From next year, officials in Nigeria and the British Museum will take part in an archaeological dig to look for royal treasures in the former African kingdom of Benin. The excavation, described as the “most extensive ever undertaken” in Benin City, will begin at a site adjacent to the palace of the Oba, Benin’s traditional ruler, AFP reported.
Nigeria has said it will build a new museum at that site to exhibit looted Benin Bronzes currently displayed in American and European museums. The 10,000-square-foot museum — the Edo Museum of West African Art –is being designed by the trailblazing Ghanaian-British architect, David Adjaye and is due to open in Benin City in four years.
Benin City was the capital of Benin Kingdom, one of the most highly developed states in Africa, when it was ransacked and burnt down in 1897 by British forces. Its destruction in what became known as the Benin Expedition of 1897 led to the fall of the once successful and well-recognized Benin Kingdom located in what is now southern Nigeria.
Britain’s punitive expedition did not only lead to the deaths of gallant chiefs but it also took away various works of art including Ivory and bronze works. Today, most of these works of art are held in prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.
Two of the Benin Bronzes were in 2014 returned by a British citizen, Mark Walker, leading to calls for repatriation of more artifacts. The rest of the Benin Bronzes remain at the British Museum, with Nigerians pressing to have them returned.
Museums in Europe and America do have objects taken from Africa during the colonial period but as AFP reported, “the law often prevents countries from giving them back”. Such is the case with the British Museum, though it could loan the Benin Bronzes to the new Edo museum.
The British Museum has, however, said it is working to make it possible for Benin works of art from its collection to be permanently displayed at the Edo Museum of West African Art. Nigerian officials have also highlighted the importance of the excavation that will take place at the site of the museum.
“(We are) very excited about this archaeological work in historic Benin, which we hope and believe will lead to a greater understanding of the ancient kingdom of Benin,” said Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, Evening Express reported.
The report added that excavated objects will “remain in Nigeria and become part of the Edo Museum of West African Art, museum collections and displays.”