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Why Have African Artifacts still not been Returned?

Aston Davies

While Africa is known to have been the continent of origin for numerous artifacts, the staggering realization that more than ninety percent of cultural artifacts known to have originated in Africa are being held in European countries reveals the injustice many African countries still face today. Stealing these artifacts steals a piece of African culture and such actions bear consequences that are overlooked by other countries in their own pursuit of wealth received from these pieces. One such work that has been at the center of this controversy and ongoing debate are the Benin Bronzes.

The Benin Bronzes at the British Museum

Contrary to the name, the Benin Bronzes were carved out of ivory, brass, ceramic, and wood, and made to adorn the royal palace of the Oba, or the ruler, Ovonramwen Nogbais, of the Kingdom of Benin or present-day Nigeria. In 1897, the British explorer James Phillips visited the Benin Kingdom, despite the kingdom’s chiefs advising Phillip that his presence would disturb a series of rituals taking place at the time. Upon ignoring such statements, Phillips, several others on his mission, along with two-hundred African porters were killed as of consequence. In avenging these deaths, British forces sent troops to steal artifacts from the kingdom, where some were loaned to the British Museum, sold to private dealers, and even kept by the troops for their personal use. In addition to the Benin Bronzes, other royal artifacts were stolen during the attack, and have since been scattered around the world.

British soldiers with objects stolen from the Benin Kingdom

Despite this occurring more than a century ago, only one institution, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, committed to repatriating the bronzes in their holding after stating in March of 2021 that their acquisition of a sculpture of the Oba in 1957 was “extremely immoral”. However, this leadership has not been followed by other European institutions, and as of today, it is approximated that only fifty out of the three thousand Benin Bronzes are held in Nigeria, their country of origin. The British Museum holds nine hundred Benin Bronzes and currently has the largest collection of these artifacts. The lack of leadership by these institutions is in part by the idea that even though these artifacts did not originate in Europe, they have become a part of museums and countries where they are held. This only reveals more of the injustice African countries continue to face today.

The unethical actions committed by European countries demonstrate the way by which Africans were viewed as inferior to other more developed countries. Yet, these similar views still resonate in today's society as many still hold on to the idea that “over time, objects so acquired -- whether by purchase, gift, or partage -- have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations which house them”, as declared by a group of the world’s self-designated universal museums. Despite these artifacts not rightfully being theirs to begin with, countries still attempt to justify their actions and rationalize their reluctance to return not only the Benin Bronzes but all stolen artifacts.

These injustices have led to worldwide debate, advocating for the return of these artifacts. Victor Ehikamenor, a Nigerian and U.S.-based artist, wrote, “generations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent. We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours.” This advocation has been followed by many other Nigerians who work to regain their culture and heritage through the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes along with other stolen artifacts. While some have taken to boycotting museums with pieces of the bronzes on display, as Julie Omergie does after she pledges to never visit the British Museum in protest of such actions, the only method in which justice will be served for the African countries that had a piece of their culture and tradition stolen alongside their artifacts is through a collective initiation on behalf of the public.


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