The bronze plaques from his birthplace looked strange at the British Museum.
Enotie Ogbebor, a visiting artist, knew they were cultural treasures. West African sculptors had crafted them over six centuries to tell the history of Benin, a kingdom that stood in what is now southern Nigeria until British troops invaded in 1897.
But on display in London, he recalled, they carried the aura of war trophies.
Colonial soldiers had plundered his ancestors’ land, seizing what became collectively known as the Benin bronzes. Thousands of plaques, masks and figures wrought from largely metal, ivory and wood landed in museums across Europe and the United States.
“They look so out of place, out of context,” said Ogbebor, 52. “To see them in isolation, far away from home, kept for onlookers to gawk at without any real understanding of what happened — it’s like being a witness to your family story told wrongly.”
Some of the bronzes are now set to come home: Last week, Germany became the first country to announce plans to send hundreds of pieces back to Nigeria, starting next year.
The German restitution pledge, the largest thus far, has injected momentum into the push for other governments to do the same as nations worldwide grapple with histories of racial injustice. Protest movements have placed a fresh spotlight on old atrocities, toppled statues and called for the recovery of items stolen — often violently — during colonial rule.
“To hold onto the works is to add salt to an open wound,” said Ogbebor, a member of the Legacy Restoration Trust, which represents Nigeria’s government and regional leaders.
Germany’s culture minister said the shift stemmed from “moral responsibility,” and a handful of museums elsewhere have launched their own efforts as curators reexamine the bloody origins of prized artifacts.
Benin bronzes can be found at 161 museums around the world, according to research by Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford and the author of “The Brutish Museums.” Thirty-eight are in the United States. Only nine of the institutions are in Nigeria.
Many institutions remain hesitant to relinquish the work.
The British Museum — owner of the world’s biggest collection, at roughly 900 pieces — is legally prohibited from releasing the Benin bronzes because Parliament regulates its inventory.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has said it acquired Benin works from donors, has revealed no plans to return them. (The Met did not respond to requests for comment.)
Pressure has swelled over the last year, however, as protesters flooded cities, reinvigorating dialogue around painful memories. Atop the African Union’s agenda this year: fighting the coronavirus — and recovering stolen heritage.
“In the present moment, we are seeing a reckoning with institutional racism, which starts with the observation that institutional racism has a history,” said Hicks, the Oxford curator.
The Horniman Museum in London, a registered charity that holds 15 of the bronzes, announced in March that it would explore “the possible return” of anything plundered. Days later, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would send back the bust of a Benin ruler. And last month, the National Museum of Ireland pledged to release 21 works to Nigeria.
Returned art will be installed at the forthcoming Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye has signed on to design. (Though the doors aren’t slated to open until 2025, organizers say secure storage is likely to be ready by the end of next year.)
Little remained after Benin fell.
The kingdom, which dated back to the 11th century, had been one of West Africa’s great powers. Historians say its earthen walls rivaled the Great Wall of China.
Then came the British, who by the mid-1800s were exerting control over the surrounding areas. Benin enjoyed trade influence that irked colonial leaders, researchers say. The breaking point came when West African forces ambushed a British expedition that had not received permission to enter the kingdom, killing dozens.
Britain responded with 1,200 troops, warships and 3 million bullets, according to Hicks’s research. Benin burned to the ground. Official documents offer no casualty number, but researchers estimate widespread death.
The British military called the destruction “punitive.”
Soldiers went on to loot the kingdom’s riches, telling British authorities that the ivory alone would cover the cost of the mission. Some kept the bronzes for themselves, making them family heirlooms. European art scholars lavished praise on the works, and they were quickly auctioned off.
The spoils of Benin sat on display in England just six months later.
Nigeria has been calling for their return since it gained independence in 1960. The theft stripped away centuries of knowledge, said Victor Ehikhamenor, an artist from Benin City. Generations lost the opportunity to build on the work of their forebears.
“I grew up with the leftovers,” he said.
And the narrative of white dominance lives on in revered places. Schoolchildren see the “punitive” language next to popular exhibits. Google “Benin bronzes,” and the search engine delivers a harmful euphemism: “Discovered by: British forces.”
“These works were not legally acquired,” said Ehikhamenor, a member of Nigeria’s restoration effort. “Museums are oversaturated with colonial conquests.”
Today, he said, the people and institutions that benefited from Benin’s collapse have a chance to make amends.
Museums can put the Benin bronzes in the mail or transfer ownership to Nigeria. Leaders in Benin City have embraced the idea of loaning them out to museums across the globe, just as Spain might let France borrow a Picasso painting — on fair terms, as equals.
By Danielle Paquette
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