The Church of England has been urged to open up its books on the full range of world artefacts in its possession after promising this week to repatriate two Benin bronzes.
The move came amid a gathering sense of momentum around the issue of the disputed bronzes – most of which were looted by British forces in 1897.
While the British government has said UK institutions should “retain and explain” contested artefacts, the University of Aberdeen announced last month it would repatriate a bust of an Oba, or king of Benin, which it has had since the 1950s. The Horniman Museum in London also confirmed it was taking steps to return artefacts.
“It’s clear that this is now a Nigerian-led exercise,” said Dan Hicks, the curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and author of The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution.
Arguments put forward in the past that Nigeria was somehow unready to receive repatriated artefacts no longer held waterafter the formation of Legacy Restoration Trust, a Nigerian organisation facilitating restitution, said Hicks, describing it as a “game changing”.
“It’s also no longer just about the British Museum, which holds only a fraction of these artefacts. They are increasingly marginal to this conversation, which is more and more about regional and international museums.”
While welcoming the decision of the Church of England, Hicks said the church should now take another step and commit to publishing a full inventory of collection of artefacts from around the world. The focus should also shift on to the Vatican’s “immense ethnographic collections”, he added.
The two bronzes, which the church said this week it was in discussions about returning, were not among those looted during a punitive military campaign in 1897 when British forces sacked the city of Benin in what is now south-east Nigeria
Instead the works were given as gifts to then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, nearly 40 years ago. Digital Benin, an international project mapping which institutions hold Benin bronzes, had contacted Lambeth Palace about whether archbishop’s residence held any such objects from the group.
A number of other museums in the UK have already confirmed restitution could be on the table if claims were made by the Nigerian government or the royal court of Benin.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge has one of the largest British collections of Benin bronzes. It said if a claim were made, the expectation was that works with an 1897 provenance would be returned. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery said it was “open to all possibilities” and was actively working with Nigerian groups.
Another institution is the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. Its executive manager, Caroline McDonald, said the museum’s broader policy was very “pro-repatriation” and that it was researching the origins of one Benin bronze in its possession.
“We are hoping to get as near as we can to understanding where it came from. We can’t categorically say it was part of the punitive expedition,” she added.
Historically, much of the focus in the UK has been on the British Museum because it has the largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world, with more than 900 items. Bernie Grant, one of Britain’s first black MPs, led a campaign in the 1990s appealing for them to be returned.
“Bernie Grant was perceived to have failed, but as we approach toward the 125-year anniversary [of the looting] it’s clear that that his campaigning and that has come after is generating a change,” said Hicks.