Playing cheerfully their adorable fangs as they stood side by side, the two bronze leopards looked back on a journey that was as adventurous as it was cruelly ridiculous.
The bronze was looted by British soldiers on a punitive expedition to the West African Kingdom of Benin in 1897, and shipped to the United Kingdom, where they spent time guarding the fireplace of Army Captain George William Neville’s house in Weybridge. It was later shown at MoMA in New York and bought by a French art collector – who eventually sold it back to the colonial administration in Lagos in 1952 for a high price.
The Ikpenor tiger characters, are two of 5,240 objects were published in museums in Europe and North America after the British looting campaign But they are now reunited for the first time in a single digital space.
digital boysIt is the result of a two-year, €1.5 million (£1.3 million) international research project funded by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, and is the first comprehensive database of artefacts known collectively as Benin Bronzes.
By compiling some 12,000 photos and information provided by 131 museums in 20 countries, the database maps out not only the often squiggly source that European and American collectors in the past were afraid to advertise.
It also presents artefacts in an institutional context Boys Empire, grouping them according to importance and ceremonial function in Edo culture.
“I’ve always had this longing to learn about my people’s culture,” Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, historian and project research leader, said at a launch event in Berlin on Wednesday. “Every bronze plaque you see here was a page in Benin’s history.”
While Digital Benin does not yet include some of the bronzes kept in private collections, project organizers said their database was comprehensive. “It’s possible we didn’t get 100%, but I’m 99% confident,” said Barbara Blankensteiner, principal investigator on the project and director of the Hamburg Museum am Rothenbaum.
Project participants include institutions that have recently returned or pledged to do so in the near future for Benin bronzes to Nigeria – including Berlin Ethnological Museumand the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge – in addition to those bearing compensation claims.
The British Museum, owner of the largest number of pieces in Benin, is prohibited from permanently removing items from its collection under the United Kingdom Act 1963.
“This platform is a forum for knowledge production, not a tool for compensation,” Blankensteiner said. “But it shows the local importance of things, how important these things were in the past, and what role they still play in ceremonial culture.”
By objectively graphing the source’s history, Digital Benin indirectly raises some questions about where these objects should belong. else pair of leopardsPresented as a gift to Queen Victoria by Admiral Harry Rawson who led the assault on Benin City on February 18, 1897 and oversaw the burning of the nearby major compounds and villages, it is made of ivory with patches of inlaid copper recycled from the caps of rifle gourds.
In Edo culture only oppa [king] “She was allowed to wear ivory, so the British claim that it was a commemorative award was a sign of a transition of power,” said Felicity Bodenstein, an art historian at the Sorbonne in Paris. The two leopards remain on long-term loan to the British Museum and are owned by King Charles III.
While the ways in which Benin bronze objects reached museum collections in Europe or North America have rarely been clear cut, Blankensteiner said it is arguable that nearly 5,000 objects included in the database were looted. The provenance of nearly 400 items has not been determined.
“This is a preliminary project that will help us look for networks of collection, but also looting and smuggling,” said Jonathan Fine, director of the Weltmuseum in Vienna.
There is funding for the digital database to be updated with more archival records, photos and changes of ownership for another year, after which organizers have said they hope to hand it over to an appropriate institution in Nigeria.