Six replica Benin bronzes are now on display on the Main Library’s third floor, with three more coming soon. Part of the library’s Multicultural Collection, these replicas can spark important conversations about pre-colonial African culture and the repatriation of cultural heritage artifacts.
The original Benin bronzes, from the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria, are at the heart of debates over appropriated treasures in the museum world. As the Christian Science Monitor put it in an April 2019 article, “Who should be the caretaker of Africa’s cultural heritage – the Africans who created it, or the Europeans in whose museums it has long been displayed?”
What are the Benin bronzes?
The replicas at the library represent artwork from the Kingdom of Benin, or the Edo Empire (circa 1440–1897), a pre-colonial African civilization in the southern region of modern-day Nigeria.
The original Benin bronzes were made for the court of the “oba,” or divine ruler, and held ceremonial significance. They represented previous rulers, decorated the palace of the oba, and recorded military histories.
The original artworks are now owned by museums around Europe and the United States. The Nigerian government has called several times for their return.
Why does the library have replicas?
The library’s replicas were among items we received from Oak Park Elementary School District 97 in 2016, when the library assumed ownership of the Multicultural Collection. The replicas are valuable, both culturally and monetarily. Similar pieces cost approximately $500-$3,000 each.
The replicas are being installed in prominent places on the Main Library’s third floor, where patrons will discover them, says Director of Operations Jeremy Andrykowski. Three are outside Special Collections, three are next to nonfiction shelves, and three will be installed soon next to the study rooms (also near other artworks in the library’s permanent collection).
Once all nine pieces are on display, the library will begin coordinating tours with school groups, to provide valuable learning opportunities and conversations around art and culture.
Contested cultural treasures
In 1897, British troops invaded the Kingdom of Benin and looted roughly 1,000 pieces of Benin artwork. Some artifacts were given to the British Museum, and others were auctioned off to pay for the invasion. Most ended up in museums around Europe and the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
According to a 2018 report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, about 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage was located outside the continent. That report called for stolen artifacts to be permanently returned.
Since 2010, the Benin Dialogue Group, made up of museum directors and delegates from both Europe and Nigeria, have been working to bring artifacts back to Nigeria for display in Benin City.
Your library card gives you access to full-text, subscription-based resources that Google can’t offer. Below are related articles, available to read online with your library card.
- Joseph Nevadomsky, “Casting in Contemporary Benin Art,” African Arts, Summer 2005, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p. 66-95. View the full-text digital article »
- Siddhartha Mitter, “Addressing Returns,” Art in America, March 2019, Vol. 107 Issue 3, p. 21-24. View the full-text digital article »
- Kristen Chick, “Art of the steal: European museums wrestle with returning African art,” Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2019. View the full-text digital article »