Benin Bronze / PA Images
A highly contested sculpture, known as a Benin Bronze, has been officially given back to Nigeria in a ceremony conducted at Jesus College of the University of Cambridge. This is significant not simply because the statue of a cockerel is of significant value as art but because of the wider historical and cultural context by which the Benin Bronze came into college’s possession in the first place. Jesus College is not the first institution in the UK to return one of the famous Benin Bronzes to its country of origin. Several more are in the possession of the British Museum and others are scattered throughout European institutions.
The British Army undertook an expedition of Benin, part of what is modern-day Nigeria, in the late nineteenth century. At that time, British forces removed in the region of a thousand metal plaques and statues which have been in the possession of academic institutions and museums ever since. In October, Museum Next reported that an offer to exchange some contemporary Nigerian art for the historic Benin Bronzes had not gone ahead at the British Museum despite that institution accepting the new art into its collection. Meanwhile, German museums have indicated that they will be moving towards a process of restitution for their bronzes while France has held a symposium on the issue of African art in the country that dates back to colonial times.
Therefore, Jesus College’s move should be seen in a wider context of changing attitudes towards art that had been looted by colonial forces in Europe. That said, the college still appears to be taking a lead with restoring artefacts from a British perspective. The Cambridge college first said it would investigate the issue back in 2019. At this time, it undertook a wide-ranging study into its own ties to colonialism and slavery, part of which focussed on its disputed ownership of the Benin Bronze in question.
Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, said that she thought the move represented an historic moment and that the college was looking forward to the day when it would welcome representatives from Nigeria and Benin to hand the sculpture over. “This is the right thing to do,” she said before adding that it was a question of respect for Benin Bronze which has a unique heritage and history.
For its part, the Nigerian government welcomed the news about the soon-to-be returned statue. “We would like to thank Jesus College,” said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister for Information and Culture. The former lawyer went on to say that he thought Jesus College had blazed a trail for other institutions to follow. “We look forward to similar returns of our artefacts [being made by]… other institutions that have them,” he added.
Following the move from the University of Cambridge, another British seat of learning said it would also be returning its Benin Bronze. The University of Aberdeen is currently in possession of a sculpture of a Benin Oba. The bronze of the Oba, or king, was purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in 1957. However, since then, the university has faced criticism from people who say it should never have bought what some consider to be stolen goods in the first place. It will now be returned.
In Paris, the Quai Branly Museum reaffirmed its previously stated commitment to return 26 objects that had been looted from Nigeria in colonial times. This followed Jesus College’s announcement. It is expected that the French museum will stage a final exhibition of its Nigerian artefacts before handing them back, too.
As it stands, the British Museum has in the region of 900 or so different artefacts from Benin in its collection, including some of the most remarkable bronzes to have made their way to Europe. The Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, said that he hoped Jesus College’s decision will ‘set a precedent’ for others to follow. He also said that this demonstrated an evolving approach to dealing with colonial-era disputes whereby nations and institutions can agree on returning items ‘without rancour’.
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.