The Horniman Museum in southeast London — which houses displays of natural history, anthropology, and musical instruments — announced Sunday, August 7 that it would return ownership of 72 Benin objects, including 12 Benin bronzes, to Nigeria. It is the first national museum in England to agree to restitute items raided by British forces in the Benin Expedition of 1897, increasing pressure on its more prominent and notorious peer, the British Museum, to do the same.
In January this year, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) sent the Horniman a request for the repatriation of the Benin collection. The Horniman conducted surveys among visitors, educators, academics, and other experts on what should be done with the Benin objects, and the board of trustees eventually voted unanimously to fulfill the NCMM’s request.
The board’s decision also follows activism in 2020 that saw the Horniman featured in a crowdsourced online map entitled “Topple the Racists,” which listed sites with colonial ties in the United Kingdom. At the time, calls were made to rename the Horniman Museum, which the museum has clarified it has no intention of doing. Despite being a social reformer, Frederick John Horniman, the founder of the museum, was a tea trader who built his wealth on forced labor. Some have also criticized the museum for its collection of human remains.
Among the items held by the Horniman included a brass altarpiece depicting a young rooster, brass ceremonial items and bells, and a key “to the king’s palace.” The Horniman joins a growing list of institutions that have announced the return of items looted from Benin, including Oxford and Cambridge just last week.
Eve Salomon, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said in a statement, “The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.” She continued that the Horniman would be working closely with NCMM to “secure longer term care” for the artifacts. The museum is now in discussions with the NCMM to conduct a formal transfer of ownership and the possibility of keeping some objects on loan.