The culture minister of Nigeria has urged the British Museum to follow the example of the Smithsonian Institution, which on Tuesday returned ownership of 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria at a celebratory event in Washington.
Lai Mohammed praised the move by the US National Museum of African Art, which follows a recent restitution agreement with Germany that included the handover of two Benin bronzes. Last year, Mohammed’s ministry formally requested the return of Benin artefacts from the British Museum in London.
“They should learn from what has happened today and what happened in Germany,” Mohammed told the Guardian, recalling how British MPs told him the museum was bound by law not to deaccession items in its collection.
“They used the law as a shield. This is not about law; this is about ethics.
“I told them the last time I was in London: it’s not if, it’s when. They will eventually have to return these because the campaign is gaining strength by the day and, when they look at what other museums are doing, they will be compelled to return them.”
The bronzes were stolen in 1897, when British forces sacked the Benin Kingdom, in modern-day Nigeria. The royal palace was burned and looted and the oba (ruler) exiled. The British confiscated all royal treasures, giving some to individual officers and taking most to auction in London. An estimated 3,000 objects eventually made their way into museums and private collections around the world.
The 29 Benin bronzes entered the Smithsonian through purchase, transfer, donation and bequest. On Tuesday, the institution transferred ownership to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.
A ceremony was held in conjunction with the US National Gallery of Art, which returned the Benin bronze from its collection, and attended by Prince Aghatise Erediauwa on behalf of the oba. Speeches were punctuated by traditional dancing, drumming and singing by the Edo Association of DC. Guests were invited to take a last look at the intricate and richly textured works in a gallery space.
Mohammed said: “These are not just objects of beauty who have aesthetics. These are artefacts that speak to who we are and that speak to our history, our religion, our values and ethics.
“Returning them back home, especially for those who don’t understand or who are divorced from our cultural background, will serve many purposes. One, it will teach and educate; two, it will revive certain parts of our customs and tradition that have been long forgotten.”
The return of the bronzes is the first such action under a new Smithsonian policy that authorises museums to return collections to the community of origin based on ethical considerations, such as the manner and circumstances in which items were acquired.
Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, which was founded in 1964 and whose sources include a 2005 gift of 525 objects from the Walt Disney Company, said she felt uncomfortable at the sight of the bronzes when she arrived last year and took them down from display.
A Smithsonian ethical returns working group had already been convened.
“It’s not like I was out of step with the institution,” Blankenberg said. “In my interviews coming in, they did ask me what my position was around repatriation and I said, ‘Give them back.’”
Blankenberg made contact with Nigerian officials, who welcomed the prospect of the bronzes’ return. Blankenberg visited the west African country and worked through the bureaucratic process. Some of the bronzes will eventually go on display in Benin City. Others will remain in Washington on long-term loan.
The repatriation is part of a worldwide movement by cultural institutions to return artefacts often stolen during colonial wars. In August, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London announced the transfer of 72 Benin bronzes to the Nigerian government.
Blankenberg is now looking at other “objects of concern” in her museum’s collection and engaging with relevant parties.
The 51-year-old, a Canadian-South African dual national, said: “We’re not the guardians of the world. Western museums are not the custodians of all things of the world.
“I don’t believe in the universal museum rationale and, in this day and age, there’s loans, there’s travelling exhibitions, there’s a whole bunch of different ways that are completely accepted within the museum world through which other people from other cultures can see work from around the world.”
She added: “The debate is so ridiculous because there’s so many false premises. People are like, ‘Oh, no, if you give everything back, that’ll be nothing in this museum.’ I mean, honestly, we have over 12,000 collections and if our whole museum is based on stolen objects, then frankly, we shouldn’t exist.
“I’m fine to give it all back but the point is that it really isn’t [that] and it will make no difference to the average person.”