University of Aberdeen to return stolen bronze sculpture to Benin

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Nigerians were (and still are) so passionate about
the return of the artifacts stolen by the British
when they overthrew Oba Ovonramwen N’ogbaisi
of Benin Empire that a movie, Invasion 1897 , was
released to drive home the point. Produced and
directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, the movie
was released in 2014 and features several
Nollywood actors including Segun Arinze, Paul
Obazele, Charles Inojie and Mike Omorogbe (as
Oba Ovonrawmen).
The movie opens with a History lecturer telling
his students in UK the importance of sculptures of
Benin Empire which went beyond artifacts but
were also means of communication. One of the
students, a young Benin prince, thereafter, enters
a museum in London to take back artworks that
belong to his ancestors. He is arrested, docked
but pleads not guilty.
The judge, however, discharges and acquits him but with
advice that he should explore the opportunities provided
by diplomatic channels and the International Court of
Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, to fight his case.
As the agitations for the return of the artworks
thicken in the arts, academic journals, the media,
diplomatic circles, there is a silver lining in the
clouds
as the University of Aberdeen has made known its
intention to return “a Benin bronze – a sculpture
looted by British soldiers in Nigeria in one of the
most notorious examples of the pillaging of
cultural treasures associated with 19 century
European colonial expansion.” This is contained in
a press statement sent by Jo Milne on
Wednesday, 24 March.
Those Who Made It Possible
The University of Aberdeen, as contained in the
statement, instigated a conversation through
Professor Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in
Babcock University, Nigeria with the National
Commission for Museums and Monuments of
Nigeria through its Legal Adviser, Babatunde
Adebiyi, the Edo State Government through the
then Attorney-General and Commissioner for
Justice, Professor Yinka Omorogbe and the Royal
Court of the Oba of Benin through Prince
Professor Gregory Akenzua in 2020.
“The Nigerian Federal Government gave its
backing through the Federal Ministry of
Information and Culture and its Minister, Alhaji Lai
Mohammed.
This conversation has now led to the University of
Aberdeen becoming the first institution to agree
to the full repatriation from a museum of a Benin
bronze.
The bronze sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of
Benin was acquired by the University in 1957 at
an auction and is considered a superb example of
Benin Late Period Art.”
Below is the press statement from the University
“University of Aberdeen approves the repatriation
of bronze sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of
Benin with return to happen within weeks
The University of Aberdeen is to return a Benin
bronze – a sculpture looted by British soldiers in
Nigeria in one of the most notorious examples of
the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with
19 century European colonial expansion.
Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and
carvings were looted by British forces in 1897
during the destruction of Benin City in present-day
Nigeria by a British military expedition.
Many of the soldiers and administrators involved
sold Benin objects to museums or private
collectors. Others were later given as gifts to
museums or sold at auction or by art dealers.
Over the last 40 years there have been growing
calls for the return of such items, which have
become symbols of injustice.
A number of museums have been discussing the
Benin bronzes in their collections and are
supporting the creation of the Edo Museum of
West African Art in Benin City to display the
returned items under agreements wrought by all
parties.
The University of Aberdeen instigated a
conversation through Professor Bankole Sodipo,
Professor of Law in Babcock University, Nigeria
with the National Commission for Museums and
Monuments of Nigeria through its Legal Adviser,
Babatunde Adebiyi, the Edo State Government
through the then Attorney-General and
Commissioner for Justice, Professor Yinka
Omorogbe and the Royal Court of the Oba of
Benin through Prince Professor Gregory Akenzua
in 2020.
The Nigerian Federal Government gave its
backing through the Federal Ministry of
Information and Culture and its Minister, Alhaji Lai
Mohammed.
This conversation has now led to the University of
Aberdeen becoming the first institution to agree
to the full repatriation from a museum of a Benin
bronze.
The bronze sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of
Benin was acquired by the University in 1957 at
an auction and is considered a superb example of
Benin Late Period Art.
Benin City was the centre of a powerful and long-
lasting kingdom in West Africa of the Edo people,
renowned for its tradition of high-quality
metalworking from at least the 17th century.
The expansion of British trade and colonial
control in the later 19th century brought it into
conflict with the kingdom of Benin, ultimately
leading, in 1897, to the city being attacked and
destroyed by a British military expedition, the
“Benin Punitive Expedition”, with many inhabitants
killed. The royal palace was burned and looted,
and the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, exiled.
The thousands of religious and cultural treasures
seized have become known as the Benin bronzes.
Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special
Collections said “The University of Aberdeen has
previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and
ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New
Zealand, and has a procedure that considers
requests in consultation with claimants.
“An ongoing review of the collections identified
the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a
way that we now consider to have been extremely
immoral, so we took a proactive approach to
identify the appropriate people to discuss what to
do.”
An expert panel, including academic specialists
and curators, as well as representatives of the
University Court, the Hunterian Museum in the
University of Glasgow and the Nigerian claimants,
discussed the proposal in detail and unanimously
recommended its return to Nigeria.
On Tuesday the University’s governing body
supported the unconditional return of the Benin
bronze to Nigeria.
Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-
Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen said: “I
welcome the decision of the University of
Aberdeen Court to support the return of the Benin
bronze. This is in line with our values as an
international, inclusive university and our
foundational purpose of being open to all and
dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of
others.
“It would not have been right to have retained an
item of such great cultural importance that was
acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.
We therefore decided that an unconditional return
is the most appropriate action we can take, and
are grateful for the close collaboration with our
partners in Nigeria.”
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information
and Culture of Nigeria said: “The reaching out by
the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of
the priceless antiquity is a step in the right
direction. Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought
to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning
issue of repatriation”.
The Director-General of the National Commission
for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba
Issa Tijani said that: “the world looks forward to
further release of other purloined Nigerian
antiquities to the Nigerian nation. Not just Benin
bronzes, but the Ife, Nok, Esie, Owo and other
Nigerian ancient arts. We welcome collaborations
and agreements of all sorts. We love the fact that
others cherish these great art-works. International
travelling exhibitions of these art-works is part of
what we offer the world”.
The University is now making practical
arrangements for the return of the Head of an
Oba, and collaborating in organising a celebratory
event to mark its return home.
The proposed Edo Museum of West African Art
being championed by Godwin Obaseki, the current
Governor of Edo State in Nigeria where the
ancient kingdom of Benin falls. This modern
museum will be part of an unprecedented cultural
hub that will include this museum and other
cultural heritage infrastructure including the Oba’s
Palace.
It is being executed through the establishment of
an independent trust (The Legacy Restoration
Trust) established by the Edo State Governement
in collaboration with the National Commission for
Museums and Monuments, and the Royal Benin
Palace. This cultural hub is designed by the
eminent architect, Sir David Adjaye. This Benin
bronze being returned will ultimately be housed in
this proposed museum.
The Governor of Edo State stated, “I am looking
forward to working with the Legacy Restoration
Trust, the National Commission for Museums and
Monuments, the Royal Palace and the University
of Aberdeen to ensure that this object is returned
safely and securely, and eventually housed in the
Edo Museum of West African Art.”

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