With European museums on the back foot following Black Lives Matter protests, Nigerian politicians have the opportunity to shape the fate of the famous Benin Bronzes.
According to Barnaby Phillips, an expert on the subject. Many in Africa, and elsewhere, say the time has come for the return of cultural treasures looted during colonialism.
The Benin Bronzes – thousands of brass, bronze, and ivory sculptures and carvings – have become highly charged symbols of injustice. They are originally from what is now Edo State, in southern Nigeria.
Stolen by British soldiers and sailors in 1897, most are in Western museums and private collections. The British Museum, which has some 950 Benin Bronzes, has come under particular criticism for its refusal to give them back. The Edo kings – the obas- campaigned for decades in vain for the Benin Bronzes to be returned.
That has now changed, and behind the scenes, things have been moving. Since 2017, the Benin Dialogue Group, which brings together the current oba, the Edo state governor, the Nigerian government and museums in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK (including the British Museum) – has been working on a compromise plan for some Benin Bronzes to return to Nigeria.
They have agreed that Benin City, the capital of Edo state, will host a new Benin Royal Museum. The effect, says the Oba’s Palace, will be a “permanent collection in rotation” in Benin City. At long last, the Edo people will be reunited with a significant part of their cultural patrimony.