A group of European museums have agreed an action plan with the Nigerian authorities that could eventually lead to Benin bronzes returning to the African nation on loan, as well as international touring exhibitions of the contentious artefacts. However, there were notable absentees among the institutions represented at an international meeting of curators held in Benin City at the end of February, including anyone from a UK or US museum.
Around 4,000 bronze and ivory royal treasures were seized by British forces during a punitive expedition against Benin in 1897. The booty was taken back to London and dispersed, going to collectors and museums in Europe and North America. The largest collection is in the British Museum.
The British Museum had been invited to the meeting, and Lissant Bolton, the keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, accepted. But she was unable to travel because of difficulties in getting a Nigerian visa. A museum spokeswoman says: “We are very much part of this dialogue,” adding that the institution is assisting in training Nigerians in curatorial and conservation skills. The British Museum also helped facilitate loans for Nigeria to the “Bronze” exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts last autumn.
There were no US museums represented at the Benin meeting. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chicago’s Field Museum, both of which have important Benin collections, were not invited, say their spokeswomen. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, did receive an invitation, but its curator had “a prior commitment”. The museum has just received a major donation of 30 Benin antiquities from the New York banker Robert Owen Lehman. These are due to go on display in a new gallery in September. “We are in touch with Nigerian officials and we hope to be involved in future discussions,” a museum spokeswoman says.
The plan was agreed after three days of discussions between Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and representatives from five European museums. Senior curators from the ethnography museums of Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Stockholm and Leiden, all of which have important Benin collections, attended.
They agreed three key points. First, a comprehensive database of Benin art will be compiled. Although reassembling the treasures in a digital and print catalogue may seem an obvious idea, this is the first time it has been agreed internationally (the only existing compilation is a basic listing published by Philip Dark in 1982).
The museums will help train Nigerian museum staff and support the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the signatory museums also agreed to proceed with travelling shows of Benin art. Nigerian and international museum experts will work together to organise them. Most significantly, the action plan concludes that the agreed steps represent “part of the dialogue [of which the] goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria”—presumably referring to loans.
International loans to Nigeria will require improvements to its museums, in terms of environmental conditions and security. Air conditioning is unreliable because of power cuts and security has been poor in the past. International museums would be unlikely to lend major pieces of Benin art at present. There is also the issue of restitution claims. Borrowing would require Nigerian museums to accept that the lending institutions are the legal owners.
The Benin meeting was opened by the minister for culture, Edem Duke, who called for “voluntary repatriation”, implying that there would be no legal claims. “Dialogue is more productive than confrontation”, said Yusuf Abdallah Usman, the head of Nigeria’s museums. But Prince Edun Akenzua, representing the Oba (traditional ruler) of Benin, was more strident, saying: “Benin is the true owner [of the objects], despite the semantics and legalese of the international community.”
A follow-up meeting is being planned to discuss the problem of fake Benin bronzes that are appearing on the market.