Installation view of 56 Benin bronze plaques, in the Africa Galleries at the British Museum, London (2021) (all photos by the author)

This caption in the British Museum’s Africa galleries summaries briefly the political history leading up to the sacking of Benin City in 1897 by British forces. Although certainly constrained by the practical need for brevity, the wall text nonetheless does not sufficiently capture the punitive nature of the military invasion, in which 1,200 marines approached on a flotilla of warships, and air strikes were rained down on towns and civilians. The campaign has since been labelled a massacre. Nor does the text express the expedition’s purpose of regime change. Instead, the wording makes the Benin Oba Ovonramwen’s deposition sound incidental, adding it last and in the passive voice.

It also does not reference what occurred in the preceding events. There had been a “provocative British mission,” led by acting Consul General James Phillips, with the understanding that the Oba would allow the British party to enter Benin ostensibly to discuss trade, but the Benin Iyase (commander of the Benin Army), acting independently, ambushed the group, triggering the punitive British invasion.

Wall caption for 56 Benin bronze plaques, Africa Galleries at the British Museum, London (2021)

While acknowledging the sacking as “violent and devastating with many casualties,” the passive voice used in the written text effectively downplays Britain’s responsibility: “Objects were plundered;” not “The British plundered objects.” Another key factor that is ignored is the violence of looting. Describing plundering as “official ‘spoils of war’ and personal trophies,” are euphemisms for actively taking a culture’s most prized items which is itself a deliberate form of attack.

Installation view of 56 Benin bronze plaques, Africa Galleries at the British Museum, London (2021)

This text does not communicate sufficiently the sheer scale and violence of the operation, though to its credit, a more explicit history is provided on the BM website. However, the diluting nature of the passive voice, combined with vagueness and omission of key points described above threatens viewers’ grasp of the British antagonism and criminality responsible for the bronzes being situated in this gallery today.

A screenshot of the British Museum website taken on June 28, 2021 (photo by the author)

Further downplaying the violent history behind the bronzes is the display itself. The caption referencing the Benin sacking is adjacent to a grid of 56 Benin plaques, at the terminal of a gallery otherwise dedicated to African crafts, textiles, hats, and brass casts. The caption says the looting “[included] nearly 1000 brass plaques,” implying that some of them are among the adjacent 56. Yet more Benin bronzes are scattered within the displays concerning brass casting and Benin art historical iconography, with no referencing to the looting. For example, a cast bronze vessel whose iconography consists of elephants “was found in Benin city.” Although the BM recognizes that it owns 1,000 looted pieces, it has exhibited the 56 bronze plaques in their own display and applied to this contained group the captioning referencing the Benin expedition. However, it is apparent that more from the 1,000 are presently shown in different displays throughout the gallery, such as the elephant piece above; we are not told explicitly which are looted and which are not. This has the effect of reducing in the visitor’s eye the sheer number owned to just those outlined in this display.

Lid of a vessel showing elephants, cast brass, Nigeria, (ca. 16th Century)

There is an increasing collective awareness across Western museums regarding the necessity for deaccessioning and restituting artefacts gained by illegal or nefarious means. The case for Benin has been spearheaded by Dan Hicks of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, who argues in his 2020 book The Brutish Museums for the “decolonisation” of museums, arguing that it is not enough for them to simply exercise self-awareness by rewriting labels or “shuffling” around displays to retell histories as a sort of mea culpa. Actually possessing the items, and choosing to display them in any format, is automatically to consider them through the prism of European accession, rather than through African loss, thereby reinforcing violent western dominance over African civilizations. Museums therefore cannot be neutral vessels and, in actuality, according to Hicks, “The damage is renewed every day that the museum doors are unlocked and these trophies are displayed to the public.” He calls on “universities, museums, charitable trusts, local government, nation states, descendants of the soldiers who did the looting, private sectors — to take meaningful action towards cultural restitution.”

The museum’s caption does disclose however that it is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a platform for Western museums to work with representatives from the Nigerian Government, Royal Court of Benin, and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) with the aim of reuniting dispersed pieces in a permanent museum in Benin City. In June 2021 the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it will send back to Nigeria two bronzes, and that it is collaborating with the British Museum in research to this end. In April 2021, according to a report from (Benin Dialogue Group member) Germany’s federal government, the group has agreed to determine by summer this year a concrete timetable for the return of works by its members.

Wall caption at entrance to Africa Galleries at the British Museum, London (2021)

This positive and definitive action taken by the group, and by association the BM, is at odds with the museum’s website which doesn’t supply these important updates. Instead, after attesting to its “excellent long-term working relationships with Nigerian colleagues and institutions,” with regard to returning the pieces, it betrays its reluctance to act unprompted. It states: “While no formal written request has been received for the return of the Museum’s Benin collections in their entirety, the Benin Royal Court has made various public statements asking for Benin collections to be returned.” This chimes with the attitude displayed by London’s Horniman Museum which has outlined a procedure for requesting restitution in order for it to consider releasing works. This contrasts sharply with the Met and the National Museum of Ireland, which have given their entire holdings back, sans application form. When one stops to consider the sheer volume of dispersed pieces, plus the magnitude of research required to track them down across the world, it is entirely ridiculous and myopic of institutions to expect Nigeria to make detailed applications to retrieve its own cultural heritage.

Despite these positive developments towards creating a Benin museum and the British Museum’s active participation in work towards restitution, the current display and captioning fail to be forthright or responsible. The display implies a fewer number of bronzes to be the result of the punitive expedition, whilst the captioning shies from detailing the scale and criminality of the British antagonism behind their acquisition. Together both choices do little to inform visitors that the works on view are the subject of ongoing urgent debate regarding colonialist history and the return of objects obtained by violence.

Editor’s Note: The post has been edited to remove the claim that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has “given their entire holdings back” in reference to the Benin Bronzes. The museum has plans to return only two pieces, and it continues to hold onto an estimated 151 pieces in their Perls collection.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...

One reply on “How the Labels in the British Museum’s Africa Galleries Evade Responsibility”

  1. The Metropolitan Museum is NOT returning “its entire holdings” of Benin Bronzes! They are returning the TWO pieces which Barnaby Evans pointed out to them were stolen a second time (from the National Museum in Lagos, after having been sold back by the British Museum) in the 1950s or 1960s. The Met owns an addition 160 looted Benin works from the Perls collection, which they have thus far shown no intention of relinquishing.

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