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London museum to return 72 treasured Benin artifacts looted by British forces to Nigeria

'It is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,' said Eve Salomon, chair of the museum.

London museum to return 72 treasured Benin artifacts looted by British forces to Nigeria
Cover Image Source: Horniman Museums and Gardens

A London museum has agreed to return 72 treasured artifacts to the Nigerian government in what experts described as an "immensely significant" moment. The Horniman Museum and Gardens, located in south London, announced in a press release on Sunday that it would transfer the ownership of the historic objects to Nigeria after a unanimous vote by its board of trustees. All of the objects—which notably include a share of sculptures known as Benin bronzes—were looted from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria, during a British military operation in February 1897, the museum said.


"Ownership of 72 objects, which were forcibly removed from Benin City during the British military incursion in February 1897, will be transferred to the Nigerian government, following a decision by the Horniman's Board of Trustees," the news release stated. "The collection includes 12 brass plaques, known publicly as Benin bronzes. Other objects include a brass cockerel altarpiece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, everyday items such as fans and baskets and a key 'to the king's palace.'" According to the British Museum, the Benin bronzes "were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City."


British forces launched a "bloody and devastating" military occupation of the Benin Kingdom in 1897 and "thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official 'spoils of war' or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank," the museum said. According to The Guardian, around 10,000 objects looted during the raid on Benin are held in 165 museums and many private collections across the world. In recent years, there has been considerable political pressure on European governments and museums to return such artifacts to their rightful owners.


The decision to transfer ownership of the artifacts follows a request by Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in January. "We very much welcome this decision by the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Following the endorsement by the Charity Commission, we look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Horniman," Prof Abba Tijani, Director-General of NCMM, said in a statement. The decision makes the Horniman—which won museum of the year in July—the first government-funded institution to return looted Benin treasures.


The museum revealed that it consulted with community members, visitors, schoolchildren, academics, heritage professionals and artists based in Nigeria and the U.K. before making the decision. "All of their views on the future of the Benin objects were considered, alongside the provenance of the objects," it said. Eve Salomon, chair of the museum, said: "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. The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step and we look forward to working with the NCMM to secure longer-term care for these precious artifacts."


The items from Horniman's collection are just some of the artifacts to find their way back to Nigeria in the last few months from museums in the west. In February, the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University's Jesus College returned a cockerel sculpture and the head of an oba (king). Prior to that, the French government handed back 26 works of art seized from Benin by French colonial soldiers in 1892. The Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., removed all of its Benin bronzes from display in November last year and announced plans to repatriate them.

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