26.11.2012 Feature Article

Virtual Visits To Museums Holding Looted Benin Objects

Head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bristol Museum, Bristol, United Kingdom of Great Britain.Head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bristol Museum, Bristol, United Kingdom of Great Britain.
26.11.2012 LISTEN

One of the remarkable arguments presented by holders of looted Benin artefacts is that in our modern world, with the facilities provided by internet, there is no need to return physical objects to their country of origin; with the availability of computers and other electronic devices we can all have a virtual vision of the looted objects.

We have in various articles indicated the impossibility of performing certain acts such as dancing with a mask or sword if the object is not physically available. We decided to test the availability of the virtual vision that the museum officials offer and to find out what can be seen virtually at the homepages of museums holding looted Benin objects. Needless to say, the virtual argument, like most arguments of the so-called universal museums, appears plausible so long as one has not considered it carefully or tested it. A cursory examination shows how untenable the argument is. We visited the sites of the museums mentioned between 1 November and 10 November 2012.


British Museum holds one of the largest collections of Benin objects, having benefited from its relations with the British Foreign Office that sent to the Museum soon after the invasion of 1879 a large collection of artefacts for an exhibition on Benin in the museum. However, the museum refuses to inform the public about the exact number of Benin objects it has and we are reduced to making our estimates from various sources. We estimate the museum has some 700 Benin objects. We must note however that the venerable museum has been known to sell some of the looted objects. (The British Museum (BM) has sold more than 30 Benin bronzes )

Under the title Young Explorers, we found the following images and comments at the homepage:

It's behind you!

This photograph was taken at the palace, during the expedition made by the British in 1897. In the background you can see the palace roof with a snake made of brass slithering down it. Photos like this one are the best guide we have to knowing what Benin looked like.”

Three subsequent images continue with the theme of snakes:

Sssssssssss!This head was part of a brass snake on the palace roof – it was fixed to the roof with its body zigzagging down and its head at the bottom. Fifteen of these snake heads survive. We are not sure if the snakes were meant to be protective pythons or threatening puff adders.”

Palace plaque, Benin.

“We can tell that this plaque shows the palace of Benin from the snake slithering down the roof, just like the one in the expedition photo. We're not sure if the stairs in the middle are meant to be part of an altar or a gateway – what do you think? “

This container was used in the ceremony of Ugie Erha Oba, which was held for the oba to honour his ancestors. It was filled with magical medicines to keep the oba in power. It is covered with human heads, leaves and bells – you can see the snake from the roof here too”.

Container of power

Under the title of Benin An African Kingdom, the next pages show inter alia, the ivory hip mask of Queen-Mother Idia, an Ivory salt cellar showing European traders and their ship followed by eight other artefacts.

Though we see at the homepage of the British Museum a number of Benin objects, this is a small fraction of what the museum has under its control as admitted by the museum

The pictures in this leaflet show just a small selection of the hundreds of objects from Benin now in the British Museum and other museums around the world. The British Museum Sainsbury Africa Gallery, gallery 25, includes artefacts from Benin with more than 60 of the brass plaques on display in the gallery.

The virtual vision gained from the British Museum is thus partial and does not impart a complete general view of the Benin artefacts.


The Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin has a large collection of Benin artefacts of some 580 objects the large majority of which were acquired by purchase at auctions in Paris and London soon after the Benin invasion in 1879.

Indeed, it was the massive purchases of Benin artefacts by Germans that spurred on the British to buy more Benin artefacts from auctions.

Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin ,Germany

At the homepage of the museum, it appeared impossible to go to the Benin objects. The search box told me that nothing was found under”Benin” or under “Nigeria”. I tried several other concepts such as “African art” but to no avail. Under the title of “Kalendar”, I found an exhibition titled “Afrika in Berlin” where I saw, after some thirty minutes, the first Benin object, an altar group with Oba Akenzua. (

After an hour, I gave up searching for more Benin objects in the Ethnology Museum, Berlin and concluded that the homepage of that museum which has so many important Benin objects was not aimed at enabling outsiders to appreciate the looted objects via internet.

Observant surfers would have noticed that in Berlin, we have a Museum for Egyptian Art but not for African art. Following the racist thoughts of Hegel and other European Enlightenment philosophers, the museum detaches Egypt from the rest of Africa. Asian Art, Islamic Art and all others have museums dedicated to them. African art which is left in the clutches of the ethnologists and is to be found in the Ethnology Museum, where paradoxically we even find exhibitions on contemporary art. Somehow, it seems that in the view of some Europeans, after African Art had made substantial contribution to the birth of modern art, it fell back to Ethnography and could not, like others be considered really as art.

It is the same ideology that underlies the decision in Vienna, for example, to show photos of contemporary African photographers in the Ethnology museum and not in photo exhibition halls where contemporary photos are usually displayed. An exhibition of contemporary African fashion and African textiles is, naturally, shown in the Ethnology Museum although every aspect of the show - the materials, the styles and the models are anything but modern. An exhibition of photos on Africa by a French photographer was recently shown in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It looks as if whatever Africans do, there is a strong desire on the part of some westerners to keep them in the ethnological preserve and to ensure that people do not get the impression that there is African modernity.


After frustration with the homepage of the Ethnology Musem, Berlin, I decided to visit the homepage of the Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna. The museum has some 167 objects which were bought mainly from a notorious auctioneer in Great Britain. On the first page, there is mention of Africa and a click brings you images of African artefacts such as the Benin royal dwarfs, in addition to a large modern bronze work, Boat Composition (2006) depicting the transportation of Oba Ovonramwen with his wives into exile under control of British soldiers. When we click on “Collection”, we get the information that because of the development of a new conception of “Collection” only the neighbouring collection, South, Southeast Asia and Himalaya is accessible. (

Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Another notice informs us additionally, that because of repairs and a new conception, the African Section is not accessible.As far as I know, the African Section has been closed for the last ten or more years to the public for repairs. A click on the database of the museum allows us to see images of some six Benin objects such as this commemorative head above. Further attempts to search for more Benin objects proved to be unfruitful. Later on I read that the objects are in the process of digitalization. So ended my virtual visit to the Ethnology Museum, Vienna.

Despite these frustrating and fruitless virtual visits, my stubbornness or enthusiasm carried me to Leiden


The Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, has some 98 Benin artefacts. Much of the information on the museum at its homepage, is in Dutch but I found a link to information in English. This did not help much since it referred me to a database where all the indications were in Dutch. With persistence, I managed to get into the database. A click on Benin allowed me to see some Benin items such as commemorative heads, with explanations in English provided. I left the Leiden homepage more frustrated and concluded that it was not a home page that one could recommend to less courageous and less determined persons. After Leiden, I did not feel like continuing the virtual visit but a desire to get to the bottom of the unfounded arguments of the so-called, universal museum, led me to the United States.


We visited the homepage of the Art Institute of Chicago whose former director is considered by many as the high priest of Westerners who believe the west is entitled, nay, obliged to keep the looted cultural artefacts of non-European nations. A click brought us to Africa and subsequently we sought Benin/Edo

and saw more Benin objects including the plaque of a war chief below

Plaque of a war chief, Benin, Nigeria, now in Art Institute of Chicago, United States of America.

A few more searches for “Benin artefacts led us to pages where artefacts from the Republic of Benin and from Nigeria were presented together. It was time to leave.


The Field Museum has some 400 Benin artefacts mostly from the 1897 invasion of Benin and was donated by A.W.F. Fuller. After several clicks I reached the Fuller Collection which is “Recommended for: Kids (6-12), Teens (13-17),

Adults (18+ and where it is stated that the kids can see Benin bronze sculptures but I still have not yet come across any Benin artefact. Another click takes me to a page titled Anthropology, Africa but still no Benin objects. A link entitled “View all Africa collections” leads me to another page where I see a link referring to Ancient West African City of Benin. But this turned out to be an exhibition of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian institution. So where are the 4oo Benin pieces that were donated by Fuller to the Field Museum.?

In going to a section entitled Research and Collection, Anthropology, I met this short description:

“Benin Ethnographic Collection - The Benin collection of 400 objects includes wood sculptures, hide fans, and cast brass, ivory, and beaten brass objects. It is

one of the Museum's most significant African collections both in terms of artistic worth and monetary value. Half of the collection was donated to the Museum by Captain and Mrs. A.W.F. Fuller, and the remainder was purchased earlier this century by the Museum. Except for a few recent ethnographic objects, the entire collection dates to the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. While some of the objects may be dated stylistically to the 17th century, no definitive assessment has been conducted”.

( )

After a considerable time spent in vain on searching for the 400 Benin pieces that the Field Museum declares to have, we came to the conclusion that the museum is obviously not interested in informing viewers about its Benin artefacts. In any case, not many people in Benin would have the time and leisure to spend at the homepage of this museum which holds so many of their looted artefacts.

After the Field Museum, I no longer felt like visiting the homepages of other holders of looted Benin objects but my own character did not allow me to abandon the quest and so I decided to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


After the frustrations at the previous homepages, it was a great relief to visit the Metropolitan Museum where one click brought me directly into their collection of Benin artefacts, including the well-known pendant mask of Queen mother Idia, Iyoba.

Queen-Mother Idia, pendant mask, Benin, Nigeria, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America.

Head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America.

We left the Metropolitan Museum with the impression that the museum was aware of its educative role and tried to make access to Benin objects as simple and as easy as possible. The homepage will assist those interested in Benin artefacts but would it help the people of Benin to secure their artefacts to use them in the way that has been traditionally done?

Encouraged by the experience with the New York museum, we decided to visit another US museum with looted Benin objects before leaving the east coast of the USA.


After four clicks we reached the Africa collection under which 11 objects from Benin were featured. Among the 11 objects were objects from the Republic of Benin. I continued searching for Benin and gave for search “EDO” but only Japanese objects appeared. I gave then as search item,”the kingdom of Benin.” Two objects, including the mask below appeared.

Hip ivory mask, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Art, Boston, United States of America.

Recalling that this museum has recently been involved in controversy for its acquisition of 34 looted Benin artefacts, I went back to the controversy surrounding the dubious acquisition. It did not occur to me spontaneously to look for the Robert Owen Lehman Collection but saw an indication showing where one can see more of the recent acquisition.

( )

It appears the museum has not had enough time to make the new acquisition easily accessible to internet users. How many internet users from Benin and Nigeria are likely to look for Benin artefacts under the designation “Robert Owen Lehman Collection”? This US-American name has no connection to the production of the exquisite artefacts but to the dubious acquisition of the looted objects by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The museum is thus furthering the fame of an American banker and not the glory of the people of Benin who are asking for the return of their looted items. Contrary to all protestations, the museum is more concerned with supporting the vainglory of individual donors than promoting the dissemination of knowledge about African culture and the genius of the makers of the Benin bronzes. Services for capitalism are presented as services for humanity.

Equestrian Rider, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America.

Relief plaque showing a dignitary with a drum and two attendants striking gongs. Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Art, Boston, United States of America.

The recent acquisition contains some fine objects but for the time being, one cannot consider the homepage of the Museum of Fine Art as easily accessible to the average internet user. From Boston, we crossed the Atlantic to make a virtual visit to Dresden


The Museum für Völkerkunde, State Museum of Ethnography, Dresden, has some 200 looted Benin objects which were mostly acquired between 1899 and 1906. We gave up on Dresden after using several links none of which led to Benin art or other African collection. Ironically, one of the homepages uses part of a Benin commemorative head. We visited instead, Leipzig


The Museum für Völkerkunde, has some 87 Benin artefacts but apart

Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Leipzig, Germany.

from the commemorative head above, I could not see any other Benin object. However, a notice from 2008 states that the African section is being reorganized. There is a video of poor quality which showed some Benin objects in somewhat miniature form. Obviously, this homepage is not useful for a newcomer to Benin artefacts. Incidentally, a Wikimedia Commons page on the Grassi museums displays some 19 Benin artefacts including the leopard below.

Figure of leopard, Benin, Nigeria, now in Volkerkunde Museum, Leipzig, Germany.Wikimedia Commons


The State Museum of Ethnography (Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde) in Stuttgart has 80 Benin objects. Despite all attempts, I found only this image of an ivory hip mask said to be from 1500, Benin. I wondered what had happened to all the other Benin artefacts that the museum is known to be holding. After disappointment in Stuttgart, I decided to move northwards to Cologne.

Ivory hip mask. Benin, Nigeria, now in Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany.

After disappointment in Stuttgart, I decided to move northwards to Cologne.


The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne is known to have some 73 Benin artefacts but all attempts to find out what one can learn from the museum's homepage proved to be in vain. After some 40 minutes of these fruitless attempts, I decided to leave Cologne and move northwards to Hamburg.


The Museum für Völkerkunde is known to have some 196 Benin artefacts.

One click at the homepage of the museum brought me to some Benin hip masks but I could not find any more Benin images. After more fruitless searches, I gave up all further attempts.


We found no reference to Benin at the homepage.of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe.

After Hamburg, we moved further north to Britain.


A click to the homepage of the Pitt-Rivers Museum brings one quickly into contact with Benin objects and materials. The consultation of the Benin material in this museum may test the endurance of some readers by its sheer quantity, more than 300 pieces of great quality. But would this help an average surfer from Benin who seeks quick information about the artefacts of Benin? Our next stop in Britain was Glasgow.


It may be recalled that the great Bernie Grant, Member of the British Parliament, had correspondence and discussions with this museum regarding the return of the Benin artefacts to Benin. From submissions made by the museum to the British Parliament, we know that the museum has at least 21 Benin artefacts. (

A click at the homepage of this museum brings us immediately and directly to page dealing with Benin bronze but we soon realize that the page shows a contemporary bronze work, Pot of Life, commissioned by the museum from Benin artist, Luck Oboh. But the description on the page recalls the invasion of Benin by the British in 1897 and mentions religious practices in contemporary Benin. The total effect of this page would be to confuse the reader. After this page, all attempts to find Benin bronzes proved fruitless. So what is the idea of mixing the old and the new here, especially since only a contemporary commissioned work is shown and none of the famous looted bronzes from Benin? Is the emphasis on “commissioned work” intended to obliterate the memory of the “looted works?


A click at the homepage of the museum brings us to some Benin bronzes. Further attempts revealed two more Benin objects. We know though that the Horniman Museum has a fine collection of Benin artefacts.There was no use staying here for long.


The initial click sent me to a page where I was asked whether I would be prepared to participate in a questionnaire about their collection. On answering “yes” I was directed to another page which directed me to the Curiosity Gallery

where I read the following:

The Curiosity Gallery features objects from our World Cultures and Archaeology collections and a 'mini museum' for children under seven.

What's on display?

· A cist slab from Pool Farm.
· A Benin Head.
· Votive figurines from various cultures.
· A Peruvian balaclava.

Weapons from the Pacific.

An Australian bark painting.

Later on, I was informed about where I can see more objects like those mentioned:

There are lots more objects from the British Archaeology and World Cultures collections in the stores. They're available for research and by request, and many of them are now available online.

Further on, I was told that the Benin figure mentioned in the list above was not available. I was directed to a page that reads as follows:

Figure of a man, made in Benin City. Could represent a generic Oba, according to elements of his dress. Probably made for commercial sale. Such items are used for home decoration by more affluent Benins and others, and might have been put on an altar as a decorative, if modern piece.

But the figure was said to be not available. Most images were said to be not available. I turned to Wikimedia Commons where I found the fine head of an oba (see above at the beginning of these notes) which was part of an exhibition on empire and museum held on 30 December 2010. But where are the rest of the Benin objects? They are apparently stored somewhere but are definitely not on line for a virtual vision.


A click at the homepage of the World Museum, under “Ethnology Collection, African Collection”, brings me directly to a pdf file on the African collection where Benin features prominently and a Benin bronze is displayed. We read under the heading the following:

The Benin Collection

Most of the 40 or so brass, 'bronze' and ivory items from the southern Nigerian Kingdom of Benin were originally among the many sacred treasures removed by the British 'Punitive Expedition' in 1897. They were bought by the Museum from dealers and a member of the expedition soon after the 1897 naval auction of the material in London.

This fine head of a queen mother is also displayed.

Queen-Mother head, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum Liverpool, United Kingdom.


A click on the homepage of the museum brought us to its collections and under “Nigeria” we searched for “Edo” which enabled us to see some 14 Benin artefacts. Further search under Kingdom of Benin brought me two more Benin artefacts. Is that all that the museum has?


The Palais des Session, Louvre holds some of the best artefacts of non-Western art on behalf of the Musée du Quai Branly in what we consider the best display of art, away from the artificial darkness much loved by some museum directors.

Two excellent Benin artefacts including the head below are online.

Trophy head of a prominent enemy killed in war. Benin, Nigeria, now in Palais des Sessions, Louvre, Paris, France.


Many museums have adopted a thematic approach to classification of the artefacts under their control so that it is no longer easy to find a Benin artefact by simply entering “Benin” for search. One must look at the various themes in order to know whether any of the Benin artefacts appears under that theme.

Perhaps this is a more modern approach to classification but for anyone interested in a particular nation, for example Benin/Edo, this thematic approach makes it extremely difficult to find quickly which Benin objects the particular museum has. A general view of the objects becomes very difficult to obtain.

Queen-Mother-Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

What may not be realized by those who suggest that in the internet age, there is no need for physical restitution of looted objects, is that seeing the looted objects of your people in the museums of other nations is a constant reminder of the defeat of your people; this also reminds you of your present inability to recover what is yours. Your lack of power is made patently clear to you every time you go to the internet.

Our virtual visits to the holders of looted Benin objects have convinced us that, apart from the fundamental objections already raised, none of those museums has an internet presentation that in any way could provide adequately for people of Benin who are clamouring for the return of the looted objects. Most western museums are at present hopelessly unprepared for a task of this nature. Alone the prohibitive financial cost of digitalization would prevent many museums in our times of financial constraints from even think of such projects.

We have left out questions about the inadequacies of the present state of technology since this was not our objective to assess the present state of digitalization or the performance of various museums in this area. Our simple objective was to answer the question whether the provision of virtual images of museums holding looted artefacts were such as may be considered to offer alternatives to actual restitution of the Benin artefacts to their country of origin. Our conclusion is an emphatic negation of any proposition that virtual vision is anywhere near an adequate alternative to physical restitution of looted artefacts. Indeed, in view of our experience, one wonders on what basis any one could even dare to think of proposing virtual vision as alternative to physical restitution of looted cultural artefacts.

Kwame Opoku, 15 November, 2012