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Returning treasures

Returning treasures

The Horniman Museum’s decision to return a collection of Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government will increase pressure on the British Museum to do the same. But how significant is the move?

Some of the things in Britain’s museums are controversial for what they show and others for what they represent.

“It’s the result of the most appalling military atrocity that was perpetrated on the people, and the passage of 100 years does not heal that wound.”

Dr Errol Francis, artistic director and chief executive, Culture&

Because some collections include things that were taken from other countries during the time of the British Empire. Items which some people, like Dr Errol Francis, think should be returned.

“This is a whole movement of questioning the means by which these objects were acquired and displayed and the ideas behind it, the enlightenment, the idea of the encyclopaedic museum, that is colonial arrogance.”

Dr Errol Francis, artistic director and chief executive, Culture&

He’s the artistic director and chief executive of arts and education charity Culture&, and he spoke to Tortoise earlier this year.

For him, a lot of the objects on display in museums or sitting in basement vaults should be returned because they were stolen or acquired immorally.

Others disagree. They think museums are there to conserve and display humanity’s cultural treasures, and it doesn’t matter where in the world that museum is.

But a recent decision by one institution is a victory for people like Dr Errol Francis.


The British Museum’s collection contains at least eight million objects. And among those eight million objects, is the world’s largest collection of Benin bronzes. 

Here’s Giles Whittell, Tortoise’s world affairs editor…

“So the Benin bronzes are a very large collection of in a way, what it says on the tin, bronze treasures commissioned by the Oba or local leader, king, of the kingdom of Benin.”

Giles Whittell, World Affairs Editor, Tortoise

Created as early as the 16th century, the Benin bronzes were commissioned to decorate the royal court in Benin, an ancient kingdom that is now part of southern Nigeria.

Highly complex to make, they’re regarded as one of Africa’s greatest treasures. 

But in February 1897, they were looted…

“… by a British military expedition, a punitive expedition sent to Benin under the command of Rear Admiral Harry Rosson.”

Giles Whittell, World Affairs Editor, Tortoise

The palace was burned and their king was exiled.

“It was a very similar affair in terms of motivation and results to the looting of Maqdalla in Ethiopia in 1868, that led to the looting of sacred treasures, some of which now reside in the British Museum, the looting of Benin in 1897 on a trumped up pretext of punishment for the mistreatment of a previous Imperial expedition up the river Niger to Benin, was the looting of 10,000 bronzes objects which have since been spread all over the world’s museums.”

Giles Whittell, World Affairs Editor, Tortoise

Now spread around 165 museums and many private collections, Nigeria has been demanding the return of the Benin bronzes for decades.

“This process has been as old as the kingdom itself.”

Channel 4 News

And now the Horniman museum in south east London has said it will transfer the ownership of 72 treasured artefacts, including its collection of Benin bronzes, to Nigeria. 

Eve Salomon, the chair of the museum trustees, said:

 “The evidence is very clear that objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.”

Once they’re returned to Nigeria they’ll be displayed with other returned objects.

“They will be housed in a new museum, the Edo museum of west African history opening in 2025.”

Giles Whittell, World Affairs Editor, Tortoise

Because the Horniman museum isn’t the only institution that’s planning to return its collection of Benin bronzes. 

Oxford and Cambridge universities recently agreed to return more than 200, and in July, Germany handed back two Benin bronzes looted by British soldiers. 

So, why is the Horniman museum’s decision so significant?


In an interview last September, the then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Channel 4 News that it was right that the Benin bronzes remained in Britain. 

“Well I think that they properly reside in the British museum. Now that doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t work with the government in Nigeria to see how we can share it with them… I think the more important question is how we ensure the world can enjoy this marvellous heritage.”

Oliver Downden, former Culture Secretary, speaking to Channel 4 News

The British Museum lends items in its collection to other institutions around the world, including to that new museum of west African history.

That’s because it’s prevented from permanently returning its collection of Benin bronzes by the British Museum Act of 1963 and the National Heritage Act of 1983.

The Horniman isn’t bound by those laws, but its decision is still significant.

Here’s Giles Whittell again…

“Why? Notably because the museum is partly funded by the government, by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, and it’s the first time a museum of this kind has acknowledged that it is holding onto stolen property and it’s time to return it… So the significance of this is perhaps that the dam is beginning to break for the restitution of cultural artefacts stolen in Imperial times, held ever since in British museums.”

Giles Whittell, World Affairs Editor, Tortoise

The move comes at the same time as Arts Council England publishes long-awaited new guidance for museums and galleries on restitution, which it says aims to “provide advice and best practice” for museums in England.
And although the guidance doesn’t override the existing legislation which restricts larger museums from following the Horniman’s lead, it does help to pile on the pressure that they should follow suit.

This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.