LOOTED NIGERIAN BENIN BRONZES IN HORNIMAN MUSEUM, LONDON
“The exhibition is showcasing some of the works that made Benin (Nigeria) famous. It once again, reminds the world of a civilization truncated by the imperial forces of the colonialist. The works on show at this exhibition are some of the 3000 odd pieces of bronze and ivory works forcibly removed from my great grandfather's palace by some Britons who invaded Benin in 1897. The British kept some of the loot for themselves and sold the rest to European and American buyers. These works now adorn public museums and private collector's galleries, all over the world.”
The name of the Horniman Museum does not figure prominently in the discussions relating to the ongoing restitution attempts by the people of Benin to recover their artefacts that were brutally looted by the British in their notorious invasion of the African kingdom in 1897.
An English friend of mine, a well-known art historian, had drawn my attention to the existence of the Benin collection in this museum, adding that although the collection was small, the quality of the objects was high and suggested that I add the Horniman Museum to my list of holders of Benin Bronzes. (2) I had forgotten about the suggestion to look at the Horniman Benin collection until my recent visit to London.
Perhaps this museum may have escaped the attention of many because it is not located in central London like the British Museum and also because its Benin and African collections are not as large as those of the museum in Bloomsbury. Of course, we never know what number of artefacts the museums have since they refuse to tell us. We do not know if the Horniman has other Benin artefacts in its depositary. In any case the Benin collection of the museum does not appear to be very large. However, Annie E. Coombes states in her excellent book, Reinventing Africa, with reference to the founder of the museum, Frederick Horniman, that “In 1897, he was quick to buy up a considerable amount of Benin material from established commercial sources and private collections.”(3) We did not get the impression that there were lots of Benin materials. It would be interesting to know where most of the original material has gone. Incidentally, the museum does not provide any guide to its collections for visitors. My questions in this regard seemed to have embarrassed the museum employees.
The Horniman Museum is located in very beautiful gardens that are in themselves worth visiting. The museum seems to be a perfect place for a day out for mothers with children. Its aquarium attracts a lot of attention. After a short walk through the gardens, we entered the museum itself and headed for the African Worlds of which the Benin bronzes form part.
The displayed magnificent Benin bronzes undoubtedly come from the nefarious British invasion of 1897 as stated in publications of the museum. Indeed, it is stated that they were purchased in 1897 from W. J. Wider of the Punitive Expedition. The founder of the Horniman Museum, Frederick
Horniman, did not seem to have had any compunction about purchasing these blood artefacts that came directly from a member of the British invasion force that with fire and gun laid waste to Benin City and massacred its inhabitants:
“The African collections contain important historical and archaeological collections, including extensive Egyptian burial material, some superb examples of 19th century high status Aymara metalwork and primitivist paintings from Ethiopia, and Benin brasses and ivories, purchased from W.J. Wider of the British Punitive Expedition of 1897.” (4)
We do not know how many requests for restitution of the Benin bronzes have been made to the Horniman museum and by whom. The legendary Bernie Grant must have corresponded with the Horniman Museum as he contacted many museums on this issue. (5) The Benin Memorandum submitted to the British House of Commons by the Benin Royal Family applied to museums in Britain, including the Horniman Museum.(6) The museum officials however seem to believe they have developed a solution or partial solution to the issue of restitution. Anthony Alan Shelton, then Director, Horniman Museum, declared:
“ If the original acquisition was not contentious at the time, the ensuing history of European and American rights over the legal ownership of Benin artefacts has been a continuous source of friction with Nigeria, which we felt an ethical incumbency to confront. The partial and more equitable resolution we devised involved returning the voice of interpretation, if not the disputed objects, to the Bini people themselves. The response of Joseph [Eboreime] and the team he put together with the co-operation of the National Commission on Museums and Monuments was, to say the least, gracious and immensely rewarding. For over two years Joseph tirelessly directed research on the iconography and history of the bronzes in our collection, using written, archival, and most important, oral sources from within the Royal Palace itself. Furthermore, by recording royal ceremonies he was able to relate historically situated events to their contemporary ritual re-enactments.” (7)
This is a very remarkable statement. Until reading this declaration, I had assumed that each people had the right to interpret their own culture the way they saw fit. But Anthony Alan Shelton states that the Horniman Museum gave to Nigerians the right to interpret their own culture. Could he have been joking? The context of his statement in the Preface of a book published by the museum does not seem to indicate joke or irony. But can one give what one does not possess? Where does the Horniman Museumderive the right or duty to determine who can interpret Nigerian artefacts? Did the Nigerians not have this right before the museum generously granted them such a right? So what have the Nigerians obtained in this “solution” or “partial solution” which means in effect that the museum keeps the Benin artefacts but the Nigerians can provide the explanation of functions of the objects and their significance? Nothing. In any case, any solution that ends with the present holders of the looted artefacts keeping them, without even envisaging the eventual possibility that some of the artefacts may be returned, is surely invalid ab initio.
How can one say “If the original acquisition was not contentious at the time” with regard to objects which were acquired through a bloody invasion? What form of action indicates contention more dramatically and forcefully than the very act of actively resisting foreign aggression? Or is the phrase “not contentious” confined to the circle of Western dealers who generally do not care about the means used in obtaining artefacts and are not worried that these are blood artefacts for which many Benin people have paid with their lives? Certainly, the people of Benin and Africans generally did not accept brutal invasions and the accompanying looting of their precious artefacts. Even in rapacious Europe, there were some voices that objected to such imperialist acts as the aggressive action of the British invasion. Victor Hugo had already condemned the Anglo-French attack on the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. (8) The seizure of the Benin artefacts in 1897 was contrary to the general legal opinion in Europe at that time that works of science and art should be protected from plunder in wartime. Some Western scholars are unwilling to recognize that after the Napoleonic spoliations and the restitutions that followed, it was no longer acceptable to deprive defeated States and their people of their artworks. Prof. Neil Brodie has recently stated, “It should be recognised internationally that the Benin artworks were taken forcibly by an imperial power and, following the precedents of 1815 and 1945, that they should be returned.”(9)
We learn from Anthony Alan Shelton that: “ The Horniman Museum is committed to working towards developing new, equitable and respectful relationships not only with the peoples of Africa, but with the rest of the world. In attempting to contribute to balancing the one way flow of information from the southern to the northern hemisphere, we put exhibitions and collections on the world wide web, and, in the case of Benin, have supplied the National Museum with computer facilities to enable school children and researchers to access the exhibition to which the Benin people have themselves contributed so much.” (10)
If the Horniman Museum intended to develop “new, equitable and respectful relationships not only with the peoples of Africa”, they could have started by a clear apology for the 1897 brutal invasion of Benin that made it possible to loot the artefacts they are now holding and as a mark of their sincerity, they could have offered to return some of the artefacts. No matter how many computers they offer, keeping looted objects leaves intact, as it were, the original offence and liability. Have they ever considered the alternative of returning the originals to the owners and viewing them from their computers in London? The museum officials also know that Benin children and, I may add artists and others seeing Benin artefacts via internet is in no way comparable to seeing the original objects directly. What is easily available to children and adults in London is denied to children and adults in Benin.
Many Western museums do not seem to appreciate the need to make concrete reconciliatory gestures by returning some of the artefacts looted or stolen in the colonial era. They seem to have become so accustomed to these artefacts in their museums that the very idea of parting with some of them appears unthinkable. Could this be due to residual colonialism and persistent racists attitudes? Fortunately, some Westerners, such as the former French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, are beginning to understand the absolute need to return some of the looted artefacts. Speaking to Le Monde about the return of looted Korean manuscripts by France to Korea, Lang expressed the view that those manuscripts have their place more in Korea than in France; they belonged to the memory, history and the soul of Korea. He suggested that the question of restitution could not be postponed forever and that an international conference should be called to settle the issue. (11)
The Horniman Museum seems convinced that it has no restitution problem as far as the Benin bronzes are concerned. The statement that the Nigerian scholar who helped the museum with the interpretation of the Benin bronzes even obtained the help of the Benin Royal Family, is intended to convey, without expressly saying so, that the Royal Family and the people of Benin have approved the possession of the Bronzes by the museum. This has led Maev Kennedy in a British newspaper, The Guardian, to state that:
“While the African Restitution Movement website labels the British Museum's bronzes as "stolen", the Horniman museum in South London's new African gallery, the first in a national museum in Britain, displays them with the full agreement of the Benin people.” (12)
Without further concrete documentary evidence, we cannot accept, merely on the basis of misleading declarations that the people of Benin approve of the Horniman's display of the looted Bronzes. It is to be noted, that the statement refers to “displaying” objects when in fact the main dispute is about possession and ownership. To be sure, how museums display the Benin bronzes must interest the Benin people and others but the main question relates to possession, control and ownership of the looted objects. Misleading statements on display of objects should not deflect from the main substantive question of ownership.
The Royal Family of Benin has always insisted on the return of the looted Benin artefacts and when they participate in exhibitions, they always make it very clear that their participation is in no way to be construed as approval of the notorious 1897 invasion. The Royal delegation to the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria, September 2007 in Vienna made it absolutely clear in their statement that they wanted their art objects back in Benin. Prince G.I. Akenzua, Enogie of Evbuobanosa, brother of the Oba cautioned that the participation of the Royals in the exhibition should not be construed as condoning in any way the British aggression against Benin in 1897. Indeed, the brutal methods of the British in the invasion as well as their subsequent refusals to return at least some of the looted artefacts make it extremely difficult for any Benin person or African to forgive or forget this notorious aggression which is still being supported, directly or indirectly, by some contemporary Westerners in their refusal even to envisage the return of some of the looted objects and by presenting baseless arguments to justify their retention in the Western world where they do not belong.
The people of Benin as well as other African peoples whose cultural artefacts have been looted by Western States are often faced with the question of assisting the museums of those very rapacious States in the interpretation of the looted artefacts. Many feel that, despite the contradictory situation, they must, in the interest of scholarship, assist in giving true and correct interpretation of the nature and functions of the artefacts. Does this assistance and cooperation imply approval of previous colonial aggressions? A distinction must be made between such assistance in the interest of knowledge and enlightenment and the basic questions relating to the original aggression and loot under the colonial regime. We are no where near to finding solutions to the fundamental question because of Western refusal to acknowledge the wrongful and evil nature of colonial aggression and despoliation, and the necessity of returning some of the looted artefacts. There comes a point in time when one may question the legitimacy of such co-operation when Western States and museums seem to adopt a cooperative stance only when this serves their interests.
If the Horniman Museum is really interested in “equitable and respectful relationships not only with the peoples of Africa, but with the rest of the world,” the museum must take concrete steps such as returning a few of the Benin bronzes, in response to the long-standing request from the Benin Royal Family and in fulfilment of several UNESCO and United Nations resolutions.
We left the Horniman Museum and Gardens with the firm impression that the museum no longer aspires to be a place where people can learn about various cultures, including African and Benin cultures. The museum in Forest Hill appeared more to be an amusement and educative place for families with children. The gardens, the aquarium and the cafeteria all seem to have been made with families and children in mind.
Despite kids running around, we were able to concentrate our attention on the “African Worlds” and the Benin Bronzes. We concluded that we had seen better expositions of the African and Benin artefacts elsewhere. Our shock was all the greater as, in preparing this article, we read the opinion of others on the Horniman display of African artefacts. Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian states:
“However, the Horniman's real triumph is its African Worlds gallery. Here, an outstanding collection of African art, from Benin bronzes to Egyptian mummy cases, is displayed in a way that I'm afraid to say puts the British Museum's Africa gallery to shame. It's more visual, more aesthetically responsive to continent and diaspora, art and social life, past and present. It's less preachy, while at the same time being more Afro-centric. It's brilliant and others should emulate it.” (13)
Did The Guardian writer visit the same museum in Forest Hill as we did recently? It is not my brief to defend the British Museum but anyone who has visited the imperial and imperialist museum would agree that, despite its deficiencies and wrongful policy as regards restitution of looted artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, it clearly does not have much to learn from the Horniman Museum both as regards content and exposition.(14) To be sure, the African Gallery of the British Museum would be better placed in a larger hall, outside the subterranean cellar where it has been condemned. Moreover, space could be gained by returning some of the African artefacts to their country of origin as has been claimed by many Africans and recommended by the UNESCO and the United Nations. But this is different from recommending learning from the Horniman Museum where the African and Benin artefacts are not better displayed.
Our concern is with the continued detention of Benin bronzes by Western museums and institutions such as the Horniman Museum despite the illegal and illegitimate mode of acquisition, involving the massacre of Benin people and the violent destruction of Benin City by burning. Under these circumstances, a refusal to return, even symbolically, a few of the looted objects could be seen as almost condoning the original act of looting and destruction, despite all protestations to the contrary.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the British museum has been a party to any illegality.
Far be it from me to suggest such an appalling thing, but there are those who will say that the ways in which certain articles have been acquired leave a lot to be desired. The House would do a great service to people around the world if it were to investigate the ways in which some artefacts were gathered and came to be displayed in the British museum.”(15)
Kwame Opoku, 26 August, 2011.
1. Introductory Note to the catalogue of the exhibition Benin Kings
And Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, 2007, p.13.
2, Kwame Opoku, “Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Mother Idia Mask Auction: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?” http://www.modernghana.com
Phillip J.C. Dark mentions in An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1973, p, 80) Horniman Museum as having a collection of Benin Art but in his contribution to a later book in 1975, African Images-Essays in African Iconology,( Eds. Daniel E. McCall and Edna G. Bay, Africana Publishing Co. New York, London. p. 90) he does not include Horniman Museum among the list of Museums and Collections of Benin Art.
In her interesting Masters dissertation, Museums and their Voices: A Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes presented in May 2006 at Göteborg University, Charlotte Dohlvik did not include the Horniman Museum in her list of museums that hold Benin Bronze heads since she was dealing only with the commemorative heads but her general comments on the Benin bronzes may be of interest to readers.
3. Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994, p.150. After our visit to the museum, we obtained an old catalogue of the museum, Guide to the Collections in the Horniman Museum and Library, 1921. This catalogue describes the Benin collection as follows
“The Benin collection, obtained shortly after the town was destroyed by a British force in 1897, contains the following specimens:-a number of bronze panels with figures in high relief; small bronze pendants with animal figures;
small pendants with human figures ;brass mask with face showing tribal marks; brass fowl, bell, armlet, dancing wands; ivory armlets ;ivory handles with human figure at end (?handles of fly-whisks) ;wooden comb; carved wooden frame: and other objects.” p.43.
The catalogue also contains some remarkable statements such as:
“Since the backward races of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and America- in so far as they have not become semi-civilised or extinct- still make use of simple primitive contrivances analogous to those discarded by our remote ancestors, a large part of the collection consists of specimens from such peoples.” p.13.
4. Acquisition and Disposal Policy January 2010, p16
Horniman Museum and Gardens, May 2011 http://wzeu.ask.com/
It should be noted that the British Museum, displaying the same lack of sensitivity and respect, held an exhibition in September 1897 with some 300 Benin objects. The catalogue of the exhibition, Antiquities from the City of Benin and from other parts of West Africa in the British Museum, (1899, reprinted in 2007 by Martino Publishing) by Charles Hercules Read and Ormonde Maddock Dalton, opened with the sentence, “The present publication contains a selection of the principal objects obtained by the recent successful expedition sent to punish the natives of that city for a treacherous massacre of a peaceful English mission.” (p.v) The lack of remorse for the British atrocity has a long history which still continues among some British and Western scholars who try by various arguments to defend the infamous invasion. K. Opoku, “Compromise on the Restitution of the Benin Bronzes? Comments on Article by Prof. John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts” http://www.modernghana.com
5. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Mother Idia Mask Auction: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?” http://www.modernghana.com
6. Akenzua, Edun (2000). "The Case of Benin". Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March 2000.
7. Anthony Alan Shelton, “Preface” in Karel Arnaut (Ed), Re-visions: New Perspectives on the African Collections of the Horniman Museum, 2000, The Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, Museu Antropologico da Universidade de Coimbra, p.10.
8. See reference to Victor Hugo's view on the Anglo-British invasion of the Summer Palace in Beijing (Peking) in K. Opoku, “Chinese Research Artefacts Looted in Anglo-French Attack on Summer Palace in 1860: Do “Great Museums” Not Keep Records?”'http://www.modernghana. com
K. Opoku. “Is it not time to fulfil Victor Hugo's wish? Comments on Chinese Claim to looted Artefacts on Sale at Christie's.
9. Neil Brodie, “Compromise and restorative justice: More about Benin”,
10. Karel Arnaut (Ed), op. cit, p. 12
11. Jack Lang, “La question des restitutions ne peut rester éternellement taboue”, Le Monde, 21 July, 2011, p. 21. When President Sarkozy announced that the Korean manuscripts looted by French soldiers in the colonial period, would be restored to South Korea, there was a vociferous outcry, especially from employees of the Bibliotheque National, that the act amounted to disposing of national patrimony of France, conveniently forgetting that those documents were the national treasures of Korea which the French had looted.
It is true though that in restitution matters, some Westerners seem to find it difficult to think logically and to apply the elementary principles of justice and morality. They seem to believe that nothing is more natural than for Westerners to loot/steal African and Asian artefacts. Some even believe the West has a duty to save African artefacts. See K. Opoku, “Protest by Officials at the French Bibliotheque National at the Repatriation of Looted Documents back to Korea,” http://www.elginism.com
12. Mary Kennedy, “A lesson in lost property”, The Guardian, Saturday 30 October 1999. http://www.guardian.co
13. Jonathan Jones, “The Horniman is a cabinet of curiosities”, 22 May, 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog
14. For a positive assessment of Horniman's method of exposition, see Kate Sturge “The Other on Display: Translation in the Ethnographic Museum” www.google.com
15 Dr. Bob Spink, MP for Castle Point and the legendary Bernie Grant, MP for Totenham exchanged these words during a debate in the British House of Commons on the Return of Cultural Property. British House of Commons Debate Return of Cultural Objects HC Deb 14 February 1994 vol 237 cc722-43 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1994/feb/14/return-of-cultural-objects
It is interesting to recall in this connection the statement of Lord Gifford during discussion on legacy of slavery that “… there would be the return of treasures and works of art which come from the African continent, many of which are to be found in Britain's museums as a result of acts of theft and robbery.“ Slavery: Legacy HL Deb 14 March 1996 vol 570 cc1041-62 1041
When Bernie Grant went to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, to discuss the issue of the return of the Benin bronzes, he received a negative answer from the Director of the museum, John Spaulding. During this visit, he went to view the Benin objects and had a conversation with the head of curatorial service of the museum, Mark O'Neill which was reported as follows: “Mr O'Neill said he would have to be convinced by an independent expert that Glasgow's collection was unique before restitution could be considered. He told Mr Grant: ``If we went through every object and assessed how it got here, then we could be in a situation where we were repatriating 60 or 70% of our collection and I don't think society has reached that stage. ``The bottom line here is that we are not in the business of redressing historic wrongs.”
Alison Hardie, “Glasgow museum director rejects request from Africa for the return of looted artefacts. Battle royal for Benin relics,” Herald, Scotland, Sat 25Jan. 1997. See also Dawn to Dusk: A Biography of Bernie Grant MP by Eric A. Grant. ITUNI Books, London, 2006, pp. 118-119.