Digital Benin database of 5,000 bronzes stolen in British raids launches after years of detective work

The dwarves are lifelike with cheerful expressions. Their features, clothing, and jewellery are finely rendered, showing little indication of any wear and tear over the 700 years since they were created.

These artefacts were plundered with thousands of others after the destruction of the Kingdom of Benin by the British Army in 1897. Soldiers looted the heritage of the ancient empire in what is now Edo state, Nigeria and sold what came to be known as the Benin Bronzes to collectors and museums around the world. The dwarves now reside in the World Museum of Vienna.

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Relief Plaque: King with two Dignitaries (Photo: Paul Schimweg/Museum am Rothenbaum/Markk)

The bronzes have since come to be regarded as masterpieces and represent one of the most fiercely-contested restitution cases in the world. Nigeria has sought their return since before it gained independence from British rule in 1960, with some notable successes in recent years.

The Digital Benin project, which launched on Sunday in Benin City close to the site of the British raid, brings together what was torn apart 125 years ago.

More than 5,000 artefacts that provide a visual record of life in the Royal Court of Benin over centuries are presented in the first comprehensive database of the bronzes, together with their stories, historic photography, and oral testimonies from Bini – also known as Edo – people.

Digital Benin includes brass, bronze, and ivory artefacts held at 131 museums across 20 countries that the team behind it believe covers 99 per cent of what was taken from the Kingdom.

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Pair of leopards held by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo: Georg Molterer)

“For the first time, the current location and objects can be viewed together,” says the project’s principal investigator Dr Anne Luther.

“We aimed to build this platform for the general public and are hoping that future generations will use it as a tool to learn about Benin’s culture and history.”

The value may be greatest for the descendants of the victims of the raid. Bini artist and campaigner Enotie Ogbebor has compared the loss of Benin’s heritage to the impact of Europe losing the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso and Shakespeare.

Digital Benin “will enable the young generation of Benin to learn about (their) rich historical and cultural heritage,” said Ekhator Godfrey, a Bini historian and lead researcher for the project. “This will help Edo people learn about their ancestors.”

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Oral History Interview in Benin City, 2022 (Photo: Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie)

A spokesman for Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the body responsible for pursuing the country’s restitution claims, told i “Digital Benin is an immense and great project.”

The database is the product of a years-long collaboration between museums, investigators, researchers and activists in Europe and Nigeria. The team tracked down artefacts for which little or no record existed, uncovered their journeys as they were taken from Benin to museums via dealers and auctions, and interviewed residents of Benin to explain their meaning.

The Digital Benin team hope it can be a spur for further study and deeper appreciation of Benin’s cultural heritage, which was initially held back by racist attitudes to African art.

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Trophy head held by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in Nigeria (Photo: Georg Molterer)

When the bronzes first went on display in Europe, British Museum curator Charles Read suggested the masterpieces could not have been produced by the “barbarous” Bini.

There is also hope that the database can help to accellerate restitution claims for the Bronzes, after a series of breakthroughs in recent years.

Oxford and Cambridge universities recently agreed to return more than 200 artefacts held in their collections. German institutions have committed to restitute more than 1,000.

There is still resistance to returning Benin’s heritage, most significantly at the British Museum, which holds the world’s single largest collection of Bronzes with 944 pieces, according to Digital Benin, which lists institutions by the size of their holdings.

Mr Ogbebor suggests that the full transparency provided by Digital Benin over the artefacts and how they came to be in European museums will make it more difficult for those institutions to retain them.

“It will definitely help to increase the pressure on those in whose possession these works are held,” he said.

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