A curator’s museum is filled with looted African art. Now he wants it returned

CNN  — 

The Kingdom of Benin took centuries to build and just a few days to raze to the ground.

In February 1897, British forces stormed the ancient kingdom’s capital city with rockets, shells and Maxim guns capable of firing 600 rounds per minute. A flotilla of warships joined the assault from adjacent waterways.

Benin’s defenders, fighting with blades and muskets, were swiftly massacred. The British burned the city and built a golf course on the ruins.

Victorious soldiers also looted thousands of precious artifacts from shrines and palaces. Within months the “Benin Bronzes” were on display at the British Museum in London.

Haul of loot from Benin including carved ivory tusks.

Museum as a weapon

The bronzes, which are mostly made of brass, tell a story of life in the royal court through finely-crafted renderings of kings, warriors, hunters with wild animals, and foreign explorers.

The treasures of Benin are now scattered across 160 museums – and many more private collections – around the world. Some of the bronzes are considered to be among the finest and most valuable African artworks, with single pieces selling for millions of dollars.

As a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, Dan Hicks presides over one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts looted from Benin. But in his unsparing new book, “The Brutish Museums,” he makes a case for their return, while calling for greater honesty in the telling of colonial history and the enabling role played by museums like his own.

Hicks says his position was partly informed by the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, which erupted in South Africa in 2015 and spread to the University of Oxford, where he serves as a professor of contemporary archeology. Students demanded the removal of a statue of colonial tycoon Cecil Rhodes within a wider “decolonization” campaign that denounced the Pitt Rivers Museum as “one of the most violent spaces in Oxford.”

A demonstration takes place opposite a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford.

Hicks accepts the charge. The museum was a “weapon” – as integral to imperial domination as the Maxim gun, he writes — that was used to “legitimize, extend and naturalize new extremes of violence within corporate colonialism.”

Exhibitions reduced cultures to trophies in glass cases in order “to tell the story of the victory of Europeans over Africans,” he said in a phone interview. They were used “to inspire colonial administrators and soldiers … who fought these wars and thought they were doing so in the name of civilization.”

The bronzes were feted as masterpieces but they were presented as the work of inferiors. Hicks quotes one British Museum curator saying that he was “puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous as were the Bini,” referring to the ethnic group – also known as the Edo people – that founded the Kingdom of Benin.

The author draws a parallel between these colonial-era art displays and the pseudoscientific exhibitions that compared fake skulls as evidence of racial hierarchies and were phased out after World War II due to their association with fascism. He believes the ongoing display of looted heritage amounts to a continued celebration of violence and white supremacy.

Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum, which holds the world's largest collection.

Clear-cut case

Hicks’ book focuses on the Benin Bronzes, as he believes they represent an indisputable case for restitution, which Nigeria has sought since its independence from the British Empire in 1960. (The Kingdom of Benin is located in what is now the southern Nigerian state of Edo.)

Drawing on accounts from soldiers and British officials, the author dismantles myths to tell a story of brutality and greed. Officially, the “punitive expedition” of 1897 was a response to an attack on a convoy led by Captain James Phillips, consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate, a month earlier. Phillips and several of his men were killed by Bini troops while on a mission to, ostensibly, lobby the king of Benin over access to the valuable palm oil and rubber in his territory.

But documents from Protectorate leaders show plans for a punitive expedition were discussed as early as 1892. Phillips himself had written to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury requesting weapons for an invasion of Benin to ease the flow of commerce. In this light, Hicks argues the mission was designed to provide a pretext for attack. He also shows that such a large British force, which he estimates at around 5,000 men with 10 warships and 38 Maxim guns, could not have been assembled in the month between expeditions.

A meeting between Benin chiefs and Vice-Consul Henry Galway of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1892. The British wanted palm oil and rubber from Bini territory, and plotted to depose the king over restrictions on trade.

The destruction of Benin was celebrated in British newspapers, and soldiers received medals for their role in it. But Hicks disputes their supposed heroism. Accounts from military leaders describe indiscriminate slaughter from a safe distance, while warships destroyed towns and villages along their route. Eight British deaths were reported to the Houses of Parliament but no effort was made to tally Bini losses, despite inquiries from ministers.

The loss of heritage was also incalculable. The earthworks of Benin were once an archeological marvel comprising a 16,000-kilometer network of walls that formed one of the world’s largest man-made structures. They were – along with palaces, homes and religious sites – reduced to rubble.

British officials and museums downplayed the destruction and claimed damage was accidental. This is contradicted by the systematic approach Hicks reveals in soldiers’ diaries. “Work to be done Saturday February 20th,” wrote Captain Egerton, chief of staff for the expedition. “Walls and houses to be knocked down. Queen Mother’s house to be burnt.”