Nigerian leaders will mold the future of the iconic Benin Bronzes with European museums on their rear legs after Black Lives Matter protests. For several years, a controversy has hit a tipping point. Many claim it’s time to restore cultural artifacts pillaged under colonization in Africa, and elsewhere. The Bronze of Benin-tens of thousands of statues and carvings in copper, bronze, and ivory-are among the most charged representations of inequality. They are previously from southern Nigeria, from what is currently Edo State. The vast majority are in western museums and private collections, stolen by British soldiers and sailors in 1897.
The British Museum has some 950 Bronzes from Benin but is one of the museums which is battling to legitimize its collection. It is especially critical of its reluctance to give them up. For decades, the rulers of Edo, the Obas (kings), have been calling for a restoration of the Benin Bronzes. Although few in the West have taken African compensation demands seriously. Western curators argued that the means for Africa to look after its treasures were not adequate. Yet, it is not an obligation for western museums to right the wrong colonization spread across centuries. This shifted now, and the artifacts were moving behind the scenes.
Will the Benin Bronzes Come Home?
In 2017 the Benin Dialogue Community has been creating a consensus proposal for some Benin Bronzes to transfer to Nigeria, putting together the new oba, the governor for Edo, the government of Nigeria, and museums in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK (the British Museum inclusive). They also decided to create a new Benin Royal Museum in Benin City, the capital of Edo State.
European museums will immediately start lending a few hundred Benin Bronze (although others may donate), which is awkward. The result is to be “a permanent collection in rotation”. Edo people would finally be taken along for a substantial portion of their ethnic history. In the agreement, Governor Godwin Obaseki played a part. He hired the Anglo-Ghanian architect, Sir David Adjaye, the designer behind the renowned National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
European curators have delighted in Sir David’s personality and ambition — he wants the new museum to become “the jewel in the ring” of Benin City’s broader cultural renaissance. The old associate of Mr. Obaseki and Sir David, Phillip Iheanacho, will fundraise the money. He, too, enticed the Europeans. The stars appear to coincide. A renowned architect and trustworthy fundraiser have drawn the dedicated Nigerian governor and The Royal Museum project probably lagged European people together for a similar cause. The museum construction is funded by both parties.
The Politics Involved
What will occur if Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu defeats his primary opponent, Mr. Obaseki, who is aiming for an additional four-year term at the state election on 19 September?
“If Godwin is not re-elected, it would be very difficult to continue with a project like this,” Phillip Iheanacho said. If Mr. Obaseki and Mr. Iheanacho go, it will be hard to imagine Sir David hanging around.”
Hardly any of the European museums will suggest who makes Edo State’s best leader, let alone asking people about whom they should vote. However, they are anxious internally about the possibility of resuming talks with another governor.
The director of one museum in the Benin Dialogue Group said: “It’s been an Obaseki project – he’s been a great partner. If it’s somebody else, it’s concerning. We would lose momentum.”
Another key curator said: “This project requires money, capacity, and bringing it together is complex. If the governor changes, it will slow everything down enormously.”
When Mr. Obaseki’s rival, Pastor Izé-Iyamu, was asked what would happen to the Royal Museum if he were governor, he said that the museum was a “welcome creation.”
Pastor Izé -lyamu said: “We intend to partner with the oba to establish a befitting museum that will showcase the rich cultural heritage of our people.”
The Oba of Benin in Edo State
No matter who serves as governor, Oba Ewuare II is dedicated to a museum. The Royal Museum project probably lagged well before the Covid-19 pandemic. Whoever is governor, Oba Ewuare II, the great-great-grandson of the ruling dynasty, will stay committed to the ideals of the restoration of the Benin Bronzes.
But Nigeria’s cities are riddled with white elephants — prestigious projects undertaken by previous leaders that have gained little attention from their successors. In Lagos, for example, JK Randle is an immense, pending cultural project, which was the passion of a former governor, and till today nothing is being done. Thus, if the Governor changes, the Benin Bronze Museum project may face the same fate.
Anger Sheathing in Nigeria: Benin Bronzes “an Embarrassment”
The British Museum has offered to lend the Benin Bronzes several times to the true owners. The project’s future lies in balance; it will start formally in the middle of 2021. This is a risky endeavor. The Europeans looted the Benin Bronzes. The Nigerians say that it would be insulting to condition the return of the items on the building of a museum or Nigerian politics, just as it would be disrespectful to speak of giving the Benin Bronze owners loans of what is already theirs and not permanent returns. What would be the purpose of restitution? Some see it as a matter of principle in Nigeria and beyond.
Barnaby Phillips: “A museum in Benin City, full of magnificent Benin Bronzes returned from Europe, would be one of the most significant moments in African cultural history since independence.”
However, there is a certain way to see this. In European Museums, the fading skepticism of the last few years is urgent. You ought to excel in the Royal Museum. In the Benin Dialogue Group, some Europeans believe that the Benin Bronzes have “become an embarrassment.” They would immediately give Obaseki the Benin Bronzes if he were to set up a shed in his backyard just to get rid of them. Surprisingly, these items are in contact range. But what will decide is whether the decisions of Nigerian leaders are in favor of this project. This only represents the way the world has evolved.