Monday, 1 November 2021

Britain Can't Decide Whether It should Send Its Looted Treasures Back To Their Rightful Owners

Britain is once again reckoning with its imperial history during a week in which two ceremonies were held to mark the return of ancient looted artifacts to Nigeria from the UK.

On Wednesday, a college at the University of Cambridge staged a ceremony acknowledging the official return of a bronze statue of a cockerel to Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The cockerel, donated to the university in 1905 by the father of a student, is a Benin Bronze, looted during the 1897 British invasion of Benin city, in modern Nigeria, during which British forces burnt down the royal palace among other buildings and stole priceless artifacts.

The event at Jesus College was followed by a similar handover at the University of Aberdeen on Thursday evening where a sculpture depicting the head of a Benin king was returned to Nigeria. Elsewhere in mainland Europe, France and Germany have also taken measures to repatriate similar objects. President Emmanuel Macron was present during an event on Wednesday at the Quai Branly museum in Paris where 26 artifacts were ceremoniously returned to Nigeria.

Neil Curtis, head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, looks at a bronze sculpture depicting an oba (king) of Benin. Credit: Kalyan Veera/Reuters

These moves have put pressure on a number of academic and cultural institutions such as the British Museum, which is facing calls to return its enormous collection of bronzes, comprised of over 900 artifacts. The museum said in a statement sent to CNN that it "understands and recognizes the significance of the issues surrounding the return of objects" and remains committed to "share our collection as widely as possible."

The issue is an uncomfortable one for the museum, which is also home to other world-famous stolen artifacts, including the Parthenon Marbles, a series of ancients sculptures looted from Athens.

The British government believes that the museum is the right home for the bronzes as it makes them accessible to the largest number of people and, as a leading museum in one of the world's most global cities, has the best facilities for their upkeep.

This is an argument that many find insulting and steeped in exactly the type of British imperial thinking that saw the artifacts looted in the first place.

"This logic suggests that Nigeria is a poorer country that in incapable of properly looking after the artifacts that colonialists stole, despite the fact there is a state-of-the-art museum awaiting them in Nigeria. It's a classic racist argument that Britain is a place of refinement and knows best," said Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University.

French President Emmanuel Macron inspects a 19th-century royal statue representing Benin's King Ghezo, exhibited at the Quai Branly museum before it is returned to Nigera. Credit


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