A bronze sculpture of a cockerel that adorned a Cambridge University dining room is among a huge haul of looted antiquities that may now be returned to Nigeria and neighbouring Benin Republic soon.
The British Museum will take part in a European summit to discuss the return of art seized from the Benin Kingdom, now part of southern Nigeria, by a British punitive expedition in 1897 as “reparations” after it defied the British Empire by imposing customs duties.
According to the London-based Guardian newspaper, the museums taking part in the Benin dialogue group, also known as the Benin Collective, are hoping to establish a permanent display in Benin City, Edo State, using items rotated from a consortium of reputable institutions.
The negotiations involve authorities from Nigeria and the neighbouring country of Benin.
Among the looted sculptures is the bronze cockerel known as the “Okukor”, which was removed from public view earlier this year after Cambridge students of predominantly West African origin called for it to be returned to Nigeria. However, it was confirmed last week that the cockerel remains at the university.
The fate of hundreds of other “Benin bronzes”, housed in institutions such as the British Museum, will be discussed by curators when the group meets next year at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr. Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”
Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements.
European curators and their West African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.
John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back.
“On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”
Aside from cost, concerns about security were also foremost in the minds of European institutions, he said.
“There has to be some sort of negotiation and a recognition perhaps that things are on long-term loan from Nigeria.”
Picton said that many people were unaware that the largest collection of antiquities from the 19th-century looting of Benin was in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, while the second largest was in the British Museum.
A British Museum spokesman said it had not received a formal request to loan objects to Nigeria for any specific project but remained in dialogue with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, and was willing to consider any specific proposals.
The new dialogue is already paying off, insist authorities in Nigeria, where an exhibition, Return of the Lost Treasures, has just come to an end at the National Museum in Lagos.
However, the exhibition – featuring artefacts said to have been repatriated from Europe and the US – has been treated with scepticism in some quarters.
Kwame Opoku, a Ghanian writer and former UN legal adviser, blogged: “Most of the artefacts displayed appear inferior in quality to Nigerian artefacts that are in western museums, in Boston, London, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. One might even wonder if they are not fakes.”
He added: “One thing this exhibition confirms abundantly is that the policy of quiet diplomacy that has been pursued by Nigerian authorities since independence in 1960 has completely failed.”
Cambridge University said in a statement that it supported the establishment of a permanent display in Benin City, featuring material rotated from a consortium of European museums.
“Given the scale of the collection worldwide, we believe that collective discussion and engagement will achieve more than independent action.”
When contacted by THISDAY yesterday, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed confirmed that the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah had visited Cambridge University last year to hold talks on the return of the Benin artefacts to the country.
While lauding the forthcoming summit of European museums, he said this was the fallout of the meeting his ministry and NCMM had held with members of the Benin Collective in the UK.
“We were at the last meeting of the Benin Collective at Cambridge University where discussions have been ongoing on the return of Benin artefacts taken from Nigeria.
“Before the meeting, I had been involved in the return of the cockerel (Okukor) from the university and I had personally written a letter to them on its return.
“We are involved in many of these meetings, and France has been at the lead for the return of these artefacts, which led to the recovery of a few of them and the exhibition held in Lagos recently.
“So we are pleased to hear that the European museums will be meeting on the return of the artefacts and will keep Nigerians abreast on the outcome because they are part of our cultural heritage and mean a lot to us,” he said.
The Benin bronzes refer to the antiquities looted in 1897 when a punitive British military expedition moved to crush the West African kingdom of Benin.
British traders were furious that Oba Ovonramwen, ruler of the still independent territory, had defied the empire and was demanding customs duties from them.
Outrage back home in the UK was fuelled when a group of officers dispatched to see the Oba on the orders of the governor of Britain’s West African Niger Coast Protectorate were ambushed and killed.
Two months later 1,200 British troops and protectorate forces led by Sir Harry Rawson were sent to the kingdom, where they destroyed Benin City and looted thousands of works of art and other treasures.
A steady trade in the objects led to them being scattered around Europe – with a large haul ending up in Germany.
Significant artefacts such as the 16th-century cast bronze head of a young woman, probably representing Benin’s Queen Idia, ended up in the British Museum.