In Ceremony, Met Museum Officially Returns Benin Bronzes to Nigeria


In this morning’s ceremony marking the repatriation of three Nigerian artworks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nigerian National Commission of Museums and Archeology (NCMM) entered into a joint agreement to cooperate on the mutual lending of Benin objects and other “exchanges” of expertise and art. ”

This summer, the Met announced the return of two 16th-century copper plates in its collection that once adorned the royal palace in Benin, the capital of the West African kingdom of Benin. The ‘chief warrior’ and ‘little court official’ belong to the hotly contested group of objects known as the Bronze Benin, which British forces looted from present-day Nigeria in the 1890s. The bulk of the artifacts, which include copper and bronze sculptures as well as ivory carvings and number in the thousands, are currently residing in European institutions, some of which have launched efforts in recent years to facilitate their recovery.

“If other museums can do what the Met has done, I believe we will be able to give confidence to our audience and visitors,” Professor Aba Issa Tijani, NCMM Director General, said during the event. “The issue of repatriation is now in the heart of the people. People look at museums, especially in Europe, and say: These artifacts are not legally owned, they are not their own. However, they show these things and they take all the credit.”

In addition to the paintings, the Met helped broker the return of a third object not in his collection, a 14th-century brass “Ife Head” from the Wunmonije Complex in Nigeria which was offered for purchase. The three works were researched in partnership with the British Museum, which owns more than 900 objects from the Kingdom of Benin.

Max Hollen and Aba Issa Tijani and Alyssa Lagamma with the Three Objects, a 14th-century brass “Eve’s Head” and two 16th-century copper plates from Benin City. (Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (Photo by Valentina de Lecia for Hyperallergic)

As part of today’s transfer ceremony, Met Director Max Hollein and Professor Tijani signed a Memorandum of Understanding to formalize their commitment to future collaboration. These include the loan of Benin objects from the Met to 52 national museums in Nigeria, including the upcoming Edo Museum of West African Art being built on the ruins of Benin City; Plus loans from Nigeria to the Met for the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The 40,000-square-foot pavilion is dedicated to the arts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and is currently closed for renovations and scheduled to reopen in 2024.

“The conversations we had about these things led to a much deeper and deeper exchange,” Hollin told Hyperallergic. “It is not just about getting things back, but about the path forward. How are we going as institutions to exchange scholarships, invite more of our fellow Nigerians here to explain parts of our group, or provide expertise on our part to Nigeria.”

“It’s all about scholarships, education and training,” Hollin continued. “And creating a more reciprocal way forward.” He explained that such an agreement is not without precedent, adding that the museum has a memorandum of understanding with Greek museums and similar cooperations with Egypt and Turkey.

The Met currently houses approximately 160 Benin City objects, most of which were donated in the 1970s and 1990s by individuals who acquired them from the art market under uncertain circumstances. Like many of the Benin items in her collections, the two copper plaques were dedicated by Klaus and Amelia Perls. They were first housed in the British Museum and later moved to the National Museum in Lagos, but they were not officially abandoned.

This summer’s Met recovery announcement was met with mixed responses, with some critics summarizing the effort as too little, too late. Barnaby Phillips, former BBC correspondent and author Booty: Britain and Boys Bronze (2021), he said that the Met had long known about the vibrating source of the objects and “only in the past year have alarm bells been sounded…loud enough for anyone to start an investigation.”

In an opinion article about Apollo In the magazine, he said the museum chose to return the pair of paintings because they were illegally removed from the Nigerian National Museum after the country’s independence in 1960, not because they were looted in the 19th century. According to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, institutions and individuals must take measures to “seize and return any stolen and imported cultural property” from a museum or public monument.

“When these specific plates are returned, they make an unacknowledged distinction between them and the rest of their Benin Bronze Plaques,” said Phillips. “This return is about public relations and legality, not morality.”

During today’s ceremony, Professor Tijani said the committee was excited about future partnerships with the Met.

“My fair share here is to say that we look forward to collaborating with the Met because we cannot live on an island, without access to our partners outside the country,” he said. “We want to see how we can work together and build our institutions.”

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