Benin, Britain and Belonging

Last week I was lucky enough to hear Kokie Agbontaen-Eghafona, University of Benin, deliver a very interesting paper on public opinion in Benin to the return of Benin objects at the University of Manchester’s Museums and Restition conference. For those of you unfamiliar with the contentions associated with Benin collections the video below will illuminate you.

Only several days before the conference I was teaching a  group of Open University students about these very contentions, and the history of the objects we have here in the Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection which were taken in 1897. Some of these objects are on display whilst others are used in teaching sessions or community engagement during which the complexity and importance of Benin and British colonial interference is discussed and debated.

It is now argued that such contentious collections as those of Benin can be used by museums in the UK to engage with an increasingly multicultural audience, promote the sophistocation of Benin culture and deal with the uncomfrotable reality of British imperialism. Those who seek their return argue that by retaining such material we are prolonging a legacy of injustice that began in 1897 and preventing the people of Benin from exerting their cultural rights and gaining access to their history. 

What do you think? Where do you think these objects belong?

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

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