The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) is situated in New York and is the largest art museum in the United States. It also forms part of many museums that are making increasing efforts to return some foreign treasures to their rightful countries.
The journey of the three Nigerian artworks
Two 16th-century brass plaques and a 14th-century brass head from the Kingdom of Benin (part of modern-day Nigeria) were taken from the Nigerian Royal Palace during British military occupation in 1897. From there the pieces were moved to the British Museum in London until 1950. The UK then decided to repatriate them.
And upon their return to the National Museum in Lagos, the artworks re-entered the art market where a private investor got his hands on them. He then donated the pieces to the Met in 1991, where they were exhibited.
Nigeria and the Met to start a collaboration
In a ceremony hosted on Monday, the Met and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) entered into a collaboration. With this shared agreement they will collaborate on mutual loans of Benin objects and other “exchanges of expertise and art”.
At the ceremony, Max Hollein – director of the Met – and Abba Isa Tijani – director-general of the NCMM – signed the agreement. Tijani also congratulated the Met “for the transparency it has shown”.
“If other museums can do what the Met did, I think we would be able to give confidence to our audience, to our visitors,” said Professor Tijani. “The issue of repatriation is now at the heart of the people. People are looking at museums, particularly in Europe, and saying: these artifacts are not legally owned, are not their own. Yet they display these objects and take all the credit.”
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, also commented on how other museums should “take a cue from this”.
Stolen works of arts being more and more returned
The new “trend” of stolen works of art in Africa by colonial armies being returned has started to spread across the Western world.
Earlier in November, Paris handed back 26 pieces that were taken from Benin in colonial times. This return fulfilled a promise made by President Emmanuel Macron to restore “a lost part of Africa’s heritage“.
German museums have also agreed to work on a plan with Nigerian authorities to return looted Benin treasures. And the Horniman Museum in London has stated that it would “consider the repatriation of artifacts obtained by “colonial violence” to Nigeria”.
The British Museum started to face increasing criticism for its refusal to return artifacts to Nigeria and Egypt. However, in 2019 they helped to return more than 150 looted ancient treasures to Iraq and Afghanistan.