The British Museum will lend a famous Benin object to its owners. Is that enough?

An ivory mask sculpture in the likeness of Queen Mother Idia, a powerful ruler in the 16th century Benin Empire

Colonialist looting took thousands of African artefacts which now sit in Western museums, far from their native lands.  Many countries whose artifacts were stolen by colonialists have been demanding their return for decades, and the British Museum is finally starting to yield to these demands. It has agreed to help establish a museum in Benin City, Nigeria, by loaning stolen Benin artworks back to it.

Is this gesture enough?

An ivory mask sculpture in the likeness of Queen Mother Idia, a powerful ruler in the 16th century Benin Empire
An ivory mask sculpture in the likeness of Queen Mother Idia, a powerful ruler in the 16th century Benin Empire. It was stolen by British colonialists during a punitive expedition in 1897. The expedition killed thousands and destroyed the West African Kingdom of Benin. Photo credit: Elisabeth Nöfer

I ask for Oluyenyetuye bronze of Ife

The moon says it is in Bonn

I ask for Ogidigbonyingbonyin mask of Benin

The moon says it is in London

[…]

I ask

I ask for the memory of Africa

The seasons say it is blowing in the wind

The hunchback cannot hide his burden.

Niyi Osundare, Africa’s Memory

The treasures of the British Museum hide a bloody past. While the Museum board bills its collection as the “shared heritage” of humankind, many of the centrepieces of Black history were actually looted by colonialists.

For example, take the 16th-century Benin ivory mask in the Sainsbury Galleries. British colonialists stole the original mask, along with four others, from the bedroom of king Ovọnramwẹn Nọgbaisi.

Nogbaisi, Ruler of the Edo people who in the West are known as residents of Benin, lived in Southwestern Nigeria. In 1897, British soldiers aimed to shatter the Edo trade monopoly with a “punitive expedition”. The British invaders burned the palace, slaughtered thousands of people and shipped roughly 2000 precious artifacts to London. The mask and 700 other objects were given to the British Museum, making it the biggest collection of Benin art in the world. In the exhibition and in the catalogue today, however, there is no hint to the mask’s bloody past. Visitors are only given vague context for certain objects, such as the equally famous Benin bronze plates.

The mask, usually identified with the likeness of Queen Mother Idia, still holds huge symbolic value for Nigerians. “Everyone knows the image, since it is even on one of our currencies”, said Kevin Abimiku, a Goldsmiths Fine Art student who grew up in Nigeria. “But I didn’t know the one in the Nigerian National museum was a replica, I always thought it was the original.”

The Nigerian government and the current Oba, the title given to the Ruler of Benin, have been demanding the restitution of all stolen artifacts since the 1970s. In 2018, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II repeated his request when the Director of the British Museum came for a visit. The director attended a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group, a collaboration of Nigerian and Western representatives.

The committee was formed last year to lead the effort to establish a permanent exhibition in Benin City, that is scheduled to open in 2023. This exhibition will display historical works of art from Benin, which will be loaned out by various Western museums. The British Museum agreed on a long-term loan of Benin bronze plates, “initially for a period of 3 years, with the possibility to review and extend”, as a spokesperson from the British Museum said. However, it would be too early to confirm if the Benin ivory mask will be included in the loan.

She added that the Oba, despite his restitution demands, had even “acknowledged that the objects serve as ambassadors for Benin culture when displayed internationally.” The ethnologist Lars-Christian Koch from the Humboldt Forum in Berlin put it more frankly: “We cannot simply dissolve entire museums.”

There are other voices too, that think restitution is unnecessary. The British-Ghanaian intellectual Anthony Kwahme Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism: “The connection through a local identity is as imaginary as the connections through humanity. The Nigerian’s link to the Benin bronze, like mine, is a connection made in the imagination.”

Goldsmiths student Kevin Abimiku added: “When I saw the mask and the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, I actually had a very positive feeling about it. I felt connected to the tribe of my father.” However, despite this, he believes it would be impossible to show looted art in a just way if Western museums maintain ownership over the artifacts.

Of course, restitution is difficult. Negotiating repatriation between nations is complicated and not yet really implemented. In contrast, the restitution of Nazi-Confiscated Art in Germany is common and could serve as a role model here. Another argument made by those who oppose repatriation is insufficient storage conditions in the country of origin.

However, newly built state-of-the-art museums like the one in Lagos could overcome such reservations. Kevin shared his thoughts: “Even though people working there now certainly don’t have a direct part in getting these artworks, they are the ones that have to decide if they will pay attention to the colonial history of the artworks or not.”

Other museums have also taken steps to restore stolen works to their original owners. The Manchester Museum recently took the first step and announced the repatriation of sacred objects to Aboriginal communities in Australia.

In the end, decolonisation means rethinking western ideas of history, ownership and control. Is lending stolen objects back to their owners ever going to be enough?