Thinking Beyond Repatriation through Digital Curation

5 minute read

I must admit, I did not notice the three cases making up the Benin Bronze display my first time visiting MAA. It was once I started volunteering, and saw them while perusing around the second floor, that my curiosity around these objects ignited. The Bronzes had been discussed and debated in several of my Heritage Studies classes at Cambridge. Seeing them in person, and particularly knowing that Uhunmwu-elao, a commemorative head of an Oba, was due to return back home to Nigeria, made a significant impact on me. This process of repatriation, and how we as museum visitors can engage with objects, got me thinking: what comes after an object like this Bronze leaves the museum? It seemed to me then, and still does today, an exciting problem to solve.

Lost-wax cast commemorative head of an Oba.

Figure 1. Uhunmwu-elao, lost-wax cast commemorative head of an Oba, used to support a tusk on an ancestral altar. Benin Kingdom, Edo State, Nigeria. 18th-19th century. MAA E 1900.98.2.

To provide context to the Benin Bronzes, it is essential to understand the history of the Benin Kingdom. Dating back to at least 1,200 BCE, this kingdom’s territory expanded across modern-day Nigeria, specifically the Edo state. The Benin Kingdom was multicultural and multilingual, eventually forming the Edo people. It was led by an Oba, or king; his period, beginning in the 15th century, saw increased social stratification, building of new palaces, and the solidification of spiritual, ritual, and legal practices. By the late 19th century, Britain steadily colonised West Africa. By 1896, Captain James Phillips sought to bring the Benin Kingdom under British rule. In January 1897, while leading a party to conquer Benin City, Phillips and his men were ambushed by Edo soldiers leaving Phillips and a majority of the party dead. In quick retaliation, approved by the British Foreign Office, British soldiers violently attacked Benin City, leaving hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead, the ruling Oba Ovonramwen exiled, and the Edo people colonised by Britain. 

After the invasion, thousands of bronze, ivory, and wooden objects, known collectively as the Benin Bronzes, were looted from the city. They were sent to England and subsequently displayed in museums, or sold to Western collectors and museums, primarily in the UK, Germany, and the United States. Since 1960, after gaining independence, the Nigerian government has requested the return of the Benin Bronzes. The return of the first Bronzes happened just two years ago when Jesus College, Cambridge returned the Okukor, a brass cockerel, to the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), and the University of Aberdeen handed over a Uhumnwun-elao the following day. Since then, multiple universities and museums across the UK, Germany, and the US, including MAA, have completed or begun repatriations of the Bronzes..

This brings us to the present. The University of Cambridge has agreed to the transfer of title of all 116 artefacts taken from Benin City in 1897 to the NCMM. The Uhunmwu-elao pictured here is one of a selection of objects proposed to return to Nigeria. The Oba of Benin and the NCMM are keen for some Bronzes to remain in Cambridge, as ambassadors for Benin, and so many of the objects will remain at MAA, at least for some time. 

Considering the Bronzes that will be returned to Nigeria, how can visitors interact with them, or any repatriated object for that matter, once they are returned? Does repatriation have to mean a loss for the museum? Can we even think of repatriation as a loss given that the museum should not have had authority over repatriated objects?  

My answer to the second question is – not at all. Finding new ways for public audiences to engage with objects presents an exciting opportunity for museums to expand their reach. One potential solution I see is creating an online, or digital, curation platform for the general public’s use. 

Similar to the Smithsonian Learning Lab and Art UK Curations, this digital curation tool would offer a space for visitors to access the collections in MAA’s care, upload their own files, and link relevant texts or videos. Even if an object has been repatriated, the tool would allow visitors to continue engaging with it. I’d also like to highlight Digital Benin as another online source. It offers an amazing online collection of 5,246 objects from 131 institutions worldwide, and would be an amazing place for users of the digital curation tool to engage with the Benin Kingdom. The example below illustrates what digital curation on the Benin Bronzes could look like. Here, the pictures show objects in MAA’s care, both on display and in-store. Visitors can interact with objects they may not have known existed, and can put them in the context of different news articles and videos sourced from outside MAA. As a result, even when objects are repatriated and no longer physically present at the museum, they can still be accessed by people using MAA’s website. This tool not only enables more people to engage with the objects but also empowers them to curate their own mini-exhibits, allowing individuals to highlight what they find interesting or relevant.

A digital display of texts and images. On the left are two images of wood carved objects from Benin, in the centre is a mind map of words, and on the right are three images of three Benin bronzes. In the centre on the bottom is a reference to a text on repatriation.

Figure 2: A sample digital curation of Benin Bronzes using photographs from MAA’s online collections portal, links to articles and videos, and a mind-map that I created. Source: Author.

Of course, this digital curation tool is not a one-size-fits-all solution for post-repatriation displays. Curators and museum staff responsible for this tool still need to be completely transparent about the colonial history often associated with repatriated objects. Without this context, the importance of the act of repatriation, and the roles both museums and source communities play, lose their meaning. Additionally, creating an open space for public audiences raises concerns about the potential violation of MAA’s codes of conduct. Inappropriate or offensive language, images, or links could find their way onto this platform. As such, MAA would need a group of people monitoring any digital collections posted by the public to make sure they are appropriate and respectful. 

Beyond problems of the usage of this tool comes the question: who would be its primary users? Creating a whole separate division of the MAA’s Digital Lab or museum website would take a lot of time and effort. Figuring out if groups such as museum visitors, school groups, university staff, the general public, etc. would use this tool is therefore important before taking the considerable effort to build it.

Finally, I must say, as innovative and useful as I believe this digital curation tool could be, I don’t think it can completely erase in-person museum displays. Having a visual, or possibly tangible, connection to objects in a museum setting creates important emotional and learning outputs for visitors. Even more, having a physical space where the repatriation of an object is addressed and explained by a museum cannot be replaced by this online tool. Anybody who visits the Benin Bronze display should be aware of the colonialist history of the Bronzes’ collection, the decolonial work that MAA is doing while repatriating the Bronze, and the power modern Nigerians hold by choosing to keep other Bronzes in institutions worldwide. In this way, visitors can understand the history of the Benin Kingdom, the colonisation of the Edo people, and what Nigeria today wants MAA’s audiences to know about its past, present, and future.

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