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Major European Institutions Will Loan Looted Artifacts to New Nigerian Museum

This article first appeared in the online

Brass plaques from Benin City, on display at the British Museum. (Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1897, a British diplomatic mission was sent to Benin City, once the seat of a great kingdom in modern-day southern Nigeria, to demand that its ruler stop imposing customs on colonial traders. The mission was ambushed, and in response, 1,200 British troops were dispatched on a “retaliatory expedition.” They razed large portions of Benin City and, before reducing its royal palace to smouldering ruins, made off with some 4,000 artworks, many of which ultimately ended up in some of the world’s most important museums.

More than a century after the destruction, the Benin Dialogue Group, which comprises museum representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, along with Nigerian officials, have spearheaded an agreement to establish “a new museum in Benin City…where a permanent display of Benin art works from European and Nigerian museums will be shown.” While the display is permanent, the objects from European museums, will rotate periodically. They are, in other words, loans.

As Kate Brown reports for artnet News, precisely what items will be sent to the Benin Royal Museum, set to open in Nigeria in 2021, has not been confirmed, but the loans will include a number of “Benin bronzes,” intricate sculptures (which are actually made from brass, according to Encyclopedia Britannica) that were a coveted hallmark of the Benin Kingdom’s artistic output. Some 2,500 bronzes were looted during the 1897 expedition.

Among the institutions participating in the Benin Dialogue group are the British Museum, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, according to Catherine Hickley of the Art NewspaperThe group, which met in Leiden on October 19, has agreed upon a three-year time frame for the new display, and the participating museums have promised to provide advice and assistance to the Royal Museum on matters such as exhibition design and training, funding and legal frameworks.