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STATEMENT ISSUED ON THE OCCASION OF THE VISIT OF THE GERMAN DELEGATION TO THE PALACE OF THE OBA OF BENIN IN RESPECT OF PROPOSED RETURN OF LOOTED BENIN ARTEFACTS.

May 21 2021

Oba ghato ‘kpere, Ise!


We wish to warmly welcome the esteemed delegation of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Palace of His Royal Majesty, Omo N’ Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Oba of Benin. Your visit is no doubt an affirmation of the high esteem you hold the Palace of the Benin people, especially in the context of the matter before us at the moment. We earnestly pray that the deliberations, to be undertaken here today will bear abundance fruit.


Distinguished German delegations, against the back ground that, this is your first official visit to the Palace and given the evolving situation on the subject matter, it is important that we present the facts as follows:


POSITION OF THE BENIN DIALOGUE GROUP (BDG)


The vision of BDG was to establish a new Royal Museum to reunite in Benin City the most significant of Benin’s historical artefacts, currently in various locations around the world. The Museum will showcase the rich history and culture of the Benin Kingdom from the earliest archaeological evidence to contemporary creative expressions, in recognition of the fact that Benin City continues to be a vibrant artistic centre. The museum will be founded as a place of remembrance, education and inspiration for the people of the Benin Kingdom


The Benin Dialogue Group has now convened about five times. The inaugural meeting was held in December 2010 with the theme:-'New Cultures of Collaboration: Sharing of Collections and Quests for Restitution: the Benin Case'. It was hosted by the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna. The second meeting held in October 2011 in Berlin with theme:-'New Cultures of Collaboration--Sharing of Collections'. The third meeting, held from 19th to 20th February 2013, in Benin City, with theme:-'Meeting of Nigerian Officials and European Museum Representatives over the Benin Bronzes in European Museums'.


The Benin City meeting produced the Benin Plan of Action addressed various issues including digital and printed publication of the Benin collection of the participating parties, the accessibility of the collections to the staff of the collaborating institutions, the waiving of reproduction fees, assistance with expertise, scholarship and support for curatorial education, and support for development of libraries and archives of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria. The interest here was to create an enabling environment for exchange of views and perspectives, fostering, joint exhibitions and loan of artefacts. 


After the Benin City meeting another meeting was proposed for Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, principally intended to advance the Benin Plan of Action. The highlights of the Cambridge meeting  was to take concrete steps towards the establishment of a permanent display in Benin City, rotating material from a consortium of European museums, in collaboration with Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Royal Court of Benin(Palace of the Oba of Benin). It was also agreed that steps would be taken to raise funds for a first rate and standard museum in Benin City, to be called the -Benin Royal Museum.


That Following the Benin exhibition, the Museum of Ethnology (Weltmuseum Wien), Vienna and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) of Nigeria took the initiative to start an open dialogue on the accessibility of the art treasures of the Benin Kingdom to Benin people and other Nigerians. 


In December 2010 the workshop New Cultures of Collaboration. Sharing of Collections and Quests for Restitution: the Benin Case was organised in Vienna at the Museum of Ethnology. The second meeting in October 2011 in Berlin was entitled New Cultures of Collaboration--Sharing of Collections.


The third meeting, held from 19th to 20th February 2013 in Benin City, it was a Meeting of Nigerian Officials and European Museum Representatives over the Benin Bronzes in European Museums. Nothing concrete came out of the meetings with regard to the original theme as indicated in the title of the first meeting--sharing of collections and restitution. The British Museum was designated to host the fourth meeting in the following year, but this meeting never took place, and the reason for failure to convoke the meeting has never been presented


The next Benin Dialogue Meeting was proposed to take place in London in 2020 at the British Museum, to be followed by another meeting at the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg, 2021.The proposed meetings have also not been held and for reasons never explained.


At this juncture, it is pertinent to recall that; The Palace of the Oba of Benin and Nigerian Government, at various times since Independence, asked for the return of the Benin artefacts from the various museums in Europe and the United States which are still in their possession, but to no avail, the most famous request and rejection occurred in 1977. We also know as a matter of fact that the British Museum is in possession of a very beautiful ivory pendant mask (the Queen Idia pendant). In 1977 Nigeria hosted a pan-African cultural festival and the organisers chose it as the festival's emblem. Nigeria requested the loan of the ivory mask and, after some dissembling; the British Museum rejected the request. it is crystal clear therefore, the a critical part of the recommendations of the Benin Dialogue group, remain the establishment of museum to be called “BENIN ROYAL MUSEUM”in Benin City and not “Edo Museum For West Africa Arts” (EMOWAA). In fact a one time DG of National Commission for Museum and Monument visited Benin City, with a proposed design which has not seen the light of day.


THE PROPOSED MUSEUM OF WEST AFRICAN ART (EMOWAA)AS CONCEIEVED;


Ab initio, and as a matter of fact,the EMOWAA is a clear deviation from the original plan for the Benin royal museum.In Nov. 2020, it was widely reported in the news; that one David Adjaye was touted to have been appointed by the British Government or (British Museum) to design a museum building, who thereafter proposed a different name and class of museum distinct from the original one proposed by Benin Dialogue Group. See the news reports: 17 Nov 2020 — Designed by architect David Adjaye, the museum will reunite looted ... to the Nigerian museum, then tentatively titled the Benin Royal Museum.Major new archaeology project on site of new museum in Benin https://blog.britishmuseum.org › major-new-archaeolog...    

2.    In another report dated the 13 Nov 2020, it was erroneously statedthat the project was developed, with the approval of the Benin Royal Court, the Edo State Government and the Nigerian National Commission.

The architect Mr. David Adjaye, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities also announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned Benin Royal Museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls.

It is worth pointing out here, that, Mr. Adjaye the British born Ghanaian Architect, now promoting the EMOWAA project, was never a member of the Benin Dialogue Group. He has also never consulted or made contact with Royal Palace of Benin. Therefore the change of name from the original plans and concept as laid out by the Benin Dialogue Group is unacceptable as it was unilaterally conceived. Similarly given the fact that there already exists a structure- The Oba Ewuare II Foundation, we believe that it is superfluous and totally unnecessary to create the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT) and the proposed EMOWAA to take custody and manage the returned Benin looted Artefacts.


LIST OF INTERNATIONAL MUSEUMS & INSTITUTION THAT HAVE IDENTIFIED WITH THE CALL FOR RETURN OF BENIN ATIFACTS:


MUSEUMS:


 University of Aberdeen

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge. ...

The British Museum (BM), London.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. 

Great North Museum, Newcastle. 

The Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT), Brighton. ...

National Museums Liverpool

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.


Other museums that have taken steps to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria

National Museum of Ireland and Horniman are the latest museums to indicate repatriation plans

The Horniman has published a formal procedure for filing repatriation requests Horniman Museum & Gardens South London’s Horniman Museum and the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin have become the latest institutions to take steps towards the repatriation of Benin bronze objects in their collections. The cultural treasures – looted by the British army from Benin City in present-day Nigeria, 1897 – have dominated the cultural restitution debate since Berlin's Humboldt Forum announced last month that it would return its Benin bronze holdings.


The National Museum of Ireland declared this week that it plans to return 21 Benin bronze items to Nigeria. The objects, which include armlets, wooden paddles, figures and a staff, came into the museum’s collection between 1898 and 1907. 


The museum has yet to announce a formal restitution plan. Meanwhile the Horniman published a policy document last month outlining a formal procedure for requesting the repatriation of items from its collections. The museum's chief executive, Nick Merriman, said: “Our Restitution and Repatriation Policy sets out a clear procedure for repatriation claims… The Horniman has, at the time of writing (7 April 2021), received no repatriation requests which means that no definitive decision has been reached, nor even yet considered, about repatriation of any object.”

The Horniman has 50 objects that are believed to have been looted in February 1897 during the military invasion of Benin City. Fifteen of these objects are brass plaques referred to as Benin bronzes.


University of Aberdeen: After an internal review, the university announced in March 2021 that it will unconditionally return the one Benin bronze sculpture in its collection. The review uncovered that the object was pillaged by British forces in an “extremely immoral manner”. The University of Aberdeen is the first British institution to agree to full repatriation of a Benin bronze.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge: The MAA estimates that its collections include more than 160 artifacts which have or are likely to have an 1897 Benin City provenance. In 2019, the MAA developed a framework for the return of artifacts.

The British Museum (BM), London: The BM has around 900 objects from Benin kingdom in its collection. A spokeswoman for the BM said the institution is working directly with colleagues in Nigeria on the issue. 

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford: The Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums released a joint statement stating that it holds approximately 105 objects taken during the 1897 looting of Benin city; they are currently under the stewardship of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Great North Museum, Newcastle:The museum holds one item from Benin City – a brass staff/stave in the form of a bird. that the Benin item was, or was most likely, acquired illegally, then we would not hesitate to return this item.”

The Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT), Brighton: The RPMT has several objects – two carved wooden Oba heads, a circular box and a carved Edo elephant tusk – in its collection that it believes may have been acquired through the British Punitive Expedition to Benin of 1897.

National Museums Liverpool: The institution is part of the Digital Benin project, which is committed to assembling all the dispersed royal artworks from Benin City in order to digitally reunite them. 

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery: Bristol currently holds one Benin bronze, which came to the city in 1935 with little supporting information. A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “We have been working with interested parties in Nigeria and those negotiating with them across Europe, as part of the Benin Dialogue Group. Following discussions with the LRT in December, we are awaiting further information on next steps from the stakeholders in Nigeria. Once we have been able to establish the level of agreement for their plans for a new museum, we will be able to progress towards establishing an action plan for the future of the artefacts currently in Bristol.’’

National Museums Scotland: The institution has around 80 objects from Benin in its collection and believes that approximately 70 of those are connected to the 1897 expedition. 

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham:The Barber Institute has one Benin bronze on display. A statement from the Henry Barber Trust said: “The trustees take this issue very seriously and are cognizant of the wider debates and are keeping abreast of the climate of opinion and best practice. They will be guided by official policies or decisions made by the UK Government and museum sector.

The Berlin’s Humboldt Forum – the new museum of non-European art due to open in the German capital later this year – told the media that the museum had entered talks with Nigeria to fully restitute its Benin bronze holdings. Hartmut Dorgerloh reportedly said the institution may instead exhibit replicas of the bronzes or leave “symbolic” empty spaces. The restitution could take place as early as autumn.Dorgerloh’s announcement came after a visit to Benin City by the Culture Director of Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The plans are not official yet, but government figures in Germany have indicated their support for the restitution, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeting: “The question of the return of cultural goods is part of dealing honestly with colonial history. It is a question of justice.”

Distinguished delegation from Germany, once again we say “Thank You” for this laudable statement of the German Foreign Minister. Indeed,“The question of the return of cultural goods is part of dealing honestly with colonial history. It is a question of justice.” Perhaps even more, it is also a matter of integrity and honour. That is why we urge that nothing must dissuade you nor stop us from ensuring the return of the Benin royal artefacts. This is no time for games but for business and for justice.We welcome the fresh pledges for the restitution of looted Benin Artefacts, especially from museums across the UK and other parts of Europe; we are constantly seeking out the latest updates on the Benin bronze repatriation.

We acknowledge the historic developments and robust milestone achieved especially with the German authorities and museums across Germany and the sincere efforts towards the return of the Benin Artefacts, after years of demand by His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin. Since there is nothing official yet we once again therefore urge the German authority to remain committed to the Return through the Nigeria State to the original owners of the Artefacts which is the Benin people as personified by His Royal Majesty, the Oba of Benin, who has continued to demand for the repatriation and restitution for the looted Benin Artefacts.

HISTORICAL FACTS ABOUT THE BUILDING OF MUSEUMS IN BENIN CITY AND BENIN KINGDOM


Benin City’s National Museum: in 1944, the second museum to be established in the country, under the auspices of Oba Akenzua II. He first hosted a collection of antiquities in the palace, some of which had been uncovered during 20th-century royal construction. 

This included a large brass snake’s head of the type that had formerly hung on the palace towers, as well as several hip pendants, a figure, and large shield-shaped plaques whose thinness, style, and metallic content suggested an early date. 

This initial collection developed into Benin’s National Museum, with local historian Chief Jacob Egharevba serving as its first curator. It moved to the colonial tax office on Ring Road, then back to the Divisional Council within palace grounds, then into the colonial post office. In 1960, it was handed over to the government. 

In the early 1970s, when oil revenue fueled infrastructures, Gov. S. O. Ogbemudia funded the construction of a newly dedicated building on King’s Square, the centrally-located circle surrounded by the city’s Ring Road. This land had been part of the palace complex before the 1987 British invasion, but in 1973 it was opened to the public as a cultural display site.

The ancient Benin kingdom and Benin City have a history of hosting museums, including an existing national museum at the heart of Benin City. However the Benin Royal Museum is special in the sense that it will host the returned looted Benin Artefacts, which are not just mere artistic expressions but also bear an enormous spiritual significance to Palace of the Benin people. It is heartwarming to know that more than 160 international museums have the collection of our artefacts and some are willing to support the construction of the Benin Royal Museum. We urge them to continue these efforts. 


RESTATEMENT OF THE POSITION OF THE BENIN DIALOGUE GROUP

The vision is to establish a new Royal Museum to reunite in Benin City the most significant of Benin’s historical artifacts, currently in various locations around the world. The Museum will showcase the rich history and culture of the Benin Kingdom from the earliest archaeological evidence to contemporary creative expressions, in recognition of the fact that Benin City continues to be a vibrant artistic center. The museum will be founded as a place of remembrance, education and inspiration for the people of the Benin Kingdom and audiences from around the world."

MATTER ARISING/RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

The latest push to bring the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria has come from His Royal Majesty, Oba Ewuare II, a former of Ambassador of Nigeria to Sweden and Nordic Countries,  a former Ambassador to Angola and Italy who ascended the throne as Oba of Benin in October 2016.You will agree with me that His Royal Majesty occupies a privilege position in the hierarchy of the esteemed Royal fathers of contemporary Nigeria. 


As a direct descendant of the Royal family from whom the Bronzes were looted over a century ago, His Royal Majesty, Oba Ewuare II has made their return a top priority. He has joined forces with Godwin Obaseki, the Governor of the state of Edo to achieve this ultimate goal.

CONCLUSIONS:

The Benin Dialogue Group was formed in 2010 to bring together museum and government representatives from Nigeria and Europe to discuss a way forward and execute the plans for the new Benin City museum, informed by support and expertise from European institutions, emerged out of the group's discussions.

However the move by Berlin and Aberdeen to fully repatriate artefacts marks a departure from the model of long-term loans that had previously been agreed by the dialogue group, and is likely to put pressure on other European institutions to follow suit.

It is our hope that this recent development will speed up the process of restitution and increase support for our proposed museum project in Benin city. The need to right the wrongs of the past which occurred with the British invasion of Benin kingdom, the massacre of our people and the looting of her treasures is now more dire than ever to start a much-needed process of healing and closure.

This is absolutely a landmark decision and will have a profound impact on ethnographic collections for many years to come.

The development does not mean that all of the 5,000-plus pieces held in public collections should be returned, but that every museum is now faced with a choice to react or to ignore this move.

The British Museum (BM), which has around 900 objects from Benin kingdom in its collection, have been quoted to have said that “the institution is working directly with colleagues in Nigeria on the issue. The Benin Dialogue Group, of which the BM is a member.  They should work with His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin and the Benin people who are the original owner and not any other 3rd parties.


The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 should be fully acknowledged by the museums and the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website. 


Thank you all for your kind attention

Oba ghato’kpere, Ise!



Dennis Osaretin, Esq.

(Executive Asst. to His Royal Majesty 

Corporate and Legal Affairs,)

Photo Source: @royalpalacebenin Instagram