New museum in Nigeria raises hopes of resolution to Benin bronzes dispute

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Benin bronzes on display at the British Museum, London. Photograph: Zuma/Alamy

Artefacts held by British Museum and other western institutions were looted by British forces in 1897

A new museum designed by Sir David Adjaye is to be built following the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City, Nigeria, raising hopes of a resolution to one of the world’s most controversial debates over looted museum artefacts.

The kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria and not to be confused with the modern-day country of Benin, was one of the most important and powerful pre-colonial states of west Africa.

The Benin bronzes, some of Africa’s greatest treasures, were looted by British soldiers and sailors in 1897 and are mostly in western museums and private collections. The British Museum has more than 900 bronzes – arguably the most famous – and has long faced calls for them to be returned.

Details have been announced of important steps towards these treasures being loaned or given back with the creation of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), to be designed by Adjaye, the Tanzanian-born British architect of Ghanaian descent.

It is intended as a place for “the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin bronzes”, according to a statement.

The museum will be built on the site of a major excavation investigating the archaeology of the ancient kingdom of Benin – a partnership between the British Museum and partners in Nigeria including the Legacy Restoration Trust.

The museum said it hoped the project would create new opportunities to address “the painful history of the invasion and destruction of Benin City by British forces” in 1897.

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, said its “main mission is to work in partnership with colleagues from around the world to develop our shared understanding of cultural heritage”.

He said the archaeology project provided the groundwork for EMOWAA, which “will surely become one of the most significant museum initiatives in the coming decades”.

Adjaye was the recipient of the 2021 royal medal awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He said he was “humbled and deeply inspired” to design the new museum.

He said EMOWAA would be a “reteaching tool – a place for recalling lost collective memories of the past to instil an understanding of the magnitude and importance of these civilisations and cultures”.

The archaeological project will begin in 2021 and continue for five years.

The most famous treasures ransacked by the British are the hundreds of brass plaques depicting narrative moments from life in the kingdom. They once decorated the pillars of buildings in the royal palace and are in the collection of the British Museum.