In a recent interview with Keme Nzerem of Channel 4 News, British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that the Benin Bronzes “properly reside in the British Museum.”
The British Culture Secretary’s comments are a stark contrast to those of Germany’s Minister for Culture, Monika Gruetters, in regards to the stolen Benin Bronzes. Gruetters said the Benin Bronzes were a key test for the way the country deals with its colonial past.
“We are confronting our historic and moral responsibility,” Gruetters said.
Hundreds of stolen Benin bronzes currently reside in Europe
Nzerem interjected in the middle of Dowden’s comments to remind him that the Benin Bronzes were in fact stolen from Benin, present-day Nigeria, in 1897. He asked Dowden if the artifacts should be owned by the people they were stolen from in the first place.
“Well I think the problem with this is if we go back to things that happened in the 19th century and judge them by our values of today, it is completely unacceptable,” said Dowden. “My concern about this is where do you actually draw the line with this?”
Outrage over stolen artifacts
Pressure from activists all over the world has been mounting for countries to acknowledge and reconcile their colonial pasts. The British Museum has come under increasing pressure to return the Bronzes in their possession in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
The British Museum has told the BBC that it is “committed to facilitating a permanent display of Benin material” in Edo, but has not specified how many items would be returned, adding “the selection of objects will be determined through discussion with our Nigerian colleagues”.
Professor of global history at the University of Hamburg Juergen Zimmerer has done extensive historical research on the Benin Bronzes. He said the decision by Germany will likely affect the wider debate about how institutions in former colonial countries should handle such artifacts.
“The pressure will grow, because the British position of simply not addressing the issue of restitution is no longer sustainable”, said Zimmerer.