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The Significance of Benin Art and Artifacts Essay

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The attitudes towards the display of Benin Art, adopted by European museums and galleries have dramatically changed over the 112 year period since their initial acquisition. This has been for a number of reasons including the societal transition from accepting colonialism to acknowledging cultural diversity, the gradual integration and cross-fertilisation across the academic fields of anthropology, ethnography and art history and the ongoing debate regarding provenance and repatriation.

The Benin artwork seen in museums around the world today was systematically plundered from Benin City by the British in 1897 as part of a punitive expedition in reprisal for the massacre of an overzealous Trade Delegation. The British acquired over 2400 objects from and around the Oba’s palace which were split between the army officers involved as ‘War Booty’ and the British Government who auctioned off many of the finest pieces to pay for the expedition.

During the Benin Campaign, the British public had been fed a diet of sensational stories and pictures showing crucifixion and describing in gory, salacious detail the Bini’s “...hideous rites to their gods or fetishes...” (Illustrated London News (27th March 1897), Loftus and Wood (2008), p. 79). People were very aware of Colonial Campaigns and keen to see first-hand, items which had come from such exotic and unfamiliar territories. Although slavery had been banned over 60 years earlier in the British Empire, there was still felt to be a very clear distinction between the races “...the negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane to the white man, and appear to be more closely related to the highest anthropoids.” (Entry on Negro, Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11), Loftus and...


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...troversy as all countries have lost, to a great or lesser extent, treasures of national renown and significance over time. Wars, theft, treasure seeking, changing boundaries and migration have all in some way contributed to this diaspora of art. There is clear evidence that the historic placing of objects in locations remote from their origin has on occasion afforded protection and preservation, The Elgin Marbles in The British Museum being a case in point. However, given the overarching principle of self determination it is difficult to argue that serendipitous historic placement is sufficient reason for items of true national heritage to be kept indefinitely. A world-wide system of touring exhibitions and cultural exchange, with context being provided by the originating society may provide the natural progression to the accessible widening of people’s experiences.


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