Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

August 8 2022

Image of Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

Picture: The Sunday Times

The Horniman Museum in London has decided to formally transfer ownership of a collection of 72 items looted from Benin in 1897 to the Nigerian government. Here's the Horniman's statement. In The Sunday Times, Liam Kelly calls this a 'watershed moment', and I think that's right. This is a really significant decision, and the processes which have led to it must mean this is the first of many.

A few thoughts on why. First, the decision to transfer has been made following a request from Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). In days past, one of the hand-wringing responses from UK museums was, 'well we'd love to give them back, but we've had no formal request'. That's now changed.

Second, the Horniman is a central government funded museum. So this decision has been - or will be - signed off by the Department for Culture, DCMS. There have been some instances of UK museums returning (or pledging to return, since only two items have actually gone back so far) some of their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, but these have been regional museums, not sponsored directly by DCMS. In The Sunday Times, the arts minister, Lord Parkinson, is quoted as not necessarily approving the Horniman decision, but making it clear decisions like this are up to museums:

Lord Parkinson, the arts minister, said that it was not for government to “tell the museums what the right or wrong decision is” and that any restitution claims should be made “case by case, item by item

Parkinson added: “There are at least two sides to every argument. The job of historians and museums is to faithfully represent all of those sides and let people make their decisions. A lot of people are concerned that we rush to moral judgment about the past.

It's bad history if a nation sweeps things under the carpet and forgets them. It’s also bad history if you create new myths of wickedness and sins of the past. We have to confront the facts and learn lessons from them.

Third, this all builds pressure on the British Museum, which not only has the UK's largest collection of Benin Bronzes, but also of course many other high profile restitutable items, such as the Parthenon Marbles. For the British Museum, however (and some other major institutions such as the V&A) there are separate bars of statute preventing restitution. Recently, as mentioned on AHN, senior museum leaders like the V&A's Tristram Hunt have not only called for these laws to be reviewed, but have effectively taken the decision into their own hands with cleverly crafted 'long term loans'. While Lord Parkinson says 'the case has not yet been made' to change the law, it is hard to see how the now government-endorsed policy of 'this is up to individual museums' can be countered by 'well not that museum'.

In other words, it seems to me that the Horniman Museum and Lord Parkinson have made, or are about to make, a significant contribution to a change in UK government policy. Remember, this is a government which usually loses no time to strike a position of 'Britain first' in any culture war. So the fact that we are seeing these developments now probably does, however obliquely, herald a turning point.

One final technical point, I suspect the export licensing system, including the Waverley Criteria (by which the government judges whether cultural items can be permanently exported from the UK) will have to be amended in light of this new policy. Because all of these items will require export licences, and at the moment it's hard to see how items like the Benin Bronzes can be said not to satisfy the Waverley Criteria for blocking export. They are:

Is the item closely connected with our history and national life?

Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If there is a change in the export licence system, we really will know that a nationwide restitution of these objects is finally going to happen.

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