A bronze sculpture of a cockerel that adorned a Cambridge University dining room is among a huge haul of looted antiquities that may now be returned to west Africa.
The British Museum will take part in a European summit to discuss the return of art seized from the Benin kingdom, now part of southern Nigeria, by a British punitive expedition in 1897 as “reparations” after it defied the British empire by imposing customs duties.
The museums taking part in the Benin dialogue group hope to establish a permanent display in Benin City, Nigeria, using items rotated from a consortium of reputable institutions. The negotiations involve authorities from Nigeria and the neighbouring country of Benin.
Among the looted sculptures is the bronze cockerel known as the Okukor, which was removed from public view earlier this year after Cambridge students called for it to be returned to west Africa. However, it was confirmed last week that the cockerel remains at the university. The fate of hundreds of other “Benin bronzes”, housed in institutions such as the British Museum, will be discussed by curators when the group meets next year at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”
Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.
John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said:…