The Haunting History of the Benin Bronzes
For decades, one of the most urgent moral debates in the museum world has revolved around restitution, with art institutions around the world facing demands that masterworks in their collections be returned, either to countries like Greece and Italy who say that the treasures in question had been looted by tomb robbers, or to descendants of Jews who had been robbed by the Nazis. Today, the restitution question is as hotly debated as ever—what has changed, however, is that now the source countries that are demanding the returns are in Africa, and the looting at issue had been carried out by Britain and other European powers across the bloody years of colonialism, whose horrors remain obscured by the hagiographic official histories of the era.
Now, a new book is cutting through the Gordian knot of restitution with an argument of bracing moral clarity, showing the West’s great quote-unquote “universal” museums to be complicit in a history of ongoing atrocities. It’s called “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution,” and it’s by Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archeology at Oxford. As its title suggests, the book focuses on a particular incident of looting—the seizure of thousands of artworks from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897—and it is a history that should really be known around the world. To delve into the ongoing saga of the Benin Bronzes, Dan Hicks is on the show today for a two-part episode: first, to discuss the tragic story of the looting of the Kingdom and, second, the fate these magnificent objects are facing today.