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Europe hands back looted African artifacts as it reckons with colonial legacy

The handovers will increase the pressure on other Western institutions to follow suit.

LONDON — Statues have been pulled down and national icons re-evaluated, but Europe’s efforts to come to terms with its imperial past have largely stopped short of handing back the cultural treasures pillaged by the continent’s colonial powers.

Until now, perhaps.

This week, a Cambridge college, a French museum and a Scottish university all returned artifacts looted from West Africa, with activists and officials hailing a potential turning point in the yearslong battle to ensure Europe’s reckoning on race extended to restitution of what it plundered.  

Jesus College, Cambridge, returned a bronze sculpture of a cockerel to Nigeria on Wednesday, becoming the first U.K. institution to return one of the famed Benin Bronzes. The next day, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland handed over a bronze of the head of an Oba, or king.

Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne with Abba Isa Tijani of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments before the handover of the looted bronze cockerel, known as the Okukur.Joe Giddens / AP

These sculptures were looted, along with thousands of other works, from the historic Kingdom of Benin — located in modern day Nigeria — when British forces overran and destroyed much of Benin City in 1897. The Benin Bronzes, a group of brass and bronze sculptures made from at least the 16th century on, are widely seen as among Africa’s most culturally significant artifacts.

The British Museum still boasts Benin Bronzes among its collection, in London, while others made their way to collections throughout the world.

On Wednesday the Quai Branly Museum in Paris also handed over 26 artifacts to Benin, a former French colony which borders Nigeria, that were stolen in 1892. They are among 5,000 works requested by the West African country, according to Reuters. 

Amatey Doku, a former student at Jesus College who was among those to propose in 2016 that the college’s cockerel be repatriated, said this week’s handovers marked a “huge turning point.” 

“For the Benin Bronzes specifically, this moment will be looked back as the real dismantling of the argument that it couldn’t be done,” he said.  

The returns will increase the pressure on other Western institutions to follow suit.

More broadly, Doku said, they have also brought into focus the continued legacy of colonialism in British and European institutions. 

“The work is not done, it’s not finished,” he added. “But I do think this is a really significant moment.

Abba Isa Tijani, from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said that Wednesday’s handover in Cambridge offered an opportunity for other institutions and countries.

“Jesus College has set an example,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. 

The present Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, said the bronzes were "imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken."Kalyan Veera / Reuters

This week’s flurry of activity follows a decision by Germany earlier this year to work on its own restitution plan for Benin Bronzes, in what Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described as a “turning point in dealing with our colonial history.”

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to Burkina Faso that it was no longer acceptable for a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries to remain in France. 

The next year a report, commissioned by Macron, recommended that French museums give back works that were taken without consent if African countries request them. 

This marked a crucial step on the way to this week’s developments, said Barnaby Phillips, the author of ‘Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes.’

“Although that report only pertained to France, I think it sent shockwaves through the museum world, and affected particularly the other big colonial powers, Germany and the U.K.,” he said. 

Then came the reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May 2020. While the fallout in America focused largely on police violence and the legacy of slavery, in Europe a large part of the focus was on the enduring impact of colonialism. 

“That, again, put European museums very much under the spotlight,” Phillips said. 

Presiding over a ceremony in Paris this week, President Emmanuel Macron said: "All young people need to take possession of their country's history in order to better build their future." Michel Euler / AP

The British Museum recently received a letter from the Nigerian government asking for the return of the country’s antiquities. A spokesperson said the museum was reviewing the documents and would address them fully in due course, adding that it was hosting a meeting of a group this week in which “developments regarding the return and restitution of Benin works to Nigeria” were discussed. 

“The museum understands and recognizes the significance of the issues surrounding the return of objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums across the globe to share our collection as widely as possible,” the spokesperson added.

The institution has a strict policy on the permanent removal of art from its collection that 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 Doku that this week’s handovers marked a turning point. 

“It will be much harder for many museums to refuse [to] even to discuss the question if certain Benin bronzes have been already restituted,” he said, adding that museums are also pressured by public opinion to justify the presence of African artifacts within their collections.

What’s more, Diagne said, the global south would now be a player in the circulation and exchange of museum artifacts because they will now own these works. 

This is an outcome Doku also wants to see. 

“This isn’t about these artifacts going back to their countries and never to be seen again, it’s about the ownership of these pieces being in the right place,” he said.