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Famous Benin bronze to be repatriated to Nigeria

Looted by British forces in 1897, the artefact is finally being returned

By Rory Buccheri

Photo courtesy of Aaedan Brennan

The Benin bronze in possession of the University will be returned to Nigeria at the end of October.

The Museum and Special Collections announced their intention to give back the object earlier this spring. From March onwards, conversations have taken place between the University and state correspondents in Nigeria to agree on a return date.

Neil Curtis, head of Museum and Special Collections, commented on the timing: “Conversations with the Nigerian counterpart began in 2019. From then on, we wanted to transfer power to them to make the decision on when. Therefore, we needed to respect their own time.”

The bronze is an 18th century head of the Oba, the King of Benin. Benin has a long tradition of metalwork casting, going back to the 16th century.

Together with objects and plaques, it serves a function of historically recording the sequence of Kings and preserving their memory. The Nigerian counterpart received the proposal of repatriation positively, in agreement with their campaign regarding the return of Benin bronze, targeted at many other European states who currently own them, namely Germany and France.

One of the key aspects, Mr Curtis told The Gaudie, was the straightforward process promised by the University of Aberdeen. Unlike the bronzes currently in the hands of bigger institutions such as the British Museum, UoA had more agency in deciding what to do about an object in their private collections.

Mr Curtis said the repatriation was part of a series of conversations held with indigenous nations in North America, Australia, and, recently, Canada.

In fact, the object is not the first the University Museum and Collections has returned. In 2003, a sacred scroll was returned to Canada due to a wish to restore it to its original purpose.

The scroll and the bronze have different histories of acquisition with the Benin bronze being an auction purchase from 1957 and carrying a record of brutal seizure. Thus, the reasons behind the repatriation of the two objects are different in nature and can be seen as a willingness on behalf of the University to keep the conversation active.

Although, as disclosed by Mr Curtis, there is no other object lined up to be scrutinised and returned soon, he said it was important to keep looking into the objects in the collections. He added: “We do not know the exact history for many of them, but we might discover equally wonderful or dreadful things about their past.”

Speaking to The Gaudie, Sir Geoff Palmer, who is a human rights activist and Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, said:

“We should send things back but we should also continue to have a relationship, an academic relationship with places like Benin so people from Aberdeen could go and study the mask in Benin and people from Nigeria could come to Aberdeen. An exchange.”


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