A New Museum to Bring the Benin Bronzes Home

February 9, 2021

The architect David Adjaye discusses his plans for an institution to house the looted treasures on their to return to Nigeria.

LONDON — In 1897, the British Army violently raided Benin City in what is now Nigeria, seizing thousands of priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes.

Ever since, there have been hopes of bringing them back from Western museums.

On Friday, hope got a little closer to reality with the release of the first images of the planned Edo Museum of West African Art, which will house some 300 items on loan from European museums — if the money to build it can be raised.

The three-story building, designed by David Adjaye, looks almost like a palace from the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Mr. Adjaye intends it to be completed in five years, he said in a telephone interview.

David Adjaye in London last year.
David Adjaye in London last year.Credit…David M. Benett/Getty Images

On Friday, the architect, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities also announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls.

The developments will be a boost to campaigners urging the return of artifacts taken from Africa during the colonial era. But in the telephone interview, Mr. Adjaye, the architect behind the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution, seemed most excited about what it could mean for the people of Benin City. It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said, and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.

“It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and an international site second.”

Mr. Adjaye also spoke about his thinking behind the museum, his obsession with the Benin Bronzes and his view on the debate around returning items to Africa from Western museums. These are edited extracts of that conversation.

The three-story structure riffs on the design of a palace from the ancient Kingdom of Benin.
The three-story structure riffs on the design of a palace from the ancient Kingdom of Benin.Credit…Adjaye Associates

There have been calls for a museum housing the Benin Bronzes in Nigeria for decades. What drew you to the project?

To show the power of what a museum can be in the 21st century. It’s not just a container of curiosities. That doesn’t make sense in Africa — there is no empire, or sort of “discovery” of what America is, or China is.

But what is really critical is to deal with the real elephant in the room, which is the impact of colonialism on the cultures of Africa. That is the central discussion that the continent needs to have with itself, about its own history, and the structural destruction that happened with colonialism. Because actually there is a myth that Africans know their culture, but a lot has been demonized because of colonialism, and there’s a lot that’s misunderstood because of the structures of colonialism — Christianity, Islam, etc. — that followed.

I’m not criticizing those religions, but they kind of degraded the cultural heritage of the continent. So there is the relearning of the fundamental meaning of these objects. And that retraining justifies, for me, a rethinking of what a museum is on the continent. It’s not going to be a Western model.

A rendering of a ceramics gallery in the planned museum.
A rendering of a ceramics gallery in the planned museum.Credit…Adjaye Associates

So putting the returned bronzes on display isn’t the endpoint to you, but a beginning?

Exactly: the beginning of the renaissance of African culture. You need the objects because the objects provide the provenance and the physicality that start to connect you.

When you talk about creating a non-Western museum, how will it be different? The images you’ve released still have display cases with objects in them.

When I say it will be different, I mean it’ll be different in its meaning. It’s different in what it’s trying to do.

Yes, it will have vitrines with objects in them. But it won’t just be, ‘Here’s the restitution of these bronzes, and here they are in beautiful cases.’ That would not attract locals — not many, maybe the elite. We’ve spent a lot of time developing a museum as a community center that will be part of the community’s daily rituals and lives.

Credit…Adjaye Associates

The design almost looks like a fort. What story are you hoping to tell with it?

The building has a little romantic narrative to it. I visited Benin City several times and it’s a place that for me is on par with the greatest places around the world: with Egypt, with Kyoto, with Athens. To understand sub-Saharan African culture, it’s an epicenter. But you go now, and it’s sort of a concrete jungle, so you need to excavate that past, and bring it back to life.

Thankfully, a lot of it is still underground. So part of what we’re doing with the British Museum is excavating the old walls. I’ve been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so we can make them visible.

With the building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’d have encountered if you came precolonization. It’s trying to make a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.

A brass plaque, one of the Benin Bronzes showing court officials flanking a palace entrance or altar, from the collection of the British Museum.
A brass plaque, one of the Benin Bronzes showing court officials flanking a palace entrance or altar, from the collection of the British Museum.Credit…Trustees of the British Museum

The Benin Bronzes are what campaigners really want returned to Benin City and shown in this museum. What do those objects mean to you?

It was profound the first time I saw them — and it still is. Looking at these brass plaques that were in the palaces, and these extraordinary brass heads, this really dignified, incredible civilization. It burst immediately the image of these cultures that I had, that somehow it was kind of underdeveloped. It smashed through that and showed me here is the artistry, and the mastery of culture.

I really started to do a lot of research into the Yoruba and Benin City when I was working on the Smithsonian and that really inspired my thinking

A rendering of the reconstructed Royal Spire Pavilion, in the Edo Museum of West African Art.
A rendering of the reconstructed Royal Spire Pavilion, in the Edo Museum of West African Art.Credit…Adjaye Associates

Your work on this museum puts you in the middle of the debate on whether objects should be returned to Africa from Western museums. Where do you stand on that?

Restitution has to happen, eventually. The objects need to be returned. In the 21st century, this is no longer a discussion. But the timeline and how they’re brought back, and the skill set to manage the objects has to be developed on the continent. And I think that is also part of the job of the museums, and the cultures and the societies in the West that have these objects now: to support the building of this infrastructure, to allow countries to get these objects back. It’s their cultural heritage.

Archaeological excavations often take time. When do you think the museum will be complete?

We’re all working on a timeline of about five years, which is fast for cultural infrastructure. It took nine years to build the Smithsonian!

I suppose that, given that the people of Benin City have been waiting since 1897, another five years is not that much time.

No. Hopefully. The people really deserve this.

Source: The New York Times, November 13, 2020, Alex Marshall

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