The Benin Bronzes: Britain and the legacy of colonialism

Are institutions doing enough in terms of the restitution of stolen artefacts?

Harry Jones
7th November 2021
Image: Flickr
Last month the British Museum was sent a written request by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture in Nigeria, for the return of the Benin Bronzes.

Many museums in former imperialist countries have collections built around objects acquired on colonial expeditions. During the 1960s/70s, this began to be questioned alongside the rise of social historical studies. Consequently, a new genre of exhibition came into being. Such exhibitions condemned the institution for displaying objects seized with colonial or racist intent and criticised the acquisition of artefacts.

Although certain museums (e.g. the British Museum with its Collecting and Empire Trail exhibition) have tried to approach questions concerning restitution, many have failed in any form of concrete action.

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of objects originating from the West African kingdom of Benin, thought to date back to the 16th Century. The pieces were taken by colonisers in 1867 and the British Museum hosts a vast collection of some 900 items from Benin.

Image credit: [Pixabay]

Despite repeated calls by the Benin Royal Court for the restitution of the bronzes, there has been much confusion about what the British Museum can and should return. Both the Heritage Act of 1983 and the British Museum Act 1963 have previously prevented national institutions from 'disposing of its holdings', except in exceptional circumstances. The question then, is whether such institutions are still in fact exerting a form of colonial oppression on the people of Benin?

Regional museums such as Aberdeen University Museum have already begun to organise the repatriation of their Benin Bronzes. Is this then the responsibility of the government? Given the Black Lives Matter movement and a heightened awareness of colonial context, should such acts be contested in parliament?

Earlier this year, the theatrical activist group 'BP or not BP?' conducted a protest at the Science Museum highlighting the extent of its stolen goods. The Benin Bronzes makes up only a small portion of the British Museums colonial loot.

History is constructed from interpretations based on what we discover about the past.

Given the backlash against the National Trust for trying to approach questions surrounding restitution, alongside 'the anti-woke' movement propounded by Conservative backbenchers - is the narrative of 'cultural war' and 'the changing of history' a strong one?

I would argue not. History is constructed from interpretations based on what we discover about the past. By sticking to positivist narratives, we see British history through rose-tinted glasses. Moreover, to label these changes as purely part of 'far left' activism, rejects the fact that these arguments are based on academic findings.

In my opinion, we should be opening up further discourse on heritage artefacts seized by national institutions. Although we have seen local museums approaching these questions, many major institutions have not. Restitution has became a standard in neighbouring countries, why is it not in ours? If we keep getting stuck on the idea of a 'cultural war' it decries the need for discourse. Instead, it enables a whitewashing of our history and prevents the British Museum, an educational institution, from being able to properly teach about the effects of colonialism.

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