The controversial conversation surrounding art repatriation continues as major European museums have reached an agreement with Nigeria to “loan” significant artifacts to the Royal Museum–a new museum opening in Nigeria–which they will also help to build.
Nigeria’s Royal Museum will house a rotating display of artifacts, including the Benin bronzes that were looted during the Benin Expedition of 1897.
The agreement marks a significant step after years of negotiations among European institutions and Nigerian authorities. The communique said that European and Nigerian partners will work “collaboratively to develop training, funding and legal frameworks to facilitate the permanent display of Benin works of art in the new museum.”
The artifacts have been at center stage of debates involving the return of items–known as the Benin bronzes–that were looted by the British army during a “punitive expedition” in 1897, where the army stole about 4,000 elaborate sculptures from the king’s palace in the former Kingdom of Benin.
The institutions, which include the British Museum in London, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and Sweden’s National Museums of World Culture, will return items from the kingdom of Benin, whose territory is now part of Nigeria, within three years. This agreement was a result of the Benin Dialogue Group, consisting of Nigerian representatives and European museum officials, who gathered in the Netherlands to hold negotiations in the beginning of this month.
“I am happy we are making progress in the effort to give our people the opportunity to once more access our heritage that was looted,” Prince Gregory Akenzua, Enogie of Evbobanosa, states in a press release. The Benin Dialogue Group states that the loans indeed do not represent the “end point in negotiations,” and that Nigeria has not waived any claim to outright ownership of the objects.
Last November, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said he wanted to see these items returned to Africa: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.” The agreement marks a significant step in ongoing negotiations between European museums and Nigerian representatives.
Some critics say the current proposal does not go far enough, however. “Returning Benin Bronzes to Nigeria is certainly a step in the right direction as it acknowledges that the European ownership is problematic,” Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor of global history at the University of Hamburg, told Artnet News. “It must not replace a discussion about ownership and restitution, though.”
The group plans to meet again in 2019 in Benin City, Nigeria before gathering once more at the British Museum in London in 2020. Among the museums that are likely to be most affected by these negotiations is the forthcoming Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which is due to open next year. The collection holds some 580 Benin bronzes.
The Royal Museum is due to open in 2021.