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Treasure: a Benin plaque taken by British troops in 19th-century invasion

London Museum to consult Nigerian Londoners on return of looted Benin bronzes

30 January 2020

The Horniman Museum will consult Nigerian Londoners about the future of its Benin bronzes amid pressure to return them to Africa.  

The 50 works, which include religious objects, weapons and jewellery, were looted by British troops in the 19th century during an invasion of the kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria.

A spokeswoman for the museum, in Forest Hill, south London said it wanted to have “equitable conversations” about the collection and did not rule out its return to Africa. She said a team of artists and experts from both Nigeria and the UK will research the collection before the public have their say.

She said: “Our primary focus will be holding equitable conversations about the future of our collections. 

“This includes being open and transparent about what we have and what we know about it, as well how these collections are currently used and stored, and what opportunities for access are currently available. 

“We are looking at a space outside the Horniman in which to host these conversations. The discussions will be open, but with a view to developing a set of actions associated with but not limited to access, ownership, care and interpretation.”

The museum is expected to make a decision on the future of the collection, which includes plaques torn from the walls of the royal palace of Benin, later this year. Demands for the restitution of exhibits to their original countries is one of the biggest issues facing London’s major museums. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted African artefacts held in French museums to be returned and a report he commissioned in 2018 called for everything taken “without consent” during the French colonial era to be returned permanently.

The British Museum also holds a collection of bronzes and is working with the Benin Dialogue Group to establish a new museum in Benin City focusing on the historic arts and cultures of the Benin Kingdom. 

It has agreed a long-term loan of objects for display in the new museum.

Other recent cases of restitution include a lock of hair cut from the head of an Ethiopian emperor which was returned to the country by the National Army Museum.

By Robert Dex. A version of this report first appeared in London’s Evening Standard.

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