Between Restitution and Repatriation
Benin Bronzes in Museum Collections
by Clémentine Débrosse
European museums are scrutinized for the actions they took (or did not take) in favor of restitution. Since March 2021, many institutions both in the UK and in Germany have announced the restitution of the Benin bronzes they hold in their collections. Most of these artefacts were looted during a British punitive expedition in 1897 in Benin City (Nigeria). According to Dan Hicks, Benin bronzes are now scattered between at least 161 museums.
Note: this article was originally published on June 7, 2021. The situation regarding Benin Bronzes has evolved since, see for example news articles in the Art Newspaper.
The urge for restitution was started by France in November 2018 with the now famous Sarr-Savoy report: The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics. With this report, French president Emmanuel Macron made a promise: “the disowning of looted objects”. While restitution claims are never an easy task, it is made particularly arduous in France because of the principle of inalienability of public collections which is inscribed in French law.
According to the Sarr-Savoy report, France will return 27 objects from the collections of the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris) thanks to an exception to the principle of inalienability. While the discussions are ongoing around the conditions of restitution of the first 26 Benin pieces looted by French armed forces in 1892 during the sacking of Abomey Palace and which are currently part of the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac’s collections, legislators and museum institutions alike seem to be forgetting that “claims for the repatriation of artefacts are […] less about recovering a piece of history than about moves to petition for cultural rights.”
"Don’t you dare believe that we will embrace your model of restitution which you present as a gift. This is just another form of imperial exchange where the takers generally give back what never belonged to them."
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Un-documented: Undoing Imperial Plunder (2019)
In these discussions, the terms of restitution and repatriation are often used interchangeably, yet there are important differences between them. As stated by the Collection Trust, “restitution is the process by which cultural objects are returned to an individual or a community. Repatriation is the process by which cultural objects are returned to a nation or state at the request of a government”. Through these definitions, the highly political side of repatriation/restitution shows even more. Restitutions are indeed opportunities to try to reconcile with the violent past which resulted in the creation of these institutions.
As suggested by Dan Hicks in his now famous and controversial book The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, museums should engage in the restitution process by “writing ‘necrographies’” (narrations of death and loss) and also by developing mutual relationships between Europe and the African continent. Through collaboration they would value and emphasize the creation of “commissioning programmes, through which each gap made by returns is filled by new work made by artists, designers, writers and others from the dispossessed community paid for by the museum”.
The replacement of the returned object is already part of the discussion about restitution started by institutions like the Humboldt Forum. Indeed, this soon-to-be opening museum in Berlin has made a statement that they will be returning the Benin bronzes in their collection as early as the beginning of 2022. After the restitution, the Humboldt Forum plans to exhibit replicas of the Benin bronzes or even just leave some empty spaces in the display in order for the repatriation to be visible in their display. With regards to institutions in the UK, the University of Aberdeen was the first one to state that they will be returning a Benin sculpture held in their collections. Not long after, several British institutions followed. The Horniman Museum in London has started writing some policies for the possible future repatriation of the 50 Benin bronzes held in the collections. The Church of England is currently in discussion with Nigeria for the repatriation of the two Benin bronzes they currently hold.
As for larger British institutions, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has been engaging with the repatriation debate, specifically through the de-exhibition of Schuar and Achuar shrunken heads. The Pitt Rivers Museums holds more than 100 Benin bronzes while the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge holds more than 160 Benin bronzes. The British Museum in London holds the largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world with more than 900 artefacts and is yet to engage with the repatriation calls. As stated by Nick Thomas, director of the MAA in Cambridge, museums of anthropology are “‘colonial hangovers’ and sites of experimentation”. In that sense, museums are part of the institutions which have an essential role to play in both restitution and repatriation as part of the broader debate around decolonization.
While acting towards repatriation and restitutions are definitely ways for museums to engage with the decolonization debates, we may wonder whether museums can be decolonized at all. In my view, they will never be fully decolonized institutions, for they bear the visible traces of colonization in their very architecture and foundations. Nevertheless, museums can unlearn by generating debates and/or discomfort in their visitors in order to denounce their imperial heritage and part ways with it. When and if these repatriation and restitutions take place, we can wonder what the reunion of the people with their long-lost objects will look like. While the return of Benin bronzes will not be the first case of repatriated objects, it will be a significant event as most of the repatriations made so far were either human remains or often associated with Native American people or Indigenous Australians. There is no real precedent for Africa and history still has to be made.
- Edo artist, Head of an Oba, 16th century, present-day Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.206.86). Provenance: A West African mine official, acquired before 1885
- Edo artist, Commemorative head of a king Benin kingdom court style,19th century, present-day Nigeria. Provenance: Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897. National Museum of African Art (85-19-7)
- Interior of Benin’s royal palace in 1897 after the raid by British looters Creative Commons © Reginald Kerr Granville
- Edo artist, Plaque, Benin kingdom court style, 19th century, present-day Nigeria. Provenance: Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897. National Museum of African Art (82-5-3)
- Dr Robert Allman, British soldiers with objects looted from the royal palace during the military expedition to Benin City (1897). British Museum, Af,A79.13 © The Trustees of the British Museum
 Azoulay, Ariella Aïsha, 2019. Un-documented: Undoing Imperial Plunder.
 Viejo-Rose, Dacia, 2016. ‘Eternal, Impossible Returns: Variations on the Theme of Dislocations’. In Carroll, Khadija von Zinnenburg (ed), The Importance of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations. Melbourne: Discipline, p. 125.
 Collections Trust
 Hicks, Dan, 2020. The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. London: Pluto Press, p. XIV.
 Ibid., p. 239-240.
 Thomas, Nicholas, 2016. ‘No Normal – A Foreword’. In Carroll, Khadija von Zinnenburg (ed), The Importance of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations. Melbourne: Discipline, p. 16.