The Edo Provenance Project: Mapping the journey of looted artifacts to prominent museums

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the kingdom of Benin retained its independence despite growing European presence and the “Scramble for Africa”. This allowed the Oba of Benin to exercise control over the region, to the dismay of european actors such as the Royal Niger Company. In November 1986, acting without his government’s permission, consul general James Phillips led a team, the guise of a diplomatic mission, to try to overtake the royal city of Benin and exile the Oba. Philips argues the ivory to be looted from the palace will easily offset the cost of the expedition. However, his party was easily defeated and most members, including Philips, were killed. In retaliation, the British Royal Navy sent a force of  1200 soldiers on a “punitive expedition” that conquered and later burned the royal city of Benin. The soldiers looted over 2,500 (official figures) sculptures, plaques, and artifacts [1]. Most of which found their way to European museums, where they inspired the early formation of modernism [2]. The repatriation of these artifacts have recently become a contested issue with many museums promising to return the looted artifacts and others refusing [3].

This project visualizes the provenance data available for artifacts stolen during the 1897 sacking of Benin city. The aim is to organize the data in an accessible manner that facilitates research and enables activists and academics to gain new insights and organize around the cause of returning stolen artifacts to their rightful place in Benin and other countries. More abstractly, the project aims to accentuate the phenomena of museums in prominent European and American cities displaying artifacts looted from other cultures during military occupations.

The landing page of the website begins with a map visualizing the current locations of 100 artifacts. The different museums are listed beneath the map, followed by artifacts previews. This enables the user to explore the different museums and artifacts in the collection. Fine grained search is supported in the “Find” page. A “History” page discusses the 1897 expedition and the design choices made by the contributors. Finally, the names of some organizations and individuals (such as the Swedish Nobel family, or Augustus Pitt Rivers) repeatedly show up in artifact provenance, this is visualized in the “People” and “Institutions” sections.

Selecting an artifact from the map or the preview will display it’s image and provenance on the column to the left of the map. (see attached image). Selecting a museum tag will highlight the artifacts being kept in the institution. Additionally, in the “Find page” the user can filter for artifacts by category (mask, sculpture, plaque …) and location, not to mention search for artifacts by name using the search box at the upper left corner of the map.

[2] Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick (1999). Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Benin. Indiana University Press.
[3] Dan Hicks (2020). The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Pluto Press.


Posted on

May 8, 2021

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