Looted sculptures may be returned to native Nigeria

BY TOBY PORTER
toby@slpmedia.co.uk

Sculptures which transformed Western understanding of African culture after they were looted by the British could be returned to their country of origin.

The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill has consulted with Nigerian Londoners about the future of its Benin bronzes, snatched from their defeated owners in 1897.

The 50 works were taken during an invasion of the kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria, 15 of them brass plaques referred to as Benin Bronzes.

The sculptures, generally thought to date from hundreds of years before the time of Columbus, sparked a seismic change in European understanding of pre-colonial art when they went on show in Western museums.

Pablo Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907 – which shocked the art world at the time – was inspired by seeing an exhibition of African art in Paris.

The Horniman held a consultation last autumn with members of the UK’s Nigerian diaspora community on the museum’s collection of objects from Benin City, as part of its project Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African collections.

Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, said: “The Horniman’s position on any returns, including the future of its collection of objects from Benin City, is laid out in our Restitution and Repatriation Policy, published on our website.

The policy sets out a clear procedure for repatriation claims and includes a commitment to sharing information and transparency of process.

“The Horniman has, at the time of writing (April 7), received no repatriation requests which means that no definitive decision has been reached, nor even yet considered, about repatriation of any object.”

The museum’s collection includes plaques torn from the walls of the royal palace of Benin.

The museum said in January: “Our primary focus will be holding equitable conversations about the future of our collections.

“This includes being open and transparent about what we have and what we know about it, as well as how these collections are currently used and stored, and what opportunities for access are currently available.”

The museum’s Restitution and Repatriation Policy says: “We recognise that the collections in the Horniman have been acquired at different times and under a range of circumstances, some of which would not be appropriate today, such as through force or other forms of duress.

“We understand that for some communities – whether in countries of origin or in the diaspora – the retention of some specific objects, natural specimens or human remains is experienced as an ongoing hurt or injustice.

“In recognition of this, the Horniman trustees wish to set out transparent policies and procedures by which communities can enter into discussion with them about the future of this material, including its possible return.”

The Horniman’s collection was amassed by Frederick Horniman between c1850 and his death in 1906. It was given ‘for the people of London,’ along with purpose-built buildings and gardens, in 1901.

The British Museum also holds a collection of bronzes and is working with the Benin Dialogue Group to establish a new museum in Benin City focusing on the historic arts an

 


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