The Kingdom of Benin was established in the 13th century in West Africa. From medieval beginnings emerged a powerful kingdom with extensive trade networks, glorious art in bronze and wood, and powerful rulers known as obas. Its capital was Benin City, or Edo, and is still an urban center of present-day Nigeria. In 1897, British troops razed the city—pillaging treasures and burning buildings. Many of these looted works ended up in European museums. In a small yet crucial step towards righting past wrongs, over 70 items will be returned to Nigeria by London's Horniman Museum and Gardens.
The artifacts to be returned include everyday objects such as fans, brass bells used in ceremonies, and baskets. Several bronze plaques, shaped with prominent figures representing rulers, will also be returned. These are some of the famous Benin Bronzes, sculptural plaques which once adorned the king's palace in the ancient Kingdom of Benin. The bronze artwork is legendary, a treasure of African heritage and Nigerian history. Many languish in museum collections such as the British Museum, where advocates hope to address this problematic ownership.
Returning looted art and artifacts to the descendants of their creators is a large project as well as a source of conflict in the museum world. Repatriation by European and American museums can help restore the cultures targeted for erasure by colonial powers. Africa, in particular, has suffered this cultural theft, as well as brutal violence. It is estimated that 90% of African art is still held outside the continent in private hands and in museums.
In January, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), a Nigerian body that oversees the preservation of the country's cultural properties, requested the Horniman Museum and Gardens return artifacts stolen in the pillaging of Benin City at the end of the 19th century. After careful research, the museum determined the objects looted in the siege and earmarked them for return. “We very much welcome this decision by the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens,” Abba Tijani, NCMM's director-general. In the future, the objects may be loaned to British museums, but at last, they will be in Nigerian hands and shared with viewers on Nigerian terms.