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University of Aberdeen to return Benin bronze to Nigeria

The University of Aberdeen is to return a controversial Benin bronze after a review found the item had been acquired in an “extremely immoral” manner, as the Nigerian government calls on other British museums to reassess their collections.

The bronze, which depicts the Oba, or king of Benin, was part of a haul of thousands of items taken when British forces looted Benin city in southeastern Nigeria in 1897, and will be sent back “within weeks”, according to the university.

In a statement, the institution, which has had the bronze since 1957, said the “punitive expedition” of 1897 was one of “the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion”.

Prof George Boyne, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, said the decision was in line with Aberdeen’s “values as an international, inclusive university”, adding that keeping the bust would have been wrong because it was “acquired in such reprehensible circumstances”.

Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, said the move was a step in the right direction. “Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation,” he added.

The news comes in the same week as Germany confirmed it was negotiating to repatriate several bronzes that remain in its collections.

Berlin is negotiating the return of the 440 bronzes held at its Ethnological Museum, with the deal reportedly including the training of Nigerian museum staff, archaeological excavations and assisting with the construction of a new museum in Benin that has been designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.

On Wednesday, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the repatriation issue was part of an “honest engagement with colonial history”, adding: “It is a question of justice.”

The German stance stands in contrast to the British position on the bronzes and repatriation of colonial-era artefacts more widely.

The British government has consistently refused to consider repatriation despite several decades of pressure, including a sustained campaign by the Labour MP Bernie Grant in the 1990s.

Private individuals and other British institutions have committed to returning bronzes. Jesus College in Cambridge said it would return a bronze cockerel taken by British colonial forces in 1897 after a student-led campaign that started in 2016.

In 2019, Mark Walker – the grandson of a British soldier who was part of the punitive expedition – loaned two wooden ceremonial paddles to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which will ultimately return them to the royal court of Benin.

The British Museum, which has the largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world, said it fully acknowledged the “devastation and plunder” by the British in Benin city.

“We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange,” a spokesperson added.

Prof Dan Hicks, curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum – and author of The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution – said the returns put a focus on the other British museums that currently hold bronzes. “The British Museum has in the past been taking up far too much space in this conversation,” he said.

Lbelle Paris

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