About 50 centimeters high is it, with a beak and a comb: the bronze statue of a rooster. Today, the statuette was the center of a special ceremony at Jesus College, part of the University of Cambridge. After more than a hundred years in England, the rooster was handed over to a delegation from Nigeria. This makes the first of the hundreds of Benin Bronzes in Britain en route home.
The Benin Bronzes consist of thousands of bronze masks, heads and reliefs, coming from the Kingdom of Benin, which lies in modern-day Nigeria. In 1897, British troops took them after their looting of the royal palace. Through Britain, they ended up in museums around the world. Most of them, around 900, can be found at the British Museum in London.
Symbol for dealing with African art
Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has been asking for the return of the Benin Bronzes. But apart from the sale of a single image, there has been little heed of that. In recent years, the collection has grown into a symbol for dealing with art from Africa in Western museums.
Because more and more often the question arises whether that art belongs there. Whether its the Benin Bronzes or other artifacts of African origin: most are not voluntarily issued for a spot in a European or American museum. It was French President Macron who in 2017 lifted the discussion about dealing with African art to a higher level. During a speech in Burkina Faso, he declared the return of African art a top priority.
That is why African art was not only transferred in Britain today, something similar happened in France. In Paris, Macron visited the exhibition of 26 art objects that will soon be handed over to the President of Benin. That country, too, lost art objects in the nineteenth century and has been asking for a return for years.
According to Evelien Campfens, researcher in the field of cultural and heritage law at Leiden University, the British step to actually return art is an exciting one. “The British Museum and the British government go a very different course than the University of Cambridge. They want to explain better how the Benin Bronzes ended up in Britain, but they do not return them. Now that Cambridge does with the rooster and other museums have announced similar steps, that increases the pressure on the British Museum.”
Benin Bronzes are also in the Netherlands. The Museum of World Cultures, which, for example, the Rijksmuseum Ethnology and the Africa Museum are part of, examined its own collection and counted 114, and what will happen with it is not clear. In January, Demissionary Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (Culture, D66) sent a plan to the House of Representatives on returning robbed art. The next cabinet has to decide on that.
“Conducting proactive research and setting rules”
According to Campfens, the Netherlands can learn something from the step taken today in Cambridge. “As a museum, do proactive research into the origin of your collection,” is her call. “Dont wait for a country to ask for something, but just know what you have in your house.”
Campfens further advocates the definition of clear legal rules, so that it is clear when a work of art should return and when not. “And do it together most of all. The fact that Jesus College in Cambridge today could and wanted to return the bronze rooster to a Nigerian delegation is because both parties have worked on an equal footing with each other for years.”
Abba Isa Tijani, the head of the Nigerian committee on museums and monuments, responded joyfully and proudly at the Cambridge ceremony. “We want to show the Nigerians what belongs to them. So that they can connect with a piece of their history that has been so far away for so long. Its an honor to be part of this ceremony in which we did the right thing.”