72 museum objects will be transferred to the Nigerian government, following a decision by the Horniman’s Board of Trustees. The objects were taken from Benin City during the British military incursion in February 1897. The collection includes 12 brass plaques, known publicly as Benin bronzes, as well as a brass cockerel altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, everyday items such as fans and baskets, and a key ‘to the king’s palace’.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens received the request from the Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in January 2022 and has since undertaken detailed research of its objects from Benin to establish which are in the scope of the request.
We look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the NCMM and the Horniman.Abba Tijani, Director-General of Nigeria’s NCMM
The Horniman consulted with community members, visitors, schoolchildren, academics, heritage professionals and artists based in Nigeria and the UK. All of their views on the future of the Benin objects were considered, alongside the provenance of the objects. “It is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” said Eve Salomon, Chair of the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens. “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.”
What are the ‘Benin Bronzes’
According to the British Museum, the ‘Benin Bronzes’ (made of brass and bronze) are a group of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments. They 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.
One element of the history of the Kingdom of Benin represented on the brass plaques and sculptures is the kingdom’s early contacts with Europeans. Trade and diplomatic contacts between Benin and Portugal developed on the West African coast from the 15th century. These early connections included Portuguese and Benin emissaries voyaging between the capitals and courts of Benin and Portugal as these two powers negotiated their new relationship.
The Kingdom also supported guilds working in other materials such as ivory, leather, coral and wood, and the term ‘Benin Bronzes’ is sometimes used to refer to historic objects produced using these other materials. There are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum’s collection.
The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our viewEve Salomon, Chair of the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens
The Benin Bronzes come from Benin City, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Benin, a major city state in West Africa from the medieval period. Benin City became part of the British Empire from 1897 to 1960 and is now located within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II. Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin continue to be performed today.
The Charity Commission, as the regulator of the charitable sector, endorsed the decision of the Horniman trustees on 5 August. The Horniman will now discuss with NCMM the process for the formal transfer of ownership, and the possibility of retaining some objects on loan for display, research and education.
According to CNN, last year the French government returned 26 artworks seized from Benin in 1892. And the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College returned two Benin bronzes in February of this year. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, removed all of its Benin bronzes from display in November of 2021 and announced plans to return them.