Benin Bronzes must be returned to Africa, says curator of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum

Laveta Brigham

Prof Hicks said the museum plans to audit scores of other acts of dispossession from multiple African countries but it is unclear if these or the Benin Bronzes will be returned to their home continent. While Prof Hicks is the curator of World Archaeology at the museum and said he […]

Prof Hicks said the museum plans to audit scores of other acts of dispossession from multiple African countries but it is unclear if these or the Benin Bronzes will be returned to their home continent.

While Prof Hicks is the curator of World Archaeology at the museum and said he would like to see Benin Bronzes owned by the university returned he is unable to make the decision himself.

The university’s formal process would require the Royal Court of Benin to make a claim to The Board of Visitors, who are responsible for the Museum.

Any decision would then be approved by the University Council, the university’s executive governing body.

Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of Pitt Rivers Museum, said the university has agreed procedures for the Return of Cultural Objects and added: “As a member of the Benin Dialogue Group since 2018, the Pitt Rivers Museum has been working closely with the Court of Benin for several years and these discussions are still ongoing.”

Last year, the Royal Court of Benin successfully claimed for the return of a looted Benin bronze cockerel from Jesus College, Cambridge.

Earlier this year Bristol Museum said they were open to sending a cast bronze bust back after hearing Prince Edun Akenzua of the Royal Court of Benin call for its return in an episode of BBC Inside Out West.

Prince Edun Akenzua said the sculptures “were not originally made as museum objects.”

But some have argued that African museums are insufficiently resourced to care for their own cultural treasures and that they are safer in the UK.

Prof Hicks said that with the new Royal Museum in Benin City “the case for return has never been stronger”.

He added that it “concerns every British museum-goer” as in the UK, “you’re never more than 100 miles from a stolen African artefact”.

The Benin Bronzes are a group of sculptures which include plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments.

They were taken by British troops during reprisals for the killing of nine of their countrymen in a trade dispute between London and the Benin monarch and have been the cause of controversy for years.  

The current row over whether the University of Oxford should return its Benin Bronzes is not the only disputed historical object at the university.

Since 2018 Oriel College has been embroiled in a student-led campaign to let a statue of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes ‘fall’ causing an ongoing inquiry into its potential removal.

The final recommendation is set to be made next year.

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