The German state, and two British institutions, are restituting looted artworks to Nigeria. Your move, British Museum
This week, Jesus College, Cambridge, became the first UK institution to restore a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria. The object is an extraordinary sculpture of a cockerel, the Okukor, that once adorned the city-state’s palace, one among 10,000 artworks taken during a punitive expedition by the British in 1897. Many of these stolen artefacts, rich with historical, ritual and religious significance, ended up in the British Museum; others are scattered through other collections in northern Europe and North America.
It was the students at Jesus College who raised insistent doubts, in 2016, about the morality of the institution’s continued possession of the bronze. Sonita Alleyne, the college’s master, has concluded that restitution is the “right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact”. Earlier this year, Aberdeen University called the sack of Benin City “one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion” and announced the planned handover to Nigeria of its own Benin bronze. The German state is now anticipating the restitution of looted artworks to Benin City on a huge scale: Germany and Nigeria have signed a memorandum of understanding concerning 1,100 artefacts held in ethnological museums around the country. All the objects are planned to go on public display in a new museum in Benin City, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye.