Africa’s pressure on Global North, Europe and America to return the continent’s looted artefacts may have begun to yield a positive result, as the official transfer of the 26 pieces looted in 1892 by French troops from the Republic of Benin held yesterday in Paris, France, in the presence of President Emmanuel Macron.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace in Paris, where France signed over the artefacts to Benin, President Patrice Talon, who was accompanied by his Culture Minister, Jean-Michel Abimbola, said the treasures were much more than cultural goods — the term used by France to describe them. “This is our soul, Mr President,” he said, flanked by Macron.
Only last week, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Arts in Washington stopped displaying Benin bronzes.
It is the latest museum to begin a process that could lead to the return of the works to Nigeria.
The American facility is one of the most prominent to return items that were stolen from the Benin kingdom more than a century ago.
Confirming the non-exhibition of the crafts to The New York Times, the museum’s director, Ngaire Blankenberg, stated: “I can confirm that we have taken down the Benin bronzes we had on display, and we are fully committed to repatriation where it is warranted.
“We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.”
The National Museum of African Arts has 16 objects with provenance dating back to the 1897 raid.
“There may be others in our collection,” Blankenberg said, adding: “But we are still doing research.”
Last month, a college at the University of Cambridge staged a ceremony acknowledging the official return of a bronze statue of a cockerel to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
The young domestic cock, donated to the university in 1905 by the father of a student, is a Benin bronze, stolen during the 1897 British invasion of Benin City, during which the military burnt down the royal palace and other buildings.
The event at Jesus College was followed by a similar handover at the University of Aberdeen, the day after, where a sculpture, depicting the head of a Benin king, was returned to Nigeria.
Germany will restitute those from its public collections next year.
Institutions in continental Europe have been working on returning Benin bronzes. Historically, much of the focus in the United Kingdom has been on the British Museum because it has the largest collection of bronzes in the world.
But the British Museum and other national institutions such as the V&A, are prevented from permanently returning items by the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983.
In July, the Federal Government demanded a full and unconditional return of the 1,130 Benin bronzes that were looted from the African nation in the 19th Century and domiciled in German museums.
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, made the demand in Berlin, Germany during separate meetings with the German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Monika Grutters and her Foreign Affairs counterpart, Heiko Maas.