New home for Benin Bronzes?

May 4 2018

Video: BBC

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports on new developments in the battle over where to display the Benin bronzes, a series of bronze sculptures looted from Nigeria in the 19th Century. Many have ended up in the British Museum, and in the clip above from Civilisations, David Olusoga tells the story of how they got there.

The British Museum has always resisted attempts to reclaim items like the Bronzes (and most famously the Elgin Marbles). But now, news that a new museum is to be built in Benin has raised the possibility that many of the bronzes might be displayed there on long-term loan. And a new group of European and US museums which own many of the bronzes has been created to discuss a way forward, says Bailey:

The situation could soon change, thanks to an initiative by a group of European museums and Nigerian parties, known as the Benin Dialogue Group. It is now encouraging the return of some Benin objects to Nigeria on long-term loan.

The group comprises nine European museums, based in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Vienna and Stockholm, along with a consortium of four Dutch ethnographic museums. Berlin State Museums holds the most important Benin collection on the Continent, part of which will go on display at the Humboldt Forum when it opens in late 2019. (One of the Forum’s three founding directors is Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum.) The UK institutions include the British Museum, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

A potentially transformative development was announced last month: a royal museum is to be built to modern standards in Benin City (see box). This would provide a building with the appropriate environmental and security standards to house international loans.

More here.

I do hope that the British Museum is soon able to send many, if not all, of the bronzes back to Nigeria. The 'long term loan' solution, recently put forward with vigour by the V&A's new director Tristram Hunt in relation to Ethiopia's Maqdala treasures, is a good way forward. Of course, the danger from an institution like the British Museum's point of view is that it could be a thin end of the wedge moment; if the BM took the same view as the V&A, there are some areas in which it soon wouldn't have much of a collection left.

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