The Art Angle Podcast: The Haunting History of the Benin Bronzes

In part one of two-part series, author Dan Hicks recounts the history of how the Benin Bronzes were looted.

Brass plaque looted by Captain George Le Clerc Egerton from Benin City. Pitt Rivers Museum/Dumas-Egerton Trust (accession number 1991.13.8).

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join host Andrew Goldstein every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

For decades, one of the most urgent moral debates in the museum world has revolved around restitution, with art institutions around the globe facing demands that masterworks in their collections be returned, either to countries like Greece and Italy that say the treasures in question were looted by tomb robbers, or to descendants of Jews who were robbed by the Nazis.

Today, the restitution question is as hotly debated as ever—what has changed, however, is that now the source countries that are demanding the returns are in Africa, and the looting at issue was carried out by Britain and other European powers across the bloody years of colonialism, whose horrors remain obscured by the hagiographic official histories of the era.

Now, a new book is cutting through the Gordian knot of restitution with an argument of bracing moral clarity, showing the West’s great “universal” museums to be complicit in a history of ongoing atrocities. It’s called The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution, and it’s by Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford. As its title suggests, the book focuses on a particular incident of looting—the seizure of thousands of artworks from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897—and it is a history that should really be known around the world.

To delve into the ongoing saga of the Benin Bronzes, Dan Hicks joins the podcast for a two-part episode: first, to recount the tragic story of the looting of the Kingdom and, second, to discuss the fate these magnificent objects are facing today.

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