In Britain, the issue of restoring the African heritage is regularly in the news. The country is full of museums where visitors can discover paintings and sculptures from around the world, but also works acquired during the time of the British colonial empire and which have now become embarrassing.
as reported from London,
When we have had the chance to visit the museums in London, we may first think of Rosetta Stone, one of the flagship objects at the very famous British Museum. It is the stele that made it possible to decipher the hieroglyphs, which were discovered in 1799 during Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt and then recovered by the British. Egypt has previously stated that it would like to return the stone, but discussions have so far yielded no results.
The current debate is more about what is called Benin’s bronzes. It is a set of hundreds of plaques and sculptures that once decorated Benin’s royal palace, an area now located in the south. Nigeria.
These works was looted by British troops in 1897 and they are now distributed in museums around the world and in private collections. They are found all over the UK.
Strictly monitored returns
But all eyes are on the British Museum, which has the largest collection in the world of these Benin bronzes with more than 900 pieces. Nigeria wants to restore them and the British Museum is open for discussion but currently has no plans to return them.
Especially due to British law and more specifically the British Museum Act of 1963. According to this text, British Museums’ permanent refunds can only be made in very rare cases. A process in place to protect the works.
According to Barnaby Phillips, a former journalist and author of a book on Benin bronzes, the museum has its hands tied by this law: as an excuse for not doing something about these issues. But it is also true that the law must be changed so that the Benin bronzes displayed in this museum are returned. And it must go through a majority of the votes in Parliament. “
And it is difficult to imagine a favorable vote with the current Parliament, which is predominantly conservative. The government itself takes a weak view of the recovery debate. Instead, the Minister of Culture refuses to “explain and retain”. It is clear to state works and the origin of works rather than to make them.
The effect of the Black Lives Matter movement
But the positions are changing, and this is even already the case with smaller museums, which are not national museums and are therefore more free. Several have promised to return bronzes to Nigeria such as the University Museum in Aberdeen, Scotland.
And then, according to journalist Barnaby Phillips, the anti-racism movements contributed in the summer of 2020 and the issues that followed about the colonial legacy going forward. So much so that, according to him, Nigeria seems better placed now than Greece, to restore its works.
Athens has for several years demanded the return of the Parthenon bullets, exhibited in the British Museum. A museum has even been built to accommodate them, but the British government has always opposed it.
“If I had been told ten years ago that there would be a greater chance that the bronze from Benin would return to Nigeria than the Parthenon bullets in Greece, it would not have seemed possible to me. I think part of that has to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and the so sensitive issue of racism. All this puts the British museums on the defensive about Benin’s bronzes, to a point that would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago, the journalist explains.
Further evidence that this issue has become increasingly important in Britain: two objects looted by the British in Ethiopia in 1868 has been removed from an auction in June, in Dorset County, England. It was the Ethiopian embassy in London that had asked it to “put an end to the delay cycle”.
► Also to listen: Germany, the first country to return bronze from Benin to Nigeria?