Nigeria scores another important victory on the cultural front: the country receives 29 looted museum pieces from the United States. The Smithsonian Institution handed over to Nigeria the artefacts that form part of the famous ‘Benin Bronze’ at a ceremony in Washington. The exchange increases pressure on other Western museums to follow the American lead.
British troops plundered them in 1897 when they overthrew the Kingdom of Benin (located in present-day Nigeria). The British set fire to the ruler’s royal palace (Opa) and looted everything they could get their hands on. Today about 2,400 looted cultural objects are in the hands of museums or private art collectors.
A king’s head
There are 29 of these pieces from Tuesday, including a masterpiece A king’s head Or Oops, returned to their country of origin. The Nigerian government has been fighting hard for some time to recover stolen cultural treasures. Benin bronzes are numerous, especially in western countries. Research in March last year showed that at least 114 items in the Dutch collection looted by the British in 1897 were in circulation.
Last year, Germany decided to return a large amount of Benin bronze to Nigeria. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin still holds 512 images, but will gradually return them. A third of the bronzes will remain on loan to Germany for the next ten years.
Nigerian Culture Minister Lai Mohammed has targeted England and the British Museum. The British are perched atop a mountain of art looted from all corners of the world. Muhammad already submitted an official request to the British government last year, but London’s position is that stolen goods can only be returned in the most exceptional cases.
Mohammed is unimpressed: “They use the law as a shield, but it’s not about the law, it’s about ethics.” He said he was confident that all the Benin bronzes would return to Nigeria: “The question is not if, but when.” He pointed to developments in many countries and cultural institutions. British government policy is also under pressure at home. The University of Aberdeen last year decided to return its entire collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology said it would consider returning it if it received a request from the Nigerian government.
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