Looted Benin treasures could remain in Glasgow museums

Historic treasures looted from the Nigerian city of Benin could be kept on display by Glasgow museums, despite a plea to return them all almost three years ago. 
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The country had been calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes – thousands of sculptures and plaques stolen by Britain from the palace of the Kingdom of Benin in 1887 – for decades. 

As well as the eight bronzes, the city has another 21 artefacts, which include “objects typically placed on the ancestral altars of the Obas of Benin”.

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A request for the return of the treasures was refused in 1996 but in August 2021, the then chairman of Glasgow Life David McDonald asked for a working group to be created to work on the repatriation of artefacts. 

Glasgow Life are now in discussion with Benin representatives – and are hoping they might be able to keep some of the items in the city. 

A spokesperson for Glasgow Life said: “The repatriation of Benin bronzes to Nigeria is an ongoing process with discussions continuing. 

“If the opportunity arises for some items to remain on display in Glasgow Life Museums, with the permission or at the request of the rightful owners, then this would help us address past wrongs and strengthen further the existing relations with descendant communities.”

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At Thursday’s city administration committee, councillors approved the Collections Development Policy for 2024–2029 which all museums require to define how and what it collects, rationalises and disposes of.

During the meeting Labour councillor Frank McAveety asked what steps were being taken to ensure positive international relations with Glasgow and countries like Ghana after the V&A spoke of a potential partnership with them. 

Councillor McAveety said: “I welcome the paper because it is important, despite all the difficult challenges that local governments face across the UK, that we demonstrate that we have got a credible museum service that has got opportunities to link both within the UK and internationally.

“A lot of the work that we do is about sharing that information so I welcome that and hope it will be part of a longer term strategy.

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“We sometimes don’t understand the quality of the collections that we have. I was surprised that we have so few Colourists in our collections compared to others.

“We have led the way in responsible sharing and collection in parts of the world and perhaps there were contested ways in which items found their way to our museums never mind the others.

“The V&A have been talking about the partnership they are going to have with Ghana. Is there any more information on the partnerships we can have and the balance we need to strike to be the preserver of a collection.

“Is there any way [Glasgow Life] can be creative in acquiring items that compliment existing items in the collection.”

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A council officer said that Glasgow has taken the lead when it comes to creating very positive relationships and allows the city to have a more effective museum service. 

Most recently there have been discussions between Benin and Glasgow about keeping some material in the city and putting it on display.

The officer said: “The process of repatriation of objects which Glasgow has really pioneered since the 1990s still continues.

“Our experience of it with the Indian repatriation and the ongoing repatriation to Nigeria is that it includes very positive 21st Century relationships and allows us to have a much more effective museum service and connect into that international community more constructively.

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“In relation to Benin we are engaging in discussions with them about material that might remain in Glasgow and be redisplayed as part of the process. 

“That is very positive and constructive for us.

“We surprisingly have a fund available as a result of the fundraising for Kelvingrove museum way back at the start of the 20th century which still provides funds to acquire for the collection.”

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