Major European museums have agreed to send contested cultural artefacts back to Nigeria on loan for a new museum which they will also help to build.
The institutions, which include the British Museum in London, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and Sweden’s National Museums of World Culture, will return items from the kingdom of Benin, whose territory is now part of Nigeria, within three years.
The pieces include so-called Benin Bronzes, which are metal plaques and sculptures made by the Edo people for Benin’s royal palace. Nigeria contests European museums’ possession of these items, saying that they were looted by the British during the colonial era.
The agreement was announced on Friday by the Benin Dialogue Group, which includes the museums and representatives from Nigeria.
Gregory Akenzua, a descendant of the royal house of Benin, said: “I am happy we are making progress in the effort to give our people the opportunity to once more access our heritage that was looted.”
The communique said that European and Nigerian partners will work “collaboratively to develop training, funding and legal frameworks to facilitate the permanent display of Benin works of art in the new museum”.
Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands, said: “We were very impressed by the progress made by our Nigerian partners towards the new museum . . . The European museums are excited to collaborate on this project and have shown their commitment today to making historical Benin works of art available in Nigeria.”
The communique stressed that Nigeria had not “waived claims for the eventual return of works of art removed from the Royal Court of Benin, nor have the European museums excluded the possibility of such returns”.
Last November France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said he wanted to see items returned to Africa: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”