Digital Scholarship and Cultural Heritage: Digital Benin

During the last decades, and especially the last couple of years, debates about the restitution of cultural heritage have gained more and more public interest, forcing western museums to reconsider their role within today’s society and to actively face their legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racism, often failing at their ostensible attempt in doing so.

But precisely what do we mean when we talk about cultural restitution?

“Cultural restitution is the process by which a moveable object of historic or cultural significance is returned to its country of origin. It can be a sensitive and complicated topic.”


When talking about this topic we often also come across the term repatriationWhile both, restitution and repatriation generally refer to a transfer of cultural objects, restitution is used in relation to that of stolen objects back to their original owners, whereas repatriation implies that of objects tied to a specific cultural patrimony or place.

What I would like to talk about in this post is the transfer of stolen, or looted, cultural heritage. The looting of cultural artifacts has been happening ever since artifacts themselves existed and can take on many forms, all of which can be broadly described as unrightfully taking objects. In connection with colonialism and racism, this commonly included acts of unspeakable violence with the intention of eradicating non-Western cultures. 

More recent discussions about restitution were sparked in connection with the debates about the Benin Bronzes. The Benin Bronzes are a group of several thousands of sculptures made of brass and bronze, including elaborately decorated commemorative heads, figures of animals and humans, personal ornaments, and many more. They were crafted from no later than the 16th century onwards in the Kingdom of Benin, a major city-state located in present-day Edo State in Nigeria, and embody an expression of its culture, history, and arts. They originally served as royal representational art and were used for the depiction of historical events, communication, worship, and rituals.

Source: BBC News

During the Benin Expedition in 1897 British colonial forces invaded Benin City under the pretense of a peaceful diplomatic delegation, destroyed it, and looted these artifacts, almost all of which are still held by more than a hundred different institutions in the Global North, most notably in the British Museum in London (944) and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin (518).

While there are many things to say about the history of the Kingdom of Benin and its Bronzes, I only intended to give a brief overview of the topic, as a proper dive into it would go beyond the scope of this blog post and my own knowledge and comfort zone. The way history is being told tends to be very one-sided, and this certainly counts for that of the Kingdom of Benin as well. For this reason, I believe that it is important to include those affected by these events in the discussions and research in order to allow for truthful documentation thereof. I would therefore like to tell you about a new attempt to do specifically that: Digital Benin.

Digital Benin is a digital platform created as the result of a collaboration between 131 institutions from 20 countries that brings together the entirety of objects, historical photographs and documentation material from collections around the globe with the aim of providing an overview of the looted objects from the Benin Kingdom. This novel scholarship links digital documentation of these objects to ‘oral histories, objects research, historical context, a foundational Edo language catalogue, provenance names, a map of the Benin Kingdom and museum collections worldwide,’ adding up to data from 5.246 objects across the institutions. 

While this approach cannot be a replacement for the ongoing process and debates of restitution, I feel like it does offer a great way for people to learn about the historical and cultural heritage while illustrating the gravity of these events and the colonial legacies of countries and institutions from the Global North. To conclude, I would like to add these two quotes from the research lead of the project in Benin City, as I believe that they perfectly outline the ambition of this project.

What we are launching is a platform that will enable the young generation of Benin/Ẹdo people to learn about the rich historical and cultural heritage of Benin with a sense of national consciousness that speaks to the essence of the civilisation from our past that is present in our daily ceremonies and rituals” 

Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, research lead on the project in Benin City

The platform has and will preserve for future generations the significance of our cherished cultural values and practices as an educational tool with materials like oral traditions, which will help Ẹdo people learn about their ancestors as if the contributors are speaking to them in a real life situation.”

Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, research lead on the project in Benin City


Digital Benin
“About Cultural Restitution,” Returning Heritage.
“Benin Bronzes: Temporary Redesign of the Benin Rooms,” Humboldt Forum.
“Contested Objects from the Collection: Benin Bronzes,” British Museum.
Simon Stephens, “Digital Benin project unveils online platform,” Museums Association, 15 November 2022.