African art: One London museum’s agreement to return colonial artefacts could open the … — iNews

In April 1897, Fred­er­ick Horn­i­man, at the time Britain’s wealth­i­est tea trad­er and an avid col­lec­tor, was offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty he could not refuse. Through “estab­lished com­mer­cial sources and pri­vate col­lec­tions” he acquired 12 items of what was referred to as “Benin mate­r­i­al” for the mod­est sum of £30. Horn­i­man, a Quak­er whose par­ents had been part of the anti-slav­ery move­ment and who as a Lib­er­al MP cam­paigned for what became the wel­fare state, had become almost cer­tain­ly the first per­son in Britain to pur­chase items stolen bare­ly weeks ear­li­er from Benin City in an 18-day ram­page by 5,000 British troops sent to sack one of West Africa’s fore­most civil­i­sa­tions. Upon its return to the UK, the booty from the open­ly puni­tive raid was sold, both offi­cial­ly by the For­eign Office to recov­er the cost of the mil­i­tary oper­a­tion, and unof­fi­cial­ly by the troops them­selves, a num­ber of whom had been suf­fi­cient­ly com­fort­able with their loot­ing in present-day Nige­ria to be pho­tographed beside their hauls. Gen­tle­man afi­ciona­dos such as Horn­i­man would have been the sub­ject of many offers from these “pri­vate col­lec­tions” and in the next two years, the tea trad­er con­tin­ued to acquire 60 more objects emp­tied from the Benin citadel, among them orna­men­tal plaques telling sto­ries of trib­al his­to­ry and a key to the palace of the Oba, or king. Worth mil­lions but acquired for the equiv­a­lent of a few thou­sand pounds of mod­ern mon­ey, these “Benin bronzes” were put on dis­play among thou­sands of oth­er arte­facts in Horniman’s pala­tial home in the plush south Lon­don sub­urb of For­est Hill. Short­ly after 1901 a pur­pose-built muse­um on the site was bequeathed by the mag­nate to the then Lon­don Coun­ty Coun­cil for the “recre­ation, instruc­tion and enjoy­ment” of the capital’s pop­u­lace. Horniman’s goal, as he saw it, of “bring­ing the world” to a sub­ur­ban cor­ner of the British empire’s cap­i­tal was com­plete. A cen­tu­ry or so lat­er, the museum’s trustees, required to over­see and shape Horniman’s increas­ing­ly thorny lega­cy, this week record­ed anoth­er first in his name. More on British Muse­u­mAfter a two-year process of con­sul­ta­tion and eval­u­a­tion, it was announced that the 72 Benin bronzes are to be returned to Nige­ria, mak­ing the Horn­i­man the first major muse­um direct­ly fund­ed by the Depart­ment for Cul­ture, Media and Sport to under­take such a large-scale act of resti­tu­tion of colo­nial-era plun­der. The pledge to return the items was made all the more sig­nif­i­cant by the unvar­nished recog­ni­tion of wrong­do­ing that accom­pa­nied it. Eve Salomon, chair of the Horniman’s trustees said: “The evi­dence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force… It is both moral and appro­pri­ate to return their own­er­ship to Nige­ria.” Oth­er British insti­tu­tions have pre­vi­ous­ly under­tak­en small­er returns of Benin arte­facts, led by Aberdeen Uni­ver­si­ty and Jesus Col­lege, Cam­bridge last year. But there is a grow­ing view that the Horn­i­man Museum’s deci­sion – along­side a sim­i­lar announce­ment last week by Oxford and Cam­bridge uni­ver­si­ties to seek the return of 200 items to Nige­ria – is a water­shed moment in a resti­tu­tion cam­paign which has seen the slow ero­sion of a decades-long refusal by cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions (the UK hold­ings of Benin bronzes are held by 150 sep­a­rate bod­ies) to con­tem­plate the sur­ren­der of ill-got­ten gains. It is a fact which bears rep­e­ti­tion that near­ly 90 per cent of major African works of art and arte­facts are held out­side Africa, most of them in Europe.