An African prince has called on the city-owned Bristol Museum to ‘blaze the trail’ and return one of the thousands of priceless artefacts looted from the continent during the era of the British colonial empire.
The sculpture, which is currently held at the Bristol Museum next to the Wills Memorial Building, is one of the Benin Bronzes, stolen when British forces staged a bloody invasion of Benin City in 1897.
Now, the modern day prince of the Royal Court of Benin, Prince Edun Akenzua is asking Bristol for the sculpture back.
And the man in charge of Bristol’s museum collection told the BBC Inside Out West programme, to be broadcast tonight, that he was open to the idea, after describing how he heard the prince’s ‘impassioned plea’.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than 1,000 plaques and sculptures that once adorned the royal palace of the Oba, or king, of Benin, a West African nation plundered by the British in the so-called ‘Race for Africa’ between western European powers like France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Italy in the second half of the 19th century.
Of the 1,000 plaques and sculptures taken from the palace by the conquering British forces, one – a highly detailed cast bronze bust – ended up at the Bristol Museum.
It has never been valued, but a similar sculpture sold for more than £1 million.
(Image: BBC Inside Out West)
Now, Prince Edun said the city of Bristol, which ‘owns’ the piece, could set an example, and return it to Benin.
The issue of the stolen and plundered treasures of the British colonial empire is perhaps most famously exemplified by the Elgin Marbles – which, although Britain never conquered Greece as such, are demanded back by Greek nation.
Prince Edun said the museum could set a trend by returning it.
He told the BBC: “We are aware of the Benin Bronze at Bristol Museum.
“We are appealing to Bristol Museum to blaze the trail for the international community or private holders of the Benin cultural property to get them returned,” he said.
Jon Finch, the head of culture at Bristol City Council, which runs the museum, said when they took on the sculpture they had not known it was stolen.
He said it had been used to educate tens of thousands of children about other cultures.
“We’re very happy to explore with the prince the opportunity of returning the object,” he told BBC Inside Out West.
“We’d like to have correspondence with him to see what the specific request is and how we can progress that.
For news tailored to your local area, powered by In Your Area:
“I’ve seen the impassioned plea from the prince so we’re very willing to explore that option with him and others.”
The museum is running a project with local university students called ‘Uncomfortable Truths’, in which labels reveal the often troubling and sometimes unpleasant journey that exhibits took to get there.
- BBC Inside Out West will air on BBC One West at 7.30pm on Monday. It will be available afterwards on iPlayer.