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

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.

7

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.


What can the Benin Bronzes tell us about the people who made them?

The Benin Bronzes offer historians and archaeologists precious opportunities to better understand the empire in which they were created.

While oral history and artistic heritage have long been central to Benin’s understanding of its own past, the first written history of the kingdom of Benin was published by the Edo historian Jacob Egharevba in 1933. His work was refined over decades using historical, archaeological and anthropological insights gained by him and others from artefacts scattered around the world.

The art historian Sweet Ufumwen Ebeigbe, for instance, has used the Benin Bronzes to demonstrate the methods through which west African narrative art, often stylistically quite different from western art traditions, tells the stories of kings. The figures can reveal much about change and continuity in the kingdom, and repeated images in the bronzes show the points of historical reference that Benin’s artists were expecting their audiences to understand. For instance, an image of a leopard on royal stools was a reference to the story of Oba Ewuare’s escape from one while in exile.

The bronzes can also tell historians about Benin’s relationships with European and neighbouring African states.
For example, the depiction of Portuguese traders in bronzes from the 16th century can be dated by their clothes and weapons. This can tell historians about when and how such contact was first made, and how ideas about Europeans and their imports were incorporated into Benin’s view of its place in the world.

The existence of similar examples in other parts of Nigeria, noted by archaeologists in the 1930s, helps to show the political and cultural connections between Benin and the kingdom of Ife to the north-west. Archaeologist Akinwume Ogundiran has worked to understand that shared material culture, when it dates from and how it developed over time. Meanwhile, historian Ebiegberi Alagoa used the presence of Benin Bronzes in the western Delta region, south-east of Benin City, to argue that there was a long-forgotten history of cultural and political connections between those areas and Benin.

The historian Victor Osaro Edo suggests that state power operated in a constantly shifting balance between the oba, the appointed nobles, the craft guilds and the people, who were able to depose the oba – as they did on several occasions. The number of surviving bronze representations of an oba might indicate perceptions of their rule. Thus the existence of only a few bronzes of one oba might signify displeasure with that ruler’s legacy – a form of popular collective condemnation expressed by erasing his memory.


Repatriating the Benin Bronzes: the big questions about the future of the kingdom’s looted treasures

Where are the Bronzes today?

These artefacts are scattered across more than 161 museums and private collections. Two-thirds of these museums are in Europe; artefacts from the 1897 raid are also held in 38 US collections, museums in Australia, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, and nine Nigerian museums.

What are the arguments against their return?

In the years following the looting, many museums argued that they were ideal repositories for these artefacts, which would be looked after more safely in their care than they would in private collections. Some of the Bronzes were purchased by the museums that currently hold them; others were loaned or donated subject to specific conditions which, those museums say, can make repatriation problematic.

For a long time, experts expressed concerns that there was no suitable museum in Nigeria to house the Bronzes, and debated whether they should be returned to Nigeria or to the current royal court of Benin. Such issues will largely be overcome when a new Edo Museum of West African Art, a collaboration between the Nigerian government and the Benin royal court, opens in Benin City, hopefully in 2025.

What are the arguments for their return?

When Eweka II succeeded Oba Ovonramwen in 1914, the British returned the royal coral regalia. But it was Akenzua II (reigned 1933–78) who started the official movement to repatriate the Benin Bronzes, though only four pieces were returned during his reign. His successors have consistently argued for the restoration of these objects as important elements of their cultural and political heritage.

Scholars based in Nigeria object to the fact that, not only are these important historical objects scattered around the world, but many are in private collections or in storage in museums. They are not on display and thus beyond the reach of local scholars keen to research their history. In addition, stories have come to light of museums accidentally selling off or “losing” Bronzes, undermining the argument that non-Nigerian museums are better at managing Nigeria’s cultural heritage.

Those arguing against the Bronzes’ return long claimed that they had been acquired during a legitimate war. Not so, says Professor Dan Hicks, curator of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. In The Brutish Museums (Pluto, 2020), he outlines his research showing that the raid on Benin City was part of a calculated plan to steal the artworks, destroy the kingdom and violently submit Edo to British rule.

Have any Bronzes been returned yet, and will others follow them to Africa?

The first of the Bronzes to return arrived in Nigeria in the 1970s. Nigerian museums have also purchased artefacts from private auctions but, with recent prices exceeding $4m for a single piece, this is not a sustainable strategy for reuniting the whole collection. The University of Aberdeen, Berlin Ethnological Museum and several other collections have committed to returning artefacts to Nigeria. It remains to be seen if more will follow.


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

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This article is curated from content  first published on HistoryExtra and in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine