Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany wrote a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding Germany send its Benin Bronzes back, reigniting a controversy over who should have the right to own, curate, and display African heritage to the world.
The British Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, visited Nigeria in August 2018. He met with senior Museum colleagues in Lagos and Benin City and had an audience with His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II which included discussion of new opportunities for sharing and displaying objects from the Kingdom of Benin. During that visit His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II repeated his request for Benin collections to be returned. He also acknowledged, however, that the objects serve as ‘cultural ambassadors’ for Benin culture when displayed internationally.
In 1950 and 1951 the Museum sold, exchanged or donated some of the Benin plaques to the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (25 in number) and the government of the Gold Coast (1). These were subsequently placed within newly established West African museums.
In the autumn of 1897, the British Museum displayed 304 Benin plaques on loan from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and subsequently petitioned successfully to receive 203 of these as a donation. The majority of the remaining plaques were sold to UK and German museums and to private dealers, while a few were retained by the Foreign Office. Other early collections were purchased or donated by members of the Benin expedition.*
Benin Expedition of 1897
The Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by a British force led by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson (9–18 February 1897). The expedition saw widespread destruction and pillage of the Benin kingdom by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Royal Palace was burned and destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank.*