What are the Benin Bronzes and why are they important? Explore the significance of the controversial treasures

What are the Benin Bronzes, and how much do you know about them? Bronwen Everill gives us a primer as to when and how these works of art were taken from Benin, and the complicated question of repatriating them

Benin Bronzes at the British Museum In London

­­The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3,000 figures and other decorative pieces looted by the British in 1897. Today they are housed in at least 161 public and private collections scattered around the world.

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But how much do you know about the Benin Bronzes and their complex past? Here, we bring you 8 things you need to know…

1

The Benin Bronzes are from Benin City

Benin was a city in the south of modern Nigeria, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Benin from the 1100s through to 1897.

The 3,000-plus items that make up the Benin Bronzes include statues and plaques that decorated the palace of the Oba, the king of Benin, and are representations of kings and queen mothers of the Edo people (the people of Benin) and a historical record of the kingdom.

2

The Benin Bronzes are not actually made of bronze

They’re made of brass, as well as carved ivory and carved wood. The brass casts were made using the lost-wax casting technique. There are examples dating back to the 14th century, and a similar process was used in the production of brass heads in the nearby Kingdom of Ife, dating from the 12th century.

Examples found throughout the region attest to the close cultural and economic links between the various groups in the region. Most of the Benin Bronzes date from the two golden ages of Benin’s art: in the mid-1500s during the reign of Oba Esigie, and from 1735–50, during the reign of Oba Eresoyen.

3

The Benin Bronzes were scattered around the world after 1897

This is the year they were taken from Benin City, during the looting and burning of the capital by British forces seeking to establish imperial rule over the region.

Brought to Britain by returning members of the expeditionary force, some Bronzes were kept in private collections until the person died, while others were sold to fund the expedition.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gave the first collection of 203 plaques to the British Museum in 1898, with many more bequests and purchases coming over subsequent decades.

4

Museums have continued to buy and sell Benin Bronzes

Many were sold between the 1920s and the 1950s. They are now in more than 161 museums, mainly in Europe, but also in 38 institutions in the US.

Museums have continued to acquire the Bronzes, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art purchasing a collection in 1974, and, more recently, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in New York State selling a bronze sculptural head for $4.74 million to a private collector in 2007. Only nine museums in Nigeria have any of the Bronzes.

5

The Benin Bronzes influenced European art during the early 1900s

The Benin Bronzes have influenced cubism, futurism, and surrealism. Artists associated with these movements were especially interested in African sculptures displayed in museums and private collections after the violent partition of Africa into European colonies at the end of the 1800s.

Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were both noted collectors of African sculptures, with the former known to have specifically owned Benin Bronzes.

6

Collections are beginning to be returned to Nigeria

The University of Aberdeen and Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum recently joined France in committing to returning looted collections to Nigeria.

Other museums in the US and Britain, including the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, have said that they are open to returning the objects, and have begun the complicated consultation processes necessary before a return can be arranged.

7

The British Museum and the V&A would require new legislation in order to be able to return their collections

That’s because they are currently prevented from doing so by the British Museum Act 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983. The British Museum is a part of the Benin Dialogue Group and is in discussions with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the royal court of Benin City.

8

There is going to be a dedicated museum for the Benin Bronzes in Nigeria

The Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, due to open in 2025, is being sponsored by Nigeria’s Legacy Restoration Trust and the British Museum. The museum will be located next to the restored Oba’s palace in Benin City, and is being designed by the Ghanaian-British architectural firm, Adjaye Associates. The firm, led by Sir David Adjaye, also designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Bronwen Everill is the 1973 College Lecturer in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

You can read more from Bronwen Everill about the Kingdom of Benin and the Bronzes in August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021