University of Oxford and and University of Cambridge have agreed to return hundreds of Benin Bronzes, opening the possibility of the largest repatriation of looted artifacts from the United Kingdom to date.
In January, Nigerian officials formally requested that Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums, and Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), send back artifacts that entered their collections after being plundered by British troops in the 19th century from the Kingdom of Benin, the Daily Telegraph reported.
There are 97 objects in the holdings at Oxford and 116 artifacts at Cambridge.
Due to the museums’ charitable status, the UK Charity Commission will ultimately decide whether legal ownership of the sculptures can be transferred to Nigeria. The Council of the University of Oxford announced in June that it had assessed and supported Nigeria’s claim to the artifacts, the university said in a statement, adding that it “is now submitting the case to the Charity Commission, recommending transfer of legal title to the objects to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.”
On July 18, officials from the University of Cambridge released a statement in support of the restitution of the objects, which were “taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897”.
“The University decision is in line with similar commitments recently made by other US and European museums, and reflects a sector-wide move away from keeping together collections irrespective of how those artifacts were collected,” the statement continued.
Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has said it welcomes proposals for loan arrangements that enable the items to remain on display “with appropriate acknowledgement” at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The Benin Bronzes are thousands of objects plundered from Benin — located in modern-day Nigeria — in 1897. While their exact number is unclear, some historians believe there are more than 3,000 stolen objects. The group, which also includes objects made of brass and ivory, as well as wood, were subsequently sold off in London and have since been dispersed around the world, with most now residing in state museums in Europe.
The objects have been at the center of the debate ongoing in the world’s leading museums over rightful ownership of looted art and artifacts. Nigeria has repeatedly called for their repatriation since the 1960s and, in recent years, public opinion has largely turned in favor of the right of return.
In July, the German government signed a historic restitution agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,100 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. At a handover ceremony in Berlin attended by Nigerian representatives, the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said, “The Benin bronzes are returning home … It was wrong to take the bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them for 120 years.”
Germany has also pledged to help with the construction of the forthcoming home for the country’s cultural treasures, the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City. Designed by architect David Adjaye, the planned cultural institution will be built on the site of the pre-colonial royal palace. EMOWAA will “will contain the rich, regal and sacred objects of Benin’s past, in a way that allows visitors not just the possibility of “looking in” but “looking out” into the visual landscape of imagining the once historic borders of a restored ancient kingdom,” according to its website.