During colonial control across Africa in the 19th century, many cultural treasures, artifacts, and objects were stolen and auctioned. Now, they remain scattered across the world, in museums located thousands of miles away from their descendants. It is estimated that 90-95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held by major museums, all outside of Africa. Museums across Europe and America are facing a growing pressure to return these artifacts.
THE BENIN BRONZES OF NIGERIA
The Benin bronzes are sculptures and carvings made of brass, bronze, or ivory, originating from what is now Edo State, in southern Nigeria. They form part of a cultural heritage of Benin art dating back to the 13th century. The bronzes once decorated the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin but were stolen by British troops during the Benin Expedition of 1897. In total, over 2,500 artifacts were stolen and auctioned off in order to settle the costs of the expedition. The two largest collections now lie in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, which has over 500 artifacts in its possession, and the British Museum which has over 900. These rich, cultural treasures are inaccessible to the people of Nigeria. Unreturned and continents away, they now represent a stolen heritage and colonial legacy.
PRESSURE TO RETURN THE BENIN BRONZES
There has been a growing international pressure to return these items, which have become symbols of colonial oppression. Germany has agreed to return the bronzes and will be the first country to do so. In 1957, a Benin bronze was bought at auction by the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. The purchase was deemed to be extremely immoral and steps were taken to reach out to the relevant Nigerian authorities to return the bronze with no conditions. This has put pressure on the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum to return stolen artifacts. However, the British Museum has historically refused to do so.
THE QUAI BRANLY MUSEUM
The Quai Branly Museum located in Paris holds collections of works from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. France holds at least 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its national collections. 70,000 of these are inside the Quai Branly Museum. France has agreed to return 26 stolen objects from Benin by French troops and a sword belonging to a West African military commander.
19th-century European colonial invasion in Africa led to the looting of significant cultural artifacts. The Benin bronzes in particular were stolen and auctioned to museums and collections across Europe. There is now rising pressure to return these artifacts to Africa, and both France and Germany have agreed to this.