Oxford University has identified 145 artefacts under the stewardship of the Pitt Rivers Museum which had been plundered during a 1897 assault on Benin, and has committed to working with the Nigerian government to repatriate the artefacts.
In February 1897, British forces released a salvo of rockets, shells, and gunfire on the then-Kingdom of Benin’s capital city. The British burned the city to the ground, and built a golf course on the ruins to celebrate their victory. Subsequently, they grabbed the Benin Bronze artefacts to take back to London and line the halls of museums and private residences.
The findings and conclusion come against the backdrop of a global debate over the obligations that formerly colonizing nations, such as the United Kingdom, have to return artefacts taken from Africa, Asia, and the Americas during colonialism. In 2020, an advisory committee in the Netherlands recommended that the Dutch government return items taken without consent from Indonesia, Suriname, and many Caribbean islands. In the United States, indigenous people have used legal routes and activism to advocate for the repatriation of ancestral objects swiped by the American military and collectors.
In a statement from earlier this year, Oxford University said the Pitt Rivers Museum was “working with Nigerian stakeholders… to identify best ways forward regarding the care and return of these objects”. The work is part of the Museum’s programme to research the origins of its collections and identify those objects that were “taken as part of military violence or looting, or otherwise contentious circumstances”.
“We acknowledge the profound loss the 1897 looting of Benin City caused and, alongside our partners of the Benin Dialogue Group, we aim to work with stakeholders in Nigeria to be part of a process of redress,” concluded the University’s statement.
The Pitt Rivers Museum website describes the looting of the Benin Bronze artefacts as “one of the most explicit examples of British colonial power removing art by force… in the interests of imperial expansion.” Delegates from the Royal Court of Benin have visited the Pitt Rivers Museum twice, and representatives from the Pitt Rivers Museum visited Nigeria in 2019 as part of a Benin Dialogue Group.
The Group, along with the Digital Benin Project, brings together museum directors and researchers from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, with representatives from the Edo State government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
The 145 objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum comprised less than 1.5% of all of the items looted in the attack. A further 10,000 objects taken during the raid are spread across 165 museums and private collections throughout the world.
The objects remain on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum today.
“The Museum has received confirmation from the Oba and Royal Court of Benin that they would prefer the Bronzes to remain on display,” reads a statement on the Pitt River’s Museum website.