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BENIN DIALOGUE GROUP: Perhaps No Longer a Dialogue with the Deaf! University of Cambridge Students to the Rescue!

In an earlier article in this journal, I traced the origin and progress of the Benin Dialogue Group. (1) In 2007 a marvellous exhibition entitled Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria took place in Vienna at the Museum fur Volkerkunde. It later toured the Musee du quai Branly, Paris; the Ethnologisches Museum--Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago. The antiquities were part of the Benin cultural objects which the British looted during the Benin punitive expedition of 1897. In his Introductory Note to the exhibition catalogue the reigning Oba of Benin at the time, Omo N'Oba Erediauwa urged:
   It is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will
   show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these
   objects which found their way to your country. (2)

The importance of the Benin pieces was immediately recognised by the early German Africanist Felix von Luschan. Writing in 1919, he described them in glowing terms:
   Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better and nobody else
   either, before or since Cellini ... These bronzes are technically
   of the highest quality possible. (3)

The Benin Court and Nigerian Government have at various times since Independence asked for the return of the Benin antiquities from the various museums in Europe and the United States which are in possession of them, but to no avail. The most famous request and rejection occurred in 1977. There is at the British Museum a very beautiful ivory pendant mask (the Queen Idia pendant). In 1977 Nigeria hosted a pan-African cultural festival and the organisers choose it as the festival's emblem. Nigeria requested the loan of the ivory mask and, after some dissembling, the British Museum rejected the request.

Following the Benin exhibition, the Museum of Ethnology (Weltmuseum Wien), Vienna and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) of Nigeria took the initiative to start an open dialogue on the accessibility of the art treasures of the Benin Kingdom to Benin people and other Nigerians. In December 2010 the workshop New Cultures of Collaboration. Sharing of Collections and Quests for Restitution: the Benin Case was organised in Vienna at the Museum of Ethnology. The second meeting in October 2011 in Berlin was entitled New Cultures of Collaboration--Sharing of Collections. The third meeting, from 19th to 20th February 2013 in Benin City, was called Meeting of Nigerian Officials and European Museum Representatives over the Benin Bronzes in European Museums. Nothing concrete came out of the meetings with regard to the original theme as indicated in the title of the first meeting--sharing of collections and restitution. The British Museum was designated to host the fourth meeting in the following year, but this meeting never took place.

It was during this hiatus that an unexpected development revived the Dialogue. Among the Benin objects looted in 1897 is a bronze cockerel (an Okukor) which was bequeathed to Jesus College Cambridge in 1930 by a former British army officer, Captain George William Neville. The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, hailed it as "a great work of art" and "an artistic masterpiece". It has for decades taken pride of place in the college dining hall. However, in February 2016 the College Student Union proposed that it should be returned to Nigeria. The minutes of the meeting stated that it was stolen by British forces in a "punitive raid" in 1897 and the "time [was] right to repatriate the cockerel to the Royal Palace of Benin in line with existing protocol". In a statement of support for the students, a University spokesperson said:
   Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in
   raising the important but complex question of the rightful location
   of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has permanently
   removed the okukor from its hall. (4)

It is now in the safe custody of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University. The sculpture is of particular significance to the College because the cockerel is a symbol of the College, featuring three times on its crest in deference to its founder, John Alcock, the Bishop of Ely. The authorities of Jesus College are to be commended for acceding to the request of the students.

Commentators have, however, both praised and criticised the actions of the students and the College. Jesus alumnus Francis Bown disinherited the College from his will until the Okukor "returns to its place in the hall in which [he] used to dine." He criticised institutions such as Jesus College of adopting a "policy of supine appeasement" towards "silly" undergraduates. (5)

We can contrast this harsh criticism with the magnanimity of Dr Adrian Mark Walker who in 2015 returned not one but two Benin bronzes he had inherited from his grandfather. He took them to Benin City himself and handed them over to the Oba of Benin, Omo N'Oba Erediauwa, whose 2007 appeal to the people and Government of Austria had been ignored. Dr Walker's main reason for the restitution is inspiring. "These objects are part of the cultural heritage of another people ... to the people of Benin City, these objects are priceless" (6) Indeed, as an online newspaper called him, Dr Walker is a "man with conscience." (7)

The College issued a statement at the time of the cockerel's removal from the dining hall saying that it would work with the wider university community and commit resources to develop new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities "to discuss and determine the best future for the okukor, including the question of repatriation". The spokesperson added: "The College strongly endorses the inclusion of students from all relevant communities in such discussion". Indeed Ms Ore Ogunbiyi, a Nigerian student at Jesus College and former Jesus College Student Union racial equalities officer, was behind the campaign for the repatriation of the cockerel. (8)

Indeed, the University of Cambridge authorities liaised with Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and in the upshot the University of Cambridge agreed to fill the lacuna created by the British Museum's failure to convene a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group. The University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hosted the meeting which held at Trinity College, University of Cambridge on 29th March 2017. Professor Ellis Ferran, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Institutional and International Relations, welcomed the group and outlined the University's approach to international engagement, emphasising the importance of open dialogue and Cambridge's support for the Benin Plan of Action. The Plan of Action adopted at the third meeting of the group in Benin City in February 2013 envisaged creating an enabling environment for exchange, joint exhibitions and loan in both directions. Professor Nicholas Thomas of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge welcomed participants and pointed toward scope for the joint long-term loan of Benin Bronzes from a group of European museums. Prince Gregory Akenzua, representing the Royal Court of Benin, stressed the longstanding concern of the Court to bring materials back, in order to make the work accessible to the Bini people. He referred to the particular interest of the new Oba in the promotion of culture, and the intention to develop a cultural centre appropriate to the preservation of historic objects.

Yusuf Abdallah Usman the Director-General of the NCMM outlined the approach of his organisation. Both the Director-General and Prince Akenzua restated the keen interest of both the NCMM and the Court in the return of the Jesus College cockerel. Professor Thomas explained that no decision regarding the object had been made, but that the University is committed to open and careful consideration of proposals to repatriate the objects, and is especially concerned in this to be informed by the work of the Dialogue Group and to adopt a consistent approach.

Thereafter museum representatives presented their institutions' Benin holdings, exhibitions and future plans. The museums represented are: the British Museum, London; the Homiman Museum, London; the Humboldt Forum, Berlin; Musee du Quai Branly, Paris; Museum fur Volkerkunde, Hamburg; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge; National Museum, Benin; National Museum, Lagos; National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden; Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford; Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen, Leipzig and Dresden; Varldskulturen, Stockholm; and Weltmuseum, Vienna.

Dr Pauline Essah of the Cambridge Africa Programme described the work of the programme in support of collaborative research and capacity building, and pointed to the possibility of extending it to embrace museum-related training, with the involvement of the University of Cambridge museums.

It was agreed that a sub-group should be constituted to give further consideration to capacity-building initiatives, to be convened by Dr Barbara Planklensteiner, Museum fur Volkerkunde, Hamburg. It was also agreed that a second sub-group to be convened by Dr Michael Barrett, Senior Curator, Varldkulturen, Stockholm would work on providing a joint web site with links to the catalogues of participating institutions and others to be publicly accessible online. Dr Jonathan Fine of the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, reported that the Director of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin had confirmed that the Museum would host the Benin Dialogue Group secretariat, maintaining and updating a list of participants, circulating information as needed and liaising with the host institutions for future meetings. Finally, participants also reaffirmed their support for the Benin Plan of Action, agreed at the February 2013 meeting in Benin City.

Professor Lord Renfrew of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, then presented a consensus that had emerged from discussion regarding the desirability of the European museums working together to create a permanent display in the city of Benin, through rotating loans of, say, five years. The need to improve environmental conditions and security was noted. A communique was prepared reflecting the consensus. The draft, read twice to participants by Professor Folarin Shyllon of the University of Ibadan, was revised to accommodate concerns raised by the Director-General of NCMM and unanimously adopted as the Joint Agreed Statement. It is as follows:
   The Benin Dialogue Group, meeting on 29th March 2017 at Trinity
   College, University of Cambridge, in taking forward the Benin Plan
   of Action have agreed to take concrete steps towards the
   establishment of a permanent display in Benin City, of rotating
   materials from a consortium of European museums, in collaboration
   with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria,
   and the Royal Court of Benin. In the first instance steps will be
   taken to raise funds to establish the necessary environmental and
   security conditions in Benin City, as well as to establish a legal
   framework guaranteeing immunity from seizure in Nigeria.

Dr Annette Schmidt and Dr Wayne Modest confirmed that the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden would host the next meeting, which it was agreed should be scheduled for October 2018.

The formal meeting closed. The participants gathered for a reception, attended by a wider group of Cambridge and international colleagues, and students including those from Jesus College, at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Prince Akenzua read the Joint Agreed Statement to those assembled, who welcomed the commitment to work towards a permanent exhibition in Benin City as a major step forward.

The commitment contained in the Cambridge Statement to work towards a permanent exhibition in Benin City is indeed a major step forward. It is sincerely hoped that the new dialogue forged through the intervention of Cambridge students will lead to the establishment of a permanent exhibition of looted Benin bronzes in Nigeria. Four months after the Agreed Statement a report in the London Guardian affirmed the commitment of the University of Cambridge to the undertaking. In the statement, Cambridge University said that it supported the establishment of a permanent display in Benin City, featuring materials rotated from a consortium of European museums. "Given the scale of the collection worldwide, we believe that collective discussion and engagement will achieve more than independent action." (9)

Finally, the Art Newspaper of 16th October 2017, in a leading piece written by Gareth Harris and entitled: 'Looted Benin Bronzes to be Lent Back to Nigeria' captured the essence of the Joint Agreed Statement. He emphasised that restitution is not part of the scheme, though related proposals could later emerge. He quoted Colin Renfrew as saying:
   There are no legal obligations, other than to return the loans. The
   goodwill is crucial. As confidence is built up over the years, the
   very first pieces can be sent to Benin for a number of years so
   that there is always a major display of high quality there.

A British Museum spokeswoman said that it has not received any formal requests to lend objects to Nigeria. However, she added:
   We are in ongoing dialogue with the National Commission for Museums
   and Monuments, Nigeria, and are open to considering any specific
   proposals when they are made.

Gareth Harris made the interesting and quite crucial observation that major US and French museums that hold Benin bronzes and other objects are notably not part of the Benin Dialogue Group. In response Nicholas Thomas said that the consortium had held "preliminary discussions" with US museums and that he "hoped they will participate in future." (10)

It is very much hoped that other museums in France and US with sizeable collections of Benin bronzes will join the crusade of the Benin Dialogue Group so that all would work to the realisation of the dream.

* Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

(1) Folarin Shyllon, 'Restitution of Antiquities to Sub-Saharan Africa: The Booty and Captivity' (2015) XX Art Antiquity and Law, 369-385.

(2) Barbara Plankensteiner (ed.) Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, (Snoeck, 2007), 13.

(3) Quoted by Michael Kan in 'Preface' to Ekpo Eyo and Frank Willet, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1980), 18.

(4) Sally Weale, 'Benin Bronze Row: Cambridge College Removes Cockerel' Guardian, 8 March 2016. < collegeremoves-cockerel> accessed 28 Aug. 2017.

(5) Monty Fynn, 'Prince Renews Appeal for Benin Bronze Cockerel During Visit to Cambridge', Varsity 1 April 2017. <> accessed 18 Sept. 2017. Varsity is the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge.

(6) Ellen Otzen, 'The Man Who Returned His Grandfather's Looted Art' BBC World Service, 26 Feb. 2015 <> 18 Sept. 2017.

(7) 'Man with Conscience Returned his Grandfather's Looted Benin Bronzes' <www. conscience-returned- his-grandfathers-looted-benin-bronzes> accessed 18 Sept. 2017.

(8) Haroon Siddique, 'Cambridge College's Bronze Cockerel Must Go Back to Nigeria, Students Say', Guardian, 21 Feb. 2016. < collegebronzecockerel-must-go-back-to-nigeria-students-say>accessed 28 Aug. 2016.

(9) Ben Quinn, 'Western Museums Try to Forge Deal with West Africa to return Benin Bronzes', Guardian, 12 Aug. 2017.

(10) Gareth Harris, 'Looted Benin Bronzes to be lent Back to Nigeria' Art Newspaper, 16 Oct. 2017. <

Caption: Queen Idia Pendant

Caption: The Okukor, bronze cockerel located in Jesus College, Cambridge

Caption: Jesus College Cambridge

Caption: Shield of Jesus College Cambridge
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Author:Shyllon, Folarin
Publication:Art Antiquity & Law
Geographic Code:6BENI
Date:Dec 1, 2017

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