The Horniman Museum and Gardens said on Sunday that it would return 72 artefacts, including 12 brass plaques dubbed the “Benin Bronzes” , to the Nigerian government. These items were looted in the brutal British invasion of the Benin Kingdom in 1897 and carted off to England, later ending up in museums across Europe and the USA.
The museum’s statement revealed that the rest of the artefacts included everyday items like fans and baskets, a brass cockerel altarpiece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells and a key to the king’s palace.
The decision to return the artefacts came after Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) made a request for them at the beginning of the year. NCMM is the national agency in charge of preserving the country’s historic and cultural properties.
"The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria," said Eve Salomon, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees.
The museum’s staff reportedly carried out thorough research, consulting with community members, visitors, schoolchildren, academic, heritage professionals and local and Nigerian-based artists before coming to a decision.
"The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step and we look forward to working with the NCMM to secure longer term care for these precious artefacts,” Salomon added.
To this, NCMM Director-General Abba Tijani agreed, expressing his hopes of discussing loan agreements and collaborations with the Horniman.
Now, the Horniman and NCMM will begin the formal transfer of ownership process. The Nigerian government plans to have these artefacts displayed at the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is slated to open in 2025.
According to the Guardian, this is the first time a government-funded institution in England has agreed to return stolen artefacts from the 1897 invasion, despite decades-long calls from Nigeria to return them, and public debate in the UK.
The 72 artefacts are only a small fraction of the thousands of artefacts that are being held in 165 museums and private collections around the world. The British Museum in London holds an astounding 900 Benin artefacts, the largest collection in the world.
The Ethnological Museum in Berlin formerly held the position, but just last month, Germany transferred ownership of its 1,130 stolen artefacts to Nigeria.
Preceding this was the return of a statue of a cockerel, a Benin Bronze, by Jesus College of Cambridge University in October last year.
The hope is that more museums around the world will bow to external pressure and return the numerous artefacts collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the rightful owners.