A highly anticipated database of the Benin Bronzes, a massive trove of art and cultural artifacts looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British empire in 1897, launched Friday. Two such bronzes are pictured in the British Museum's collection. Photo courtesy of Warofdreams/Wikimedia
Nov. 7 (UPI) -- A highly anticipated database of the Benin Bronzes, a massive trove of art and cultural artifacts looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British empire in 1897, launched Friday.
The project, Digital Benin, began in 2020 and has culminated with a catalog of 5,246 historic Benin objects currently held in 131 institutions across 20 countries.
The Kingdom of Benin, which has no connection to the modern country of Benin, is now the Edo state in Nigeria and the database could pave a path for the restitution of such objects to the African nation.
Data included in the catalog was provided by the institutions and includes such information as the provenance for the art and artifacts, or how the works became to be included in each institution's collections.
The Benin Bronzes were largely looted by the British colonial military forces during a punitive campaign against Benin City in 1897, led by British Navy forces and members of the Niger Coast Protectorate.
Britain's Foreign Office acquired hundreds of the works after the raid and gave them to the British Museum, which now has more than 900 of them alone.
The catalog lists 1,424 works across the world as having provenance from that expedition, with many more tied to individuals affiliated with the British military, including soldiers, or colonial administration in Benin.
Others listed their provenance as having come from auction houses as well as wealthy art patrons from former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to Wilhelmina, the former queen of the Netherlands. Even the Walt Disney World Company was listed in the provenance of eight objects.
"It is important to underline that the quality of provenance data provided by museums varies considerably from one institution and from one object to another," a disclaimer on the Digital Benin website reads.
"The number of objects associated with these names is thus merely an indication of what has been documented by museums and not of the actual number of objects related to or indeed looted by them."
The British Museum is prevented by law from permanently removing items in its collection but that officials are in talks with Nigerian authorities on lending the objects to a new museum that has been planned to be called the Edo Museum of West African Art, The Art Newspaper reported.
"Until that conversation started about Digital Benin, there was no catalog that showed where pieces were located," Anne Luther, an expert in digital humanities who has managed the project, told the Financial Times.
Some world leaders have already made moves to provide restitution to Nigeria and other African nations for the looted art.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech in Burkina Faso that he wanted, within five years, to meet conditions "for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa."
"I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France," he said at the time.
However, some in the United States have called the transfer of Benin Bronzes held by the Smithsonian to Nigeria "illegal."
Restitution Study Group, an organization concerned with slavery justice, sent a letter last month to Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the Smithsonian's board of regents noting Benin's ties to slavery in the United States.
"We are reaching out to you in reference to the Benin bronzes that may be on the agenda for deaccession for transfer to Nigeria," the letter reads.
"We want you to vote 'No' on the deaccession of the 20 Benin bronzes the Smithsonian announced you would be voting on soon. If you can reverse the previous vote to deaccession 39, we ask that you do that too."
The group said that the Benin Bronzes were cast with metal manillas that Benin was paid for people the Kingdom of Benin sold in the transatlantic slave trade starting in the 1500s.
"We do not believe you would betray the American public and disregard the interest of the descendants of people enslaved by the Kingdom of Benin by gifting the slavery-tainted bronzes to Nigerian slave trader heirs," the letter reads.
"The Director of the National Museum of African Art has been misleading us about the slave trade history of the bronzes. We think they deliberately misled you too. The slave trade origin is certain, she says it is not. But the Kingdom admits to the truth in their 2018 book The Benin Monarchy on pages 205 and 103."