In a ceremony this morning marking the repatriation of three Nigerian artworks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) entered into a shared agreement to collaborate on mutual loans of Benin objects and other “exchanges of expertise and art.”
This summer, the Met announced the return of two 16th-century brass plaques in its collection that once adorned the Royal Palace in Benin City, the capital of the West African Kingdom of Benin. “Warrior Chief” and “Junior Court Official” belong to the group of highly contested objects known as the Benin Bronzes, looted by British forces from present-day Nigeria in the 1890s. The bulk of the artifacts, which include brass and bronze sculptures as well as ivory carvings and number in the thousands, currently reside in European institutions, some of which have launched efforts in recent years to facilitate their restitution.
“If other museums can do what the Met did, I think we would be able to give confidence to our audience, to our visitors,” said Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the NCMM, during the event. “The issue of repatriation is now at the heart of the people. People are looking at museums, particularly in Europe, and saying: these artifacts are not legally owned, are not their own. Yet they display these objects and take all the credit.”
In addition to the plaques, the Met helped broker the return of a third object that was not in its collection, a 14th-century brass “Ife Head” from the Wunmonije Compound in Nigeria that it had been offered for purchase. All three works were researched in partnership with the British Museum, which owns over 900 objects from the Kingdom of Benin.
As part of the transfer ceremony today, Met Director Max Hollein and Professor Tijani signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing their commitment to future collaborations. These include loans of Benin objects from the Met to Nigerian’s 52 national museums, including the forthcoming Edo Museum of West African Art being built on the ruins of Benin City; as well as loans from Nigeria to the Met for its Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. Devoted to the art of sub-Saharan Africa, the ancient Americas, and Oceania, the 40,000-square-foot wing is currently closed for renovations and slated to reopen in 2024.
“The conversations that we had about these objects triggered a much deeper and collegial exchange,” Hollein told Hyperallergic. “It’s not only about the repatriation of objects, but about the path forward. How we as institutions will exchange scholarship, invite more of our Nigerian colleagues here to interpret parts of our collection, or lend expertise from our side to Nigeria.”
“It’s about scholarship, education, and training,” Hollein continued. “And establishing a much more mutual way of moving forward.” Such an agreement is not without precedent, he explained, adding that the Met has a memorandum of understanding with Greek museums and similar collaborations with Egypt and Turkey.
The Met currently houses approximately 160 objects from Benin City, most of them donated in the 1970s and ’90s by individuals who acquired them on the art market under uncertain circumstances. Like many of the Benin items in its collections, the two brass plaques were gifted by Klaus and Amelia Perls. They were first housed in the British Museum and subsequently transferred to the National Museum in Lagos, but they were never formally deaccessioned.
The Met’s restitution announcement this summer was met with mixed responses, with some critics summing up the efforts as too little, too late. Barnaby Phillips, a former BBC reporter and author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (2021), said the Met had long known about the objects’ shaky provenance and “only in the past year did the alarm bells…ring sufficiently loudly for anyone to launch an investigation.”
In an op-ed for Apollo magazine, he argues the museum has chosen to return the pair of plaques because they were taken illegally from Nigeria’s national museum after the country’s independence in 1960, and not because they were looted in the 19th century. According to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, institutions and individuals must take measures to “seize and return any cultural property stolen and imported” from a museum or public monument.
“In returning these specific plaques, they’re making an unacknowledged distinction between them and the rest of their Benin Bronzes,” Phillips said. “This return is about PR and legality, not morality.”
During today’s ceremony, Professor Tijani said the commission was enthusiastic about future partnerships with the Met.
“My stake here is to say that we are looking forward to collaboration with the Met because we cannot exist in an island, without reaching out to our partners outside the country,” he said. “We want to see how we can work together and build our institutions.”