. Research spotlighting the unethical means through which artefacts, such as the Benin Bronzes, were obtained plays a key role in repatriation endeavours. Museum goers should no longer wander passively through the halls of the MAA, but instead consider how and why the objects on display came to be, and what may their future be? The MAA has responded to this growing responsibility with an honest statement on the acquisition of the Bronzes, the RePresent project, and contemporary artwork by Black-British artist Tony Philips which highlighted the unnatural displacement of highly sacred Benin objects in Europe.

Whilst I accept that the methods of display at the MAA encourages visitors to see artefacts through a decolonial lens, the final and most important step in decolonisation is to transfer the Benin Bronzes back to Nigerian ownership. In the words of Dan Hicks, “Anthropology museums can be sites of conscience…But without acts of return this means nothing”. After the discussions held at the British Museum and MAA, the BDG released a statement in which they hinted at the repatriation of the Benin artefacts from both institutions, and ongoing cultural heritage projects in Benin. I spoke to MAA Director Dr Nicholas Thomas to gain a better understanding of what this process entailed. He replied stating that over the next few months the MAA will work with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria to repatriate objects looted from Benin in 1897. Furthermore, he reported that the returning objects will be housed in a world-class museum in Benin City — in its early stages of development this will be the Edo Museum of West African Arts.

“we must critique the looted items that are in the archives of large institutions, not just the ones that are on display”

The repatriation of the Benin artefacts rightfully makes us ask what objects in the MAA should be researched and returned next. The museum is already engaged in the return of Ugandan artefacts taken under the colonial endeavours of Reverend John Roscoe. Working with the Uganda Museum and MAA, Professor Derek Peterson expects items such as the Bugandan royal drum to be exhibited in Uganda in late 2023. To keep up momentum, it’s important not to ignore the looted items that are in the archives of large institutions, not just the ones that are on display. With over one million objects under its wing, I asked Dr Nicholas Thomas as to whether the MAA perceives the future repatriation of the Benin Bronzes as a watershed moment in which the institution encourages the return of other objects both in display and in the archives, that are not as politicised and well known as the Benin Bronzes and Ugandan objects?

In his response Dr Thomas also attested that the museum is proactive and transparent when responding to interests in their collection from communities and nations, and the institution greatly values provenance research. On the back of this, with the digitisation of all their artefacts in an online catalogue August 2020, the MAA and University of Cambridge should actively encourage public volunteers and students to conduct provenance research on artefacts, whether this be individual or project-led. After all, the case for the repatriation of unethically acquired items is always stronger if we know the context in which they came to museums in the first place.


Mountain View

Jesus College first global institution to return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria

Joining Jesus College, the MAA will be one of the next British institutions to return their Benin Bronzes. As a high-profile museum, I anticipate that this repatriation will pressure other institutions to solidify relations with the Benin Dialogue Group and Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, developing a clear plan to return stolen objects. I am hopeful that the repatriations at the MAA will become a part of a much wider movement in which institutions from all around the world are forced to confront their collections’ unethical origins, and are held accountable to take quick and meaningful action. With a lot of discussion and hard work, the next decade will be one of active research, re-evaluation and repatriation.