From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
One morning last October, I took the train from London to Aberdeen to attend a ceremony. The University of Aberdeen was handing back a sculpture of a head, cast in metal in the 18th century, to a delegation from Nigeria. Like thousands of others in Western museums and private collections, this object had been looted during a now infamous British military expedition which in 1897 invaded the West African kingdom of Benin in what is today southern Nigeria. Benin’s metal sculptures and ivory carvings – known collectively as the Benin Bronzes – are widely recognised as being among Africa’s greatest cultural treasures. The head of the university’s museum, Neil Curtis, said at the ceremony the institution had ‘legal but not moral title’ to the Bronze, and so the decision to return it to Nigeria was a simple one. Others had reached a similar conclusion; the day before the ceremony in Aberdeen, the Nigerian delegation received a Benin cockerel from Jesus College at Cambridge University. As my train whizzed across the Lincolnshire flats, it also felt as if history was speeding up. Britain had resisted returning any Benin Bronzes for 125 years. Suddenly it was giving back two in as many days.
The handovers at Cambridge and Aberdeen universities are indicative of a wider trend. The people of the Benin Kingdom, the Edo, have been asking for decades for their Bronzes to be returned; they have largely been ignored by museums in Europe and the United States. In recent years, however, debates in the West about colonialism have created a very different environment. In 2021, the German government said its museums had agreed collectively to ‘make substantial returns of Benin Bronzes’ to Nigeria, beginning in 2022. (German museums hold about 1,150 Benin Bronzes, more than any European country except Britain.) The announcement reflected, but also reinforced, the perception that the Benin Bronzes have become emblematic of the discussion around colonial-looted objects in Western museums. As the German culture minister at the time, Monika Grütters, put it, they are ‘the touchstone’. Ignored for so long, the Edo are suddenly knocking on an open door. As they adjust to this new situation, it is perhaps not surprising that cracks have appeared in the relationships between the various Nigerian institutions that have a vested interest in the return of the Bronzes.
The Edo still venerate their king, or Oba. Ewuare II, great-great grandson of the Oba toppled by the British, lives in a rebuilt palace in the heart of Benin City. But it is the elected Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, who controls local spending and hence has greater patronage. Obaseki and the Oba have a difficult relationship. ‘The lack of communication between them is at the expense of the Benin Kingdom,’ an Edo historian who asked not to be named tells me. In 2020 Obaseki was instrumental in the formation of a body called the Legacy Restoration Trust, to oversee the establishment of an Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), to be designed by the Anglo-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye and envisaged as being ‘home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Benin bronzes’. Its trustees include the Oba’s son and Crown Prince, as well as representatives both of the German government and the Nigerian government’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). But in July 2021 the Oba denounced this trust as an ‘artificial group’, warning that it intended to hijack the return of the Bronzes.
The EMOWAA project (the Legacy Restoration Trust recently changed its name to the EMOWAA Trust) has certainly attracted widespread publicity and some international support. The British Museum, the German Archaeological Institute, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Leventis Foundation all made donations or raised funds for accompanying archaeological works, amounting to millions of pounds. But the Oba insists the ‘only legitimate destination’ for the Bronzes is a Benin Royal Museum, which does not necessarily have to be inside his palace, but in which he would play a key role. Relatives of the Oba complain the Governor has kept the palace uninformed of his plans, and ‘lured the Crown Prince into his schemes’. Privately, both sides accuse the other of looking to profit financially from the return of the Bronzes. ‘Treachery’, ‘lies’, ‘greed’, ‘it’s like the loot of 1897 all over again!’ – I’ve heard it all.
Several months on, the outlines of a messy compromise are visible. EMOWAA trustees now strike a conciliatory tone, saying they never planned to take possession of the Benin Bronzes but instead want to raise money for Benin City’s planned ‘cultural quarter’; they have rewritten their website accordingly. EMOWAA’s first building, ‘the Pavilion’, due to be built by mid 2023, is no longer referred to as a storage facility for returned Bronzes, but a ‘centre for archaeological studies’. EMOWAA trustees tell me they envisage Benin City ultimately having three museums – the existing National Museum, managed by the Nigerian government’s NCMM, as well as the new Royal Museum and EMOWAA.
If that is the solution, it seems to be shaped more by political exigency than public demand. Sore feelings endure. A relative of the Oba told me that ‘this mess could have been avoided if everyone was sincere at the beginning’ and complained that the Oba was still being kept in the dark about the EMOWAA Trust’s archaeological excavations. The palace emphasises it is working closely with the national government and the NCMM, and that the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, who is from the distant north of the country, had intervened personally to ensure the Aberdeen and Cambridge Bronzes were returned directly to the Oba.
The Oba has announced his own set of trustees to manage the Royal Museum, including his brother Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, a colourful media mogul, Nduka Obaigbena, a prominent banker, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, and the Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka. A trustee tells me that they have received promises of funding, but will not give details. ‘It doesn’t matter how long it takes,’ he says. The clock is ticking, however, on Germany’s promise of returns in 2022.
Meanwhile, the NCMM has been emboldened by the pro-restitution mood in the West. In October, the organisation presented a letter to the British Museum from the Nigerian government, asking for the return of antiquities acquired ‘through circumstances that cannot be described as desirable’. (The British Museum, increasingly isolated on the issue of restitution, replied by asking the Nigerians to be more specific.) In January 2022, the NCMM submitted formal claims for looted Benin Bronzes to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, the Horniman in London, and museums in Glasgow and Bristol; between them, these institutions have about 300 Bronzes taken in 1897. The Smithsonian in Washington, which has 40 Bronzes, told the Oba in March that it will transfer ownership of those looted in 1897 to the NCMM ‘as soon as practicable’.
So where are all these Benin Bronzes going to go? ‘They will have to sort this out; there’s no clarity around the practicality of return’, a European curator tells me. Perhaps some will stay with the NCMM, which is also keen to attract funding, not just for its own museums in Benin City and Lagos, where storage facilities are full, but also for a long-envisaged museum in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The likeliest outcome in the immediate future is the legal transfer of ownership of many Bronzes to Nigeria, but the physical return of only a few. (German officials say this legal transfer could happen within the coming weeks.) A prominent Nigerian official tells me, ‘We have to be realistic – we don’t have capacity. We will work on a smaller number returning, and use others as revenue generators by sending them on travelling exhibitions.’
Western museums vary in their approach to Nigerian politics. Ngaire Blankenberg, the new director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art, is emphatic. ‘I’m not the guardian of these objects and have no moral authority over them,’ she says. ‘The Nigerian political situation is in no way a factor in my decision. My objective is to return them. ASAP.’ Others are more cautious. ‘The whole world will be watching, and if you transfer these valuable artworks you have to think about security,’ warns the director of a European museum who has been closely involved in the restitution process. The consensus, though, is that any differences must be overcome by Nigerians themselves. ‘Outsiders cannot bring them together,’ says the director.
The cultural significance of the Benin Bronzes has been the subject of much international media coverage in recent years. Their monetary value is also pertinent. In February, when the Oba presided over the ceremony for the return of the Aberdeen and Cambridge Bronzes to his palace, dignitaries emphasised their spiritual significance, but Nigerian newspapers headlined their reports with the fact that the two pieces had been valued at £2.5m. Politics in Nigeria, shaped around patronage and ethnic ties, is not immune from this hype. National elections in 2023 and in Edo State in 2024, in which both President Buhari and Governor Obaseki will be replaced, could bring further uncertainty. Perhaps the campaign to return the Bronzes has been complicated by its high profile.
To be sure, there is much at stake, both in Benin City and further afield. According to Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, ‘There’s a sense that if this works, and has demonstrative benefit for the Edo people and Nigeria, that provides a strong signal that proposed returns elsewhere can be successful.’ There are reasons to be hopeful. The visionaries behind the proposed museums in Benin City have much in common. For David Adjaye, EMOWAA cannot be a Western-style museum with objects in glass boxes, since this ‘would mean nothing – it would be totally disregarded by the community.’ Peju Layiwola, a prominent artist related to the Oba and now an adviser to the Royal Museum, says, ‘We need community involvement – we need interaction with the people of Benin City. We don’t just want the Bronzes in glass vitrines.’ The Edo are now close to achieving a long-cherished dream. United, their position would be even stronger.
From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.