A new online database launched last Friday catalogs objects looted in the Benin Expedition of 1897 and now housed in disparate collections around the world. Named Digital Benin, it is the first exhaustive attempt to document all Benin bronzes in a centralized and accessible repository.
“Digital Benin presents the first opportunity to centralize and view all artifacts through a single platform,” writes digital heritage specialist Chao Tayiana in an essay on the site. “This in itself presents a radical departure as the Benin bronze collections have not been viewed in a centralized location since their violent removal.”
The database was built by a collaboration of researchers, museum directors, and scholars from the Museum am Rothenbaum–World Cultures and Arts (MARKK) in Hamburg, the Sorbonne University in Paris, and the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna.
In recent years, museums have begun to scrutinize their ownership of so-called “Benin bronzes,” objects ranging from cast plaques to wooden sculptures that were largely seized in a violent 19th-century colonial military expedition. Nigeria has assiduously requested their return, and institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian in the United States; the Horniman Museum in the United Kingdom; and Germany’s national museums are just some that have repatriated, or announced plans to repatriate, their Benin bronzes.
A visualization of the number of objects from Benin by institution reaffirms that the British Museum continues to hold the lion’s share of Benin bronzes, with almost twice as many items, at 944, than the institution with the second-most at 518, the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. Coming in third is the Field Museum in Chicago, with 393 items from Benin listed on the database, and the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds the fourth-largest collection with 350 items. The National Museum, Benin rounds out the top five with 285 objects, and is the only institution in the top ten based in Nigeria. While the Ethnologisches Museum has committed to returning 512 Benin bronzes from its collection to Nigeria — the largest such promised return to date — and Cambridge was the first institution in the UK to announce restitution of a Benin bronze last fall, neither the British Museum nor the Field Museum have entered into any agreement with Nigeria.
It is also possible to view the Benin bronzes by provenance and geography.
Digital Benin aims to achieve goals as straightforward as providing an authoritative and factual digital archive, and as ambitious as compelling museums to adopt Indigenous classificatory language and return the stolen objects in their collections. It contains data from about 5,246 objects located at 131 institutions across 20 countries.
The Ẹyo Otọ page offers a portal for visitors to explore artifacts from Benin grouped neither by the institutions they are currently housed at nor by rough-hewed categories sloppily adopted by primarily Western museum professionals, but by Edo designations. Clicking into an object category page, a visitor will find an instructive description of the type of bronze — whether that is a bird of prophecy staff, called an Ahianmwẹ-Ọrọ, or a more functional household item like an oil lamp, named Urhukpa-Ẹvbi. The database displays all items belonging to that category beneath the description, alongside detailed information about its location, provenance, and other institutional records.