Wax cast head of an Oba or king of Benin, removed as war booty from an ancestral altar at the Royal Court of Benin during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 (© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections)

Museums in Glasgow will restitute 17 Benin bronzes, seven Indian artifacts, and 25 Lakota items — some of them seized from the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota — to their communities of origin, the Glasgow City Council announced last week.

The return represents “the largest-ever repatriation of cultural artefacts from a Scottish museum,” according to Duncan Dornan, head of museums and collections at Glasgow Life, a nonprofit that manages arts facilities in the city. Dornan added that the repatriation of the Indian antiquities “is the first of its kind to India from a UK museum.”

The Benin bronzes still in Glasgow institutions are just a handful of thousands that were wrenched from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria during the British-led Benin Expedition of 1897, in which an untold number of civilians were indiscriminately massacred in what archaeologist Dan Hicks has called a “democidal” scorched-earth campaign. Forced into exile, some of the bronzes landed in the British Museum’s permanent collection, while others were touted as personal trophies of colonial adventurism. Some of these were later put up for auction, setting these West African objects adrift throughout Europe and North America.

Bronze ornamental cast bronze mask representing a human face and surrounded by a border of small rings (© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections)

Many of them are finally facing the prospect of a return to their place of origin after a sterile and lonely century away in glass boxes and storage rooms. About a month ago, the Smithsonian Institution announced that it would repatriate the majority of the 39 Benin bronzes in its collection; the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two and facilitated the return of a third this past fall; and Germany, Netherlands, and France have variously signaled their intentions to return some, most, or all of their Benin bronzes within the next few years. The Glasgow City Council vote turns the heat up on the written request and public statements that representatives of the Benin Royal Palace and the Nigerian government have made for the British Museum to return the bronzes in its collection, which make up the lion’s share of the unmoored artifacts, over 900 in total.

The announcement follows a formal written request that Glasgow Life received in late January and a dialogue with the Nigerian Museums and Monuments Commission (NCMM). The process of safely returning the bronzes is estimated to cost £30,000 (~$39,000), to be fronted by the Nigerian government, and discussions are ongoing about the best way to do so. For now, the legal title of the bronzes will be transferred to the NCMM, and the artifacts will remain in Glasgow on loan until their physical return is possible.

War necklace made from cut sections of deer’s hooves painted red on the inside sections and strung on hide (© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections)

Of the Indian antiquities, which were gifted to the Glasgow’s museum collections, six were stolen from Hindu temples and shrines in the 19th century, and one was illegally bought and smuggled out of the country. The 25 Lakota objects include those taken from the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where almost 300 Lakota people were murdered by the United States army, as well as personal and ceremonial items. Glasgow will foot the cost of the return of these items, estimated at around £40,000 (~$52,000).

“By addressing past wrongs, we believe these returns will, in a small way, help these descendant communities to heal some of the wounds represented by the wrongful removal of their cultural artefacts, and lead to the development of positive and constructive relationships between Glasgow and communities around the world,” Dornan said in a statement.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.