The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford recently added to the controversy surrounding stolen artefacts from Benin when it released an interim report that said it had 145 such items in its collection. The museum, which displays the outstanding archaeological and anthropological collections owned by the University of Oxford, decided it needed to undertake research into its own collection in the wake of demands for the return of Benin bronzes – and other objects – from institutions like the British Museum. Many of the sculptural artefacts were made in bronze in the kingdom of Benin that is now in modern-day Nigeria. During the so-called Benin Expedition of 1897, British military personnel looted the artworks and brought them back to Europe. They are now scattered across the continent while many – like those in the possession of the Pitt Rivers Museum – remain in the custody of British institutions.
As reported on MuseumNext, Jesus College in Cambridge said that it would be returning a Benin bronze to its rightful owners after it reviewed its collection. Elsewhere, the National Museum of African Arts in the United States has decided to stop displaying the Benin bronzes it possesses. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution, to which the museum belongs, was among the first high-profile institutions to return items forcibly taken from Benin in the nineteenth century. For some, Benin bronzes are among the artefacts in the possession of Western institutions that cause most controversy because they are seen as the spoils of war and not items that were either bought or exchanged.
The report commissioned by the Pitt Rivers Museum was authored by Dan Hicks, a Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He identified scores of objects that could fall into the category of war booty from the 1897 expedition. According to the professor, over 40 of the controversial artefacts are currently on loan to the museum from a charitable trust. A further two have been loaned from a private individual but about 100 the property of the University of Oxford itself. Hicks’ report stated that three are in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum while the remainder are at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
According to the interim report, the Pitt Rivers Museum came into possession of these artefacts from around 20 or so separate sources. It states that the 145 objects in the care of the museum at the moment account for a tiny fraction of the total number of objects that were taken from Benin at the time of the military expedition there. “Putting this information into the public domain will hopefully lead to an advancing understanding,” the report said. It continued to add that this understanding will also help to identify a further 15 objects the museum has that were also possibly taken from Benin at that time, especially if other institutions also make similar findings known to one another.
Hicks wrote that as there are growing commitments to restore items among institutions around the world, he wanted to emphasise that it was in the nature of research of this kind to help the future identification of individual pieces by establishing their provenance. “The work of cultural restitution demands a detailed approach,” he wrote. He also said that it calls for as much transparency as is feasible to achieve at every stage. According to Hicks’ report, by publicly publishing this kind of research – even though it is an interim report – further details of provenance can be gathered, along with the additions and corrections of other researchers, to help with an expected full report publication at some point in 2022.
Hicks’ report also referred to the ‘chaotic theft’ of sacred artworks and other precious items by soldiers, sailors and colonial administrators during the expedition to Benin City constituted one of the most notorious episodes of violence and military looting by troops from European countries in the colonial period. A digital project has thus far identified some 165 different institutions around the world which are thought to have items looted from Benin in their collections.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.