The Horniman Museum in London announced on Sunday 07 August the return of several Nigerian royal treasures that were looted by British troops in 1897. These are brass plates and other objects from the ancient kingdom of Benin, located south of Edo State in present-day Nigeria. The recent wave of art restitution is stirring up cultural institutions around the world. On the one hand, African countries are demanding their dues and on the other, Western museums refuse to see their collections emptied.
After the Republic of Benin, Nigeria is about to receive some of its works of art looted by British troops in 1897. Among the objects are 12 brass plates, known as ‘Benin bronzes’, as well as ceremonial objects made of ivory and brass, everyday objects such as fans and baskets, and a ‘king’s palace’ key.
A restitution announced without specifying the exact number of works.
No information is given by the UK on the number of works to be returned to Nigeria. According to Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and author of a book on “Benin Bronzes” in the UK entitled “The Bruthish Museum”, one figure must be quoted. In the case of British museums, where a significant proportion of the ‘Benin bronzes’ are held, less than 1% of these objects taken under colonialism are on display. They are in the reserves, without being listed in a documentation database. Some are locked in boxes that have not been opened for over a century,” said Dan Hicks.
Africa stripped of over 90% of its heritage.
Colonisation dealt a severe blow to Africa with a significant number of its works of art stripped away and displayed in Western lands for centuries. According to the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018, 90-95% of Africa’s artistic and cultural heritage is outside the continent, in museums around the world.
Restitution, a political will that is not unanimous.
Following a first restitution of 26 royal treasures, French President Emmanuel Macron, during his tour of the African continent, promised once again to return to Benin works looted by France in the XIXᵉ century. This political will is not appreciated by all Western museums such as the British Museum in London or the Musée du Quai-Branly in Paris.
As a result, many cultural institutions in large cities were opposed to it, for fear that their collections would be emptied as they were returned.