Two British institutions returned their looted Benin Bronzes while the British Museum continues to refuse to do the same

While the British Museum is hemming and hawing about the returns of hundreds of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, a few British institutions have made moves to return artifacts within their collections.

Last week, Cambridge University held a ceremony to return a Benin bronze cockerel, one of the many looted bronze works looted from the Kingdom of Benin. In 1905, a father of a student gifted the bronze to Cambridge’s Jesus College, where it has resided since then. After a campaign by the student body, the statue was removed from public display in 2016. 

The university announced its intention to return the statue in 2019. On October 27, 2021, delegates from Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments and Benin received the cockerel in a ceremonial handover held in the college.

The following day, a similar handover was held at the University of Aberdeen. Since 1957, the university has possessed a bronze head depicting an Oba, or king, of Benin. The university acquired the bronze head through an auction. Similarly, delegates arrived at Aberdeen to receive the bronze sculpture.

A Benin Bronze depicting an Oba (king) of Benin

The two events mark the first British institutions to return the Benin Bronzes that were looted by the British Army in 1897. These returns add more pressure for the British Museums, which holds the biggest collection of the Benin Bronzes. While countries like France and Germany have made country-wide efforts to return the Benin Bronzes, the British government has not done so.

The British Museum is infamously known for holding several looted objects, like the Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. The British government has refused to return the looted artifact, stating that the museum is the best way to make them accessible to more people. 

Critics have denounced this statement, calling it insulting and steeped with British Imperial thinking. "This logic suggests that Nigeria is a poorer country that is incapable of properly looking after the artifacts that colonialists stole, despite the fact that there is a state-of-the-art museum awaiting them in Nigeria. It's a classic racist argument that Britain is a place of refinement and knows best," said Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University.

But even if the British Museum wanted to return the bronzes, they wouldn't be able to do so. According to The British Museum Act of 1963, the British Museum is not allowed to dispose of its collection. This includes returning the stolen loot to their original countries. However, when a government spokesperson was asked directly about the Benin Bronzes, they told CNN that the museum operates independently and makes their own decisions about their collections, calling the Benin Bronze collection a private, rather than a national, collection.

So which is it, Britain? Are you forbidding the British Museum to give away their collection or are you letting them make their own decision about their collection?

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