THEY were among thousands of items looted by British soldiers in 1897 from the Nigerian city of Benin. Treasures were taken from the royal palace including numerous bas-reliefs and sculptures only to find their way to museums and private collectors.
Hundreds of artefacts ended up in the British Museum, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and Glasgow’s very own collections.
Eight Benin bronzes are among the items in Glasgow’s collection linked to the raid by the expeditionary force.
And despite a bid in the late 1990s for them to be repatriated to Nigeria, they have remained among Glasgow’s rich collection of artefacts.
However, now steps could be taken to repatriate them as councillors are being asked to consider a reconstituting a Working Group for Repatriation and Spoliation of Artefacts and authorise culture and leisure operator Glasgow Life to begin talks regarding the Benin objects.
Members of the City Administration Committee will be asked to approve the move later this week and could lead to discussion with the royal family of Benin over the return of the artefacts.
It comes at a time when other European museums have already considered their position in retaining Benin artefact in their collections. Earlier this year Germany announced it was returning hundreds of artefacts with foreign minister Heiko Maas calling it a “turning point in dealing with our colonial history”.
Aberdeen University has already announced it is to repatriate a sculpture which it bought in 1957 while the National Museum of Scotland, which has 74 objects in its collection, including a mask, altar piece and plaque, is looking to repatriate them.
In a report, which will go before councillors on Thursday, the committee is being asked to recommend that the working group and Glasgow Life review the current criteria and approach to Repatriation, considering current and evolving practice within the global cultural heritage sector. It is also recommended that Glasgow Life, on behalf of the Council, continues a dialogue with the relevant representatives and organisations concerning the artefacts.
Councillor David McDonald, chairman of Glasgow Life and Depute Leader of the Council and City Convener for Culture, Vibrancy and International Co-operation, explained that during the 1990’s Glasgow’s civic collections were the subject of a number of Repatriation requests.
The 1990 repatriation of human remains from the Collection to Queensland was the first recorded repatriation in Scotland, while the 1999 repatriation of the Ghost Dance shirt, ultimately decided by Public Hearing in November 1998, was the first repatriation of an artefact from a European Museum to an indigenous community. The Ghost Dance shirt was taken from a Lakota warrior after the Wounded Knee Massacre and the following year was returned to descendants of those who were involved in the historic tragedy.
Councillor McDonald said: “Throughout Europe, there are increasing claims, and requests for collections information, by African-based organizations and African Diaspora communities for the return of African heritage from museums to their countries of origin. It is reasonable to anticipate that dialogues with communities from other countries and continents will also arise.
“Glasgow will continue to build on its established approach to restitution, founded on constructive engagement, with the people of Glasgow and the descendent communities or nations making the request, to support each individual situation.”
Cllr McDonald said the re-establishment of a cross-party working group with clear terms of reference will provide the council and Glasgow Life with a governance process to develop policies that outline the council’s approach and position on repatriation matters and requests.
The city’s collection holds eight bronzes and another 21 cultural artefacts whose exact provenance has not been established. They include objects typically placed on the ancestral altars of the Obas of Benin and Glasgow Life is currently, and provisionally, attributing these to late 19th century Edo culture on stylistic grounds and techniques of manufacture.
In 1996, Glasgow refused an initial request by the late Bernie Grant MP for return of its small collection of Benin Bronzes.
In 2007, a consortium of major national cultural institutions in the UK and Europe, known as the Benin Dialogue Group, was formed in an attempt to end the decades of wrangling over the estimated 4,000 bronze and ivory artefacts looted by the British army in 1897, and is working with the Edo State Government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria to find ways to achieve solutions to the issue.
Through cultural agencies in Nigeria, Glasgow Life has established a pathway of communication with the Royal Family of Benin, and as a result is now able to begin talks. It was estimated any future repatriation process could take up to two years.
A spokesperson for Glasgow Life said: “Glasgow has an established approach to requests for the return of parts of the city’s Museum’s Collection, founded on constructive engagement, between the people of Glasgow and the descendent communities or nations making the request, to support each situation. The 1990 repatriation of human remains from the Collection to Queensland was the first recorded in Scotland, while the 1999 repatriation of the Ghost Dance shirt, ultimately decided by Public Hearing in November 1998, was the first of an artefact from a European Museum to an indigenous community. The proposed “Working Group for Repatriation and Spoliation of Artefacts” would allow Glasgow to continue this approach to explore current claims.”