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The museums of the West & the Benin Bronzes

There are Benin Bronzes [1] in what seems like almost every one of the large museums in Europe & the US. This article tries to summarise the key issues regarding their continued retention.

Afrikanet [2]

European and US American Museums and the Benin Bronzes
Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Sunday, 05 October 2008

The following are some of the essential points about the Benin bronzes that the reader must know and always bear in mind when reading about the looted cultural artefacts now in European and American museums.

1. Thousands of beautiful and fine Benin art objects were stolen by the British in 1897 when they illegally invaded Benin City, executed some nobles, exiled the Oba (King) and burnt the city.

2. The stolen Benin objects were sold by the British to individuals and to European and American museums, including: British Museum, London, Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Ethnology Museum, Vienna and the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.

3. The people of Benin (Edo) and Nigeria have fewer of these objects than the European and American museums that refuse to lend or return any of the pieces they keep in depots and basements.

4. Nigeria and the Benin Royal family have been asking for years for the return of some of these pieces to Nigeria. The response of the Europeans and the Americans has either been dead silence or exasperated “no”.

5. The United Nations and UNESCO have been urging through resolutions countries holding such illegally and illegitimately exported objects to return them to their countries of origin. The Europeans and American remain impervious to all such appeals.

6. The hijacking of the religious and cultural icons of the African peoples by Europeans and Americans made possible by the colonialist and imperialist regimes should no longer be acceptable in a civilized world.

7. The human rights of the African peoples, individually and collectively, are being violated by this persistent and defiant refusal to return cultural objects which were not produced by the Europeans and American and were not meant for their use. Such a refusal also violates the freedom of religion in so far as many of the stolen African objects, for instance the many Ethiopian crosses in the British Museum, the Benin altars and the Fang reliquaries are necessary for the traditional practice of beliefs.

8. Most of these objects should have been returned when the African countries gained Independence in the 1960s. The refusal to return the objects relating to power and culture, is a denial of the right to self-determination. If a people cannot determine where their cultural objects should be located, where then is the right of self-determination which includes not only the right to determine your constitution but also to determine your cultural policy and practice?

9. True democrats and lovers of freedom should insist on all governments respecting the right to cultural development of all, including the right to determine the destination of one’s cultural objects. This minimum requirement should be possible even in a world dominated by the use or threat of the use of force.

10. We can all help to correct this historic injustice by constantly urging the museums that hold these stolen/looted Benin objects to return them to their rightful owners.

Location and Numbers of the Benin Bronzes

Almost every European and American museum has some Benin objects. We list here some of the places where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers. This is not an attempt to be complete but to give the general reader an idea about how wide spread these stolen art objects are. For a complete list, consult Philip J.C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology, 1973, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 78-81. The museums which ostensibly keep these objects for the education of the public refuse to tell us about how many of these objects they hold. They also do not publish a complete catalogue of their Benin artefacts. The tremendous developments in the electronic media has not greatly modified the attitude of the museums.

The Art Institute of Chicago even managed to hold an exhibition on Benin bronzes without including even a single one of the 20 Benin objects it possesses. Useful information can be found in the catalogue of the exhibition: Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed) Benin: Kings and Ritual – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoek Publishers, Ghent, 2007.

* Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
* Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
* Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
* Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
* Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
* Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
* Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
* London – British Museum 700.
* New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
* Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
* Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
* Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.


Ekpo Eyo, “Benin: The sack that was,” http://www.dawodu.net/eyo.htm ,“The Dialectics of Definitions: “Massacre” and “Sack” in the History of the “Punitive Expedition”, African Arts, 1997, Vol. XXX, No. 3, pp. 34-35.

Sylvester Ogbechie, “The Sword of Oba Ovonramwen,” http://aachronym.blogspot.com

Darshana Soni, “The British and the Benin Bronzes” http://www.arm.arc.co.uk

Kwame Opoku, “Nefertiti, Idia and other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”


Dr. Kwame Opoku, 3 October, 2008.