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145 looted Benin artefacts in Pitt Rivers Museum, says Oxford University

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Deputy Editor (News)
19 November 2021   |   3:30 am
The pressure to return looted Benin bronzes recorded another success on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, when the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, United Kingdom, released an interim report of artefacts taken during the Benin Expedition....

Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers Museum
The pressure to return looted Benin bronzes recorded another success on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, when the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, United Kingdom, released an interim report of artefacts taken during the Benin Expedition of 1897 that are currently held by the school as accessioned objects.

It is the latest museum to begin a process that could lead to possible return of the works to Nigeria. Already, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Arts in Washington has stopped displaying Benin bronzes.

The American facility is one of the most prominent to return items that were stolen from the Benin kingdom more than a century ago. Benin bronzes are among the most controversial artefacts to have on display due to their presence in hundreds of museums and collections in the West, despite the nature of their status as spoils of war.

In the report released on November 17, 2021, and authored by Dan Hicks, there were 145 objects identified. Of the 145 objects, 43 are on loan from the Dumas-Egerton Trust, two are on loan from Mark Walker, and 100 are owned by the University of Oxford: three are in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum, and 97 in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The 145 objects looted in the Benin Expedition of 1897 came to Pitt Rivers from 20 or 21 different sources. According to the report, “The collection of 145 objects currently in the care of the Pitt Rivers Museum identified in this interim report as looted in the 1897 Benin Expedition represents less than 1.5 per cent of the more than 10,000 objects that were taken in the attack.

“Putting this information in the public domain, along with the list of 15 further objects possibly from Benin 1897, and with the discussion of material from other military expeditions and from 20th-century collecting of various kinds, will, it is hoped, contribute to advancing understanding of what was taken, as commitments to make returns from institutions around the world gather pace.”

“To conclude, let me underline that the nature of collections management and provenance research of this kind is such that further objects may be identified in the future. The risk of mistakes and omissions is an inevitable part of this kind of work, where there is always more to learn.

“But while the work of African cultural restitution demands detailed expert provenance work, it also demands that this work happens at pace where claims are put forward, and that there is as much transparency as possible at every stage. By putting the research in this interim report in the public domain, alongside the ongoing integrative work of the Digital Benin project, it is hoped that further details of provenance will be gathered, alongside any additions and corrections to the research that may be possible, in advance of full publication in 2022.”

The report sets out a series of principles for provenance research into Benin 1897 material. Among these is the importance of transparency. “But we are committed to as much transparency as possible about these collections, even though there is always further research to be done. There will always be the curatorial inclination to delay putting our current understanding in the public domain, holding back until a definitive account can be given,” said the report.

“The chaotic theft of royal and sacred artworks and other items by perhaps up to two hundred soldiers, sailors and administrators during the sacking of Benin City in the British naval expedition of 1897, is one of the most well-known examples of the widespread practice of military looting by European troops in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

“It is also one of the most iconic examples of longstanding demands for the restitution of material culture taken under regimes of corporate extractive colonialism, in Edo State, in Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora, across the continent of Africa, and around the world.

“The first restitutions were made in 1938 when coral-work crowns and a coral-bead robe that had been on long-term loan to the British Museum were returned to Akenzua II.

“As the 125th anniversary of the attack approaches in 2022, more and more commitments to returning what was looted are being made by museums around the world. So, little is known about these collections that even a definitive list of which institutions hold material that was looted is not available, although in November 2020, the new paperback edition of The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, colonial violence and cultural restitution included a new provisional list of 165 museums around the world, and the work of the Digital Benin project continues to try to build a global database.

“This document represents a first step to research, define and describe the collections of one of the most significant global collections of Benin 1897 material, that of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and Ashmolean Museum. A number of key principles guide this research, and may guide that of other institutions with 1897 collections.”