LONDON – Statues have been demolished and national icons have been reassessed, but Europe’s efforts to come to terms with its imperial past have largely ceased to return the cultural treasures plundered by the continent’s colonial powers.
Until now maybe.
This week a Cambridge College, French Museum and Scottish University returned looted artifacts from West Africa.
Jesus College in Cambridge returned a bronze sculpture of a rooster to Nigeria on Wednesday, making it the first British institution to return one of the famous Benin bronzes. The next day the University of Aberdeen in Scotland presented a bronze of the head of an Oba or king.
These sculptures were looted, along with Thousands of other works, from the historic Kingdom of Benin – in what is now Nigeria – when British troops overran and destroyed much of Benin City in 1897. The Benin Bronzes, a group of Brass and bronze sculptures Manufactured from at least the 16th century, are widely considered to be one of the most culturally significant artifacts in Africa.
The British Museum still has Benin bronzes in its collection in London while others ended up in collections around the world.
On Wednesday, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris also handed over 26 artifacts to the Republic of Benin, a former French colony that borders Nigeria Stolen in 1892. According to Reuters, they are among the 5,000 works that the West African country has requested.
Amatey Doku, a former student at Jesus College who proposed the repatriation of the college’s rooster in 2016, said the handover this week marked a “major turning point.”
“Especially for the Benin Bronzes, this moment is seen as the real dismantling of the argument that it is not possible,” he said.
Returns will put pressure on other Western institutions to follow suit.
More generally, according to Doku, they have also brought the enduring legacy of colonialism in British and European institutions into focus.
“The work isn’t done, it’s not done yet,” he added. “But I think this is a really significant moment.
Abba Isa Tijani of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments said the handover in Cambridge on Wednesday offered an opportunity for other institutions and countries.
“Jesus College set an example,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.
The hustle and bustle of this week follows a decision by Germany at the beginning of the year to work on its own Restitution plan for Benin Bronzes, in the Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described as a “turning point in dealing with our colonial history”.
Earlier, in 2017, during a visit to Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was no longer acceptable for much of the cultural heritage of several African countries to remain in France.
The next year, a report commissioned by Macron recommended French museums to return works removed without consent if African countries so request.
This is a crucial step in this week’s developments, said Barnaby Phillips, author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes.
“Although this report only referred to France, I think it sent shock waves through the museum world and particularly influenced the other major colonial powers, Germany and the UK,” said Phillips.
Then came the reckoning of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May 2020. While America’s aftermath has mostly centered on police violence and the legacy of slavery, much of the focus in Europe has been on the ongoing effects of colonialism.
“That put the European museums back in the spotlight,” said Phillips.
The British Museum recently received a letter from the Nigerian government demanding the return of the country’s antiques. A spokesman said the museum is reviewing the documents and will deal with them fully in due course.
“The museum understands and recognizes the importance of the issues surrounding the return of objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums around the world to share our collection as much as possible,” added the spokesman.
The institution has a strict policy of permanently removing art from its collection, which is governed by a 1963 law called the British Museum Act.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University in New York, agreed with Docu that the handovers this week marked a turning point.
“It will be much more difficult for many museums to refuse [to] even to discuss whether certain bronzes from Benin have already been restituted, ”Diagne said, adding that museums are also being pressured by public opinion to justify the presence of African artifacts in their collections.
In addition, the global south is now an actor in the circulation and exchange of museum items because it will now own these works.
This is a result that Doku would also like to see.
“The point is not that these artifacts return to their countries and are never seen again, but that ownership of these pieces is in the right place,” he said.