In 1897, Benin city was invaded by British forces in retaliation for a counter-attack by the people of Benin, who had learned that a small party of British were preparing to lay siege to them. Oba Ovonramwen ordered his warriors to battle the emissaries who wanted to depose the king and replace him for a Native Council. On the 9th of February, the British launched a punitive expedition as a result of this act. During the ten-day ordeal, artefacts in the Oba’s palace were taken while most of the empire was burnt down along with the palace.
This looted cultural heritage, which was initially taken to London, can now be found in museums and private collections across the world. According to artnewspaper, the British Museum contains around 900 pieces of Benin antiques, while the United States of America has artefacts distributed over 38 museums. The Netherlands has 114 pieces, Switzerland has 97 art objects in its museums, while New Zealand has 17 art artefacts from the Benin Empire.
Since the colonial era, Nigerian scholars, museum professionals and the royal court of Benin have advocated for restitution but it has fallen on deaf ears until recently. Over 100 years later, the United States returned 8 objects to the Museum of Fine Arts in 2014. France followed in 2018 by announcing plans to return 26 pieces while Mexico gave back a sculpture that dates back to the 6th century from the southwestern Yoruba city of Ife in 2020.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the latest to join the growing number of institutions and countries that have repatriated art to Nigeria. The museum is returning three objects – two 16th-century Benin Court brass plaques and a 14th-century Ife Head. Klaus Perls, an art trader, presented two 16th-century Benin Court brass plaques of a Warrior Chief and a Junior Court Official to the museum in 1991 while the third piece came from an unnamed collector who offered the Ife Head to the museum for purchase. The latter is a 14th-century work that originated from the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, which is close to the royal palace.
These items will be held by the Met until the Director-General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Abba Isa Tijani, can travel to New York to retrieve them. Commenting on the museum’s decision, “We sincerely appreciate the transparency exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding issues leading to the return of these objects.”
“We welcome the rapprochement developing in the museum world, and appreciate the sense of justice displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, said in a statement. “Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this. The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artefacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”
Nigeria’s battle to have its looted art returned is beginning to take positive turns as Benin’s royal family and the Nigerian local and national governments plan to open a museum in Benin City by 2023 with at least 300 Benin Bronzes. The works will mostly originate from the collections of ten major European museums, including Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, Vienna’s Weltmuseum, and London’s British Museum. They’ll be on loan for three years at first, with the option to extend. When the loans expire, other Benin Bronzes will take their place. The museum might host rotating exhibitions of the kingdom’s art.