Update: With cultural institutions under pressure to repatriate artifacts taken during the colonial era, a museum in London agreed Sunday to return Benin Bronzes looted in the late 19th century from what is now Nigeria. The Horniman Museum and Gardens said a Nigerian commission asked earlier this year that it send back 72 items, the AP reports. "The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria," said the chair of the museum's board of trustees. Before making the decision, Horniman officials said they consulted artists and other members of the community, including schoolchildren in Nigeria and the UK. Our original story from May 3 follows:
The kingdom of Benin—whose earthen walls were said to be on par with those of the Great Wall of China—stood from the 11th century until 1897. That was the year the British invaded, burned it down, and made off with the Benin Bronzes: masks, figures, and plaques made of metal, ivory, and wood. They were taken by the thousands and now held by 161 museums around the globe. That count is slowly being chipped away at, reports the New York Times, most notably by the German government's May decision to return a "substantial" number of its bronzes to Nigeria, where Benin was located and which has been requesting the bronzes be returned since 1960. Germany has pledged to complete and share an inventory of all Benin Bronzes in its museums by June 15; transfers would begin in 2022.
Germany's move is seen as the turning of a tide amidst a clamor to have the stolen art returned. But as the Washington Post reports, "many institutions remain hesitant to relinquish the work." As might be expected, the British Museum has the largest collection at about 900 pieces, and the power to return them lies with Parliament, which the Times reports would have to enact a change in the law in order to facilitate that. While some say Germany's move will put pressure on Britain, the statement the AP shares from the British Museum doesn't yet indicate any movement: "We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time—whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange." (Read more Benin stories.)