Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes
This is the story of the ‘Benin Bronzes’, their creation, removal, and what should happen to them now. When first exhibited in London they caused a sensation and helped reshape European attitudes towards Africa, challenging the prevailing view of the continent as ‘backward’ and without culture. But seeing them in the British Museum today is, in the words of one Benin City artist, like ‘visiting relatives behind bars’. In a time of fevered debate about the legacies of empire, loot, museums and history, what does the future hold for the Bronzes themselves?
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In 1897, Britain responded to the killing of a group of officials by razing an empire to the ground. The men had been traveling to the ancient Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, when they were ambushed and killed by local soldiers. Just six weeks later, the British had exacted their revenge, set Benin aflame, exiled the king and annexed the territory. They also made off with some of Africa’s greatest works of art.