How the looted Benin Bronzes are symbolic of colonial cultural erasure

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An umbrella term for a group of sculptures and metal plaques that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southwestern Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes were created from the 13th century onwards by Edo artists and were stolen by British troops in 1897.

Since then, they have dispersed around the world. Today, the majority of the artworks are in state-owned museums around Europe.

The British Museum alone has more than 700 objects from the historic kingdom in its collection. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin has the second largest collection of Benin Bronzes with more than 500 pieces.

There have been several calls for western museums to return the Benin Bronzes, as well as other stolen artworks to their rightful homes. A few of the looted pieces have been returned. Most recently, the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College returned two pieces to Nigerian High Commission last month. However, according to Nigerian artist Chika Okeke-Agulu, a vast majority of museums, particularly those who hold most of the Benin Bronzes, “have found very creative ways of avoiding these calls”.

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