The Church of England in the United Kingdom has promised to return two Benin bronzes to Nigeria, while disagreement over the repatriation of African treasures continues to grow.
Lambeth Palace said it was “currently in discussion” about returning works donated to then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie nearly 40 years ago.
It will likely end up at the planned Edo Museum of West African Art, which is being built in Benin City, specifically to showcase the treasures of the African kingdom that is in Nigeria today.
British troops attacked Benin in 1897 with about 5,000 looted works of art looted and spread around the world that are now tracked through an online project that gathers information about them.
A spokeswoman for the Lambeth Palace said: “We were recently contacted by the Digital Benin project at MARKK (Hamburg), who inquired about our collection of gifts at the Lambeth Palace and whether we had received any items from the Benin kingdom over the years.
“In response, we confirmed to the Digital Benin project that we have two bronze busts, which were given to us by the Kingdom of Benin in 1982. They were presented to Archbishop Robert Runcie by His Excellency Chief (Prof.) Ambrose F. Alli and the University of Nigeria, Nuskka.
“We offered to allow the two to be involved in the Digital Benin project and eventually return to our friends in Edo, Nigeria, where they could stay. We are currently in negotiations with EMOWAA through the Heritage Restoration Trust to sort this out. “
The move comes amid growing pressure on institutions to return looted artwork at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill – one of the last to take steps to potentially return the exhibits.
The museum has worked with Nigerian Londoners to develop its policy and says it is open to “possible returns” of items “acquired at different times and in a range of circumstances, some of which would not be appropriate today, such as force or other forms of coercion.”
Horniman’s statement went on to say: “We understand that for some communities – whether in countries of origin or in the diaspora – the retention of certain objects, natural specimens or human remains is perceived as a permanent violation or injustice.”
Demands for the return of exhibits to their original countries are one of the biggest issues facing London’s main museums.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in 2017 that he wanted to return African items kept in French museums, and the report recommended that everything be taken permanently “without consent” during the French colonial era.
In 2019, the National Army Museum agreed to return a lock of hair cut from the Ethiopian emperor’s head to its collection.
The hair was taken from the body of Tewodros II who killed himself when the British attacked in 1868, instead of being captured. He was returned to the Ethiopian government to bury him along with the rest of his body.